Sunday, May 27, 2018

Philip Roth's Passing, the Forty Percent, a History Lesson and a Foreign Policy Dream

Thoughts on the Passing of Author Philip Roth

Though I didn’t know Phil Roth personally, a connection existed between us in that we both were graduated from Weequahic High School in Newark, NJ, in 1950 and in that we had several common acquaintances.   Of course, along with many raised in the Weequahic 'Section' (See the map below.  Newark natives use that word, 'section' instead of the word “neighborhood” … it’s sort of a password to one’s Weequahic authenticity), we were very familiar with the setting of many of his novels and were often able to identify similarities with real people we may have known, Swede Mason appearing as Swede Levov in “American Pastoral” as an example.

My graduation was in June of 1950.  Phil’s was in February of that year.  
We ought to have been in the same graduation class (Phil was nine months younger than me), but I suppose somewhere along the line he was in a combined class  

composed of ultimate February and June graduates which moved on at its higher level. That occasionally occurred at Peshine Avenue School where I went and I assume the same thing happened at Phil’s elementary school, Chancellor Avenue.

We both entered Newark College of Rutgers University in September of 1950. (At the end of the year, Phil transferred to Bucknell University and I transferred to Rutgers main campus in New Brunswick.)  We both were in the same freshman English class in the building on Washington Place, facing the southern border of Washington Park. Our instructor was a Ms. Weir, as I recall, and I seem to remember her as being a graduate of Smith College.  I don’t remember any hints of Phil’s future accomplishments showing up in that class.

A few years later, after college and military service, I recall having a few beers in a bar on South Orange Avenue in Newark, not far from the campus of Seton Hall University.  Present were Jerry Lechter (whom I have entirely lost touch with) and a friend of his, Bob Heyman, who knew Phil quite well.  I have since become somewhat reacquainted with Bob who has retired to South Florida.  Anyway, “Goodbye, Columbus,” Phil’s first novella (along with a few short stories) was just being published.  I distinctly remember Heyman cautioning us not to reveal the real characters upon which those in “Goodbye, Columbus” were based, since it was supposed to be original fiction. (Of course, all fiction comes out of an author’s experience, so there’s nothing wrong in using real people as patterns for fictional characters.)  The best man at my wedding, now deceased, had identified the girl in “Goodbye, Columbus” (Brenda Patamkin) as a fictionalized version of someone named Mackie, whose last name I don’t recall.

Incidentally, at about that time, I went into a local bookstore in downtown Newark to purchase a copy of “Goodbye, Columbus.”  Apparently, there had been a book signing there a few weeks earlier and the first edition copy I bought carried Phil’s autograph in it.  A few years later I lent the book to someone who never returned it to me.

A few years later, I encountered Phil on a Pennsylvania Railroad (one of the predecessors to Amtrak) train heading to Trenton or Philadelphia.  I cannot recall why I was on the train, but Phil, with whom I had a brief conversation, was heading for Princeton, where he had something to do with the University.

As for Phil’s using local Weequahic names for characters in his book, I do believe there was a very minor character named Jack Lippman in one of his early novels, possibly the very boring “Letting Go.”  I once checked it out but see no need to attempt to do that again.

                                       Back in the old days, I-78 wasn't there, but Hawthorne Avenue was.

Most recently, over the past few years, I have reconnected with a friend from elementary and high school days who has also retired to South Florida, Howard Silver.  Howard was very close with Phil over the years, had maintained that closeness and has passed on information about him to me, particularly articles in the New Yorker which Phil urged be read.

That’s about it.   Phil led his life the way he wanted to and accomplished greatness.  He has left a tremendous heritage to all of us, particularly those who hail from the Weequahic Section of Newark. And I do believe it is a Jewish heritage, because Phil’s works were all about a quest for truth about the human condition, and there is something religious about such a mission.
Jack Lippman

That Forty Percent

There are letters to the Editor of many newspapers.  There are numerous opinions voiced on the internet.  Journalists write about it daily and are interviewed as part of “panels” on TV news shows.  And except for the acknowledged mouthpieces fronting

for the administration and the President on Fox News (and those who get their information exclusively from Fox), most agree about the President’s unfitness for office.

But people like to hear voices and read words reinforcing their thoughts and that is why approximately 40% of the American population support Donald Trump and all that he stands for.  That is the way they believe and his agreement with that reinforces their conviction.  I have referred to such people as being gullible and have lost at least one friend when I implied that in most cases, their gullibility is grounded in stupidity.
If one wants to believe that immigrants are taking away jobs from hard-working Americans, that leaving the level of health care in this country to be determined by the free market pressures exerted by insurance companies and health care providers, that the freedoms allowed by reducing regulations on manufacturing, banking, finance and most businesses results in greater benefits for consumers and working people, that providing an economic safety net for those who are unable to climb the ladder of economic success merely serves to keep them permanently downtrodden, they have found a dear friend in Donald J. Trump.
If they believe that a woman’s right to an abortion should be determined by those who, in a country whose Constitution forbids laws respecting an establishment of religion, must defer to those whose personal religions frown on abortion, and if they believe that packing a weapon is the best way to avoid gun violence, Trump is their man.  After all, as the song goes … if you are old enough to remember it:

Drinkin' beer in a cabaret, And was I havin’ fun,
Till one night she caught me right,
And now I’m on the run!
Lay that pistol down, babe,
Lay that pistol down,
Pistol packin’ Mama,
Won’t you lay that pistol down!

Yep.  That’s the way real Americans solve problems in the eyes of many of that 40%.  And I don’t want to take away from the gullible and the stupid the right to think this way.  It’s their right.  
But once they have sworn their allegiance, their loyalty, to the orange-coiffed one in regard to these traditional right-wing positions, they are highly susceptible to other positions he might take, positions which put the country in great danger. 
One is treating relationships with North Korea as if it were negotiations with a used car dealer about the price of a low-mileage four-year old car.  

Another is messing with the fundamental groundings of our legal system, developed over the years through our Constitution and its Anglo-Saxon heritage.  You don’t force law enforcement agencies to reveal how they work up a case in order to prepare a defense for a potential future trial. That’s when the evidence is supposed to come out, at a trial or in pre-trial negotiations, not forced out prematurely thereby weakening it.   That Trump’s lawyers ignore this is an indication of the weakness of any defense they may be thinking of using when Special Counsel Mueller’s sure-to-be-damning report comes out.

All of this is made possible by the acquiescence of the Republican Party, the biggest A-holes of all, willing to kiss anyone’s backside for the votes of that 40% of Americans.

Numbskull Quiz and a Foreign Policy Solution Which Won’t Happen

Who of the following is the bigger numbskull when it comes to formulating foreign policy?

1     President Trump
2     Vice President Pence
3     National Security Advisor Bolton
4     Secretary of State Pompeo

The answer depends on what day, or what time of day, you are seeking an answer.  None of them would qualify to formulate a coherent foreign policy for any third world country … such as Mali, for example.  Yet we permit them to do it for us.   Similarly, if any of them wanted to get an academic position teaching foreign policy, they’d be hard pressed to find a real college or university which would hire them on their merits. (On their reputation, maybe, but on their merits, never.)

But here’s a concrete suggestion as to how to remedy this situation.  It is quite obvious that the Republican nitwits in the Executive and Legislative branches of our government are unwilling, incapable or unable (maybe all three) of doing anything to put a stop to foreign governments interfering with our election process through clever manipulation of social media and other aspects of the internet. 

Such actions on the part of Russia influenced the 2016 election, no matter what the Republican nitwits say, and they will also influence the results of the 2018 elections.  Special Counsel Mueller will have more to say about this I am sure.  I am certain that Russian coders and hackers and those acting for them are already working overtime for the 2018 (and 2020) elections on this.  Congressional and executive branch inaction proves that we have no way of stopping them, but how about turning our continuing vulnerability into an asset?

Our present-day allies throughout the world (the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the Scandinavian countries, most of the rest of the European community, Australia, South Korea, Japan and most of Latin America to name a few) all know how much more realistic, effective and attainable our foreign policy would be if the Republicans were booted from control of both Houses of Congress later this year.

They can help accomplish this by interfering with our election process in the same manner that the Russians did in 2016 and are doing right now.  Our guard is down.  We are doing nothing to change things from what happened in 2016.  Our real allies and friends throughout the world should step up and use the internet and social media to influence our 2018 election.   It would be in their interest, and ultimately in the interest of the United States, if our friends stepped in and did this. 

It would counterbalance whatever the Russians are doing and honestly, aren’t  Emmanuel Macron, Theresa May and Angela Merkel more capable of formulating  foreign policy objectives more in line with what most Ameicans want than any of the nitwits presently in power in Washington? 

(You might note that I have excluded our friends in the Middle East from this list of countries we should be glad to see trying to influence our election.  Their self-interest, contrary to that of the countries mentioned above, is narrower.)

Of course, the Democratic Party should not be involved in encouraging this foreign interference in our elections as the Republicans are accused of doing, by some, in 2016.  That would be illegal.  Democrats know this.   But if it happens, without their being involved, it would be good for their party, and ultimately the nation.


Things Really Do Not Change

A respected New York newspaper editorially posed this rhetorical question: “Who would have believed that in this land of liberty, all the powers of our national government would be usurped by a single man, possessing no one qualification for … trust, and who, like a maniac, or a driveller, should make it his daily pastime to tear our constitutional charter into rags and tatters, and trample the rights of the people under his feet.?”
Is this the New York Times writing about Donald Trump?  No way!  It’s the Whig New York American back in 1833 ranting about Andrew Jackson.

The Whigs, who opposed Jackson, cautioned voters that “If by your votes you concede the powers that are claimed, your president has become your monarch!”  But the disparate ideologies which kept the Whigs from being truly united against Jackson’s populist Presidency still couldn’t stop Jackson’s Vice President from succeeding him at the end of his term in 1836.  Hope we do better in 2018 and 2020 than the Whigs did in 1836 in their battle against what they considered a corrupt White House.
As an aside, were I around in those days, I would have voted for Jackson in 1832 and for his successor, Van Buren, in 1836.  They more or less would appeal to today’s Democrats.  I am not too sure what I would have done in 1828, when Jackson was first elected. That was the most important election in American history, the first one where a vastly increased number of voters (about 1,155,000) exerted a greater influence than the propertied classes which had dominated prior elections.  (In 1824, four years earlier, the total Presidential vote was less than a third of the 1828 number, about 350,000.)  And it has been fun ever since.
Nobody is perfect, and Andrew Jackson’s horrendous persecution of Native Americans cannot be ignored nor forgiven.  Further, his opposition to private banking has been mistakenly associated with anti-Semitism because some bankers were Jews.  Jackson would have opposed the private Bank of the United States, even if it were run by Martians because it enabled the moneyed and propertied classes to dominate the economy, to the detriment of working people and farmers, his populist base.
Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump can both be called populists. Yes, there is a similarity between Donald Trump’s core of support and the base upon which Andrew Jackson depended.  Jackson’s base, it appears to me, consisted of workers and small farmers for whom he worked hard by opposing high tariffs and the private Banking system.  Jackson wanted them to have a greater participation in the nation's economic growth.  Trump’s similar base, on the other hand, has been duped into thinking he loves them.  In reality, he serves the business interests and the wealthy part of the Republican Party, the present-day version of those Jackson opposed, private bankers and high tariff-loving domestic manufacturers.

(Historical Note:  If you slept through this in high school, be reminded that the Federalists, the party of the Founding Fathers, were fading into oblivion by the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century.  The opponents of the Federalists, mostly inspired by Thomas Jefferson, called themselves “Democratic Republicans,” but really were not particularly “democratic” and in fact, leaned toward a landowner-based conservatism. From Jackson onward, however, the Party became more democratic and farmer/worker-oriented and even dropped “Republican” from its name. And that is the way it has stayed.  Those "Democratic Republicans" who were more conservative, like Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, smoothed over their very significant differences and became the Whig opposition.  But this mishmash of leadership couldn’t hold their act together and ultimately, some of the political descendants of these Whig opponents of the Jackson Democrats formed what is today’s Republican Party, finally electing a President, Abraham Lincoln, in 1860.)

Bonus Feature

If any of you have any doubts about the depths of rabble-rousing dishonesty to which the low-life individual presently occupying the White House has sunk, CLICK HERE to read Frank Cerabino's column from Sunday's Palm Beach Post.  It should resonate with Floridians as well as those who have lived on New York's Long Island. (If Clicking doesn't work for you, just copy and paste this on your browser line: ) 

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