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Works and Days

Reflections On an Age Now Fading…

May 27th, 2009 - 1:48 pm

Goodbye, Europe

We are on our third, and last, leg of this year’s tour, and headed today from Chania, Crete to Athens. We had a rare lecture yesterday from Prof. Nikos Stavroulakis of the Etz-Hayyim synagogue on the history of Chania. I had not known the full story previously of the fate of the island’s remaining Jews that were deported in June 1944 by ship under the orders of the occupying German army, and headed for Auschwitz-when their transport ship the Tanais was sunk (with the loss of all Jews on board) by a British sub. It is not entirely clear whether the torpedoing was intentional (a vain effort to stop the deportations and sure death) or a mistaken effort to hamper the German war effort. Quite a tragedy-that essentially ended the Jewish two-millennium-plus presence on Crete. Or rather, the on-board prisoners were doomed once the Germans closed the Jewish Quarter and sent them to sea headed for the death camps.

Today we visit the reconstructed trireme Olympias (and the dreadnought battle cruiser Averoff) and hope to do Marathon and Thermopylae tomorrow.

Easy Life

I am always pleased to converse with Greeks since they put a high premium on candor. Yesterday I met a fellow who had lived in the states, hated it, and was all too happy to tell me why. Yes, yes, he said, the EU has more rules than does America. But those in any EU country that borders the Mediterranean, he insisted, simply ignore most of them-from the mundane like trash throwing to the important like paying taxes and reporting income. In America, he argued, our police-state apparatus makes cheating far too hard, as we are obsessed with following statutes (here I objected that we too have become lax either to disregard for the law or incompetence).

The net result? He said he can work here for 4-5 hours on his official job without worry of being fired, while moonlighting whenever he wishes for pocket untaxed cash. Life in other words, was far better here-less work, more benefits, less worries about getting ahead. Everyone inherits his or her parents’ apartment, and puts  family raising off until a man’s thirties or even forties. The old American notion of marriage, children, a detached house, and a steady transparent job is a foreign concept-and maybe soon as well at home.

When we turned to foreign policy it was more surreal. NATO, he railed, should leave Crete. America should not be allowed to bring in ships and planes. But what about existential threats-terrorism, Turkey, an ascendant Russia? No problem, without a Greek connection with the US they disappear, or Greece can count on a rapid-response EU force. Here I suggested it had done that in 1917-8, 1922, and 1940-45, and in all cases European countries were mostly either indifferent, late in coming to their aid, or actively killing Greeks.

At that point he shrugged and said we could defend Greece without flying or steaming in Greek air and sea space. Yes, indeed…

US Thoughts

Conservatives are flummoxed about the Sotomayor news, and have been warned by the likes of Chris Matthews and David Gergen that the nomination is a shoo-in, regardless of Justice Sotomayor’s statements about the less desirable characteristics of white males as judges, and the desire to enact policy from the appellate bench.   

I think we are in an Orwellian time, and it is not just explainable by identify politics. Remember the grilling of Alberto Gonzales and the hysteria over Miguel Estrada. So the point is not just having a so-called minority profile, but having one compatible to the ‘progressive’ left. If an African-American nominee (cf. Justice Thomas) or Hispanic proves to be conservative, then race can often count against them, inciting a sort of furor on the left that such independent thinking individuals are not suitably deferential to liberals for their trail-blazing work.

Or perhaps the liberal mind feels that de facto it is beyond racial reproach, and therefore can engage in a sort of viciousness that exceeds even that shown non-minority conservatives. In short, the inspirational story of a Hispanic is relevant only to the degree that the nominee favors an agenda of the elite progressive left-without that requisite ideology, the candidate is reduced to an ingrate or a victim of false-consciousness, or a traitor of sorts.

The European Way

Are Europeans more healthy and environmentally sound than Americans? Unscientific study of Italians and Greeks suggests the following: European are not any lighter in weight than Americans. They smoke far more. Public buildings are more likely to be defaced, graffiti here being political expression, not a matter of gang signature.

Trash? The littered roadways of both countries are still about at the state of America circa 1960. The air of Rome and Athens seems dirtier than that in LA. Frequently used beaches in general in both countries are dirtier than LA’s dirtiest, and nothing like the pristine Northern California shores.

The point? I think this Euro-driven eco-sermonizing should cease. Vast swaths of Europe are well behind American eco-prudence, and the general population in key matters of preventative health from smoking and weight control to exercise are no better-and often far worse.

Let us be careful about the European model, very careful.

The Obamized Underground

From time to time I meet individuals who feel that the United States as they have known it is changing before their eyes, and therefore they have sunk into a terrible depression. They cite a litany of horrors.

Take the economy: the liberal attack on Bush as a reckless spender who increased the debt by $2 trillion is now replaced by ‘stimulus’ groupies, who are silent about a staggering $9  trillion of Obama debt to come. Cannot the country, the media-anyone!-see that the amounts of borrowing are so gargantuan that we are talking about massive changes in the US economy and lifestyle? The size and inefficiency of the government will grow. We will have soon some sort of national sales taxes on top on state, local, and federal higher rates, the point being threefold: more recipients and distributors of entitlements mean larger liberal permanent constituents-an institutionalization of the welfare state. The debts are so large that it will require a redistribution of income through higher taxes. When a Paul Krugman writes seriously that California’s financial meltdown (9% sales, 10% income taxes) is due to too low taxation (as hundreds of thousands of overtaxed skilled professionals flee the state), then one can see how the power of ideology in the present age so easily trumps empiricism. Three, the debts will end American exceptionalism abroad, and severely curtail our options. In other words, we are seeing the much waited for multilateralism-but by financial default! What depresses is the fact that debt is now being used as a political tool-to reconstitute American culture and society, both at home and abroad.

National security. We are seeing the erosion of the old Israel alliance that goes the way of others flattened beneath the Obama bus. In terms of attention, it is better to be a neutral or enemy of the US than a reliable friend-the Muslim world gets interviews and an upcoming address, the Brits get a bust back and some unwatchable DVDs. In their defense, they mostly favored Obama and so surely are happy that they get contextualized and so go the way of white colonialists with a Churchillian imperial past.

 The wages of apology are now due, as nuts line up to fill the vacuum-America either too broke or too ambiguous to do much about it. This is a very dangerous time-somewhere there is a nutty cadre of Islamists who in their twisted minds collate the Obama apologies, the al Arabiya interview, the serial denunciation of Bush, the airing of the interrogation processes, the demonization of Guantanamo, the constant evocation of Abu Ghraib, and conclude that this particular government either cannot or will not unpredictably strike back at Islamic extremism, and therefore this is now a moment of opportunity not to be missed. I worry we are in for some very dangerous times, as we begin to get a glimpse of a world in which the U.S. allows natural forces to work their way to the surface. 

On matter of race, one detects beneath the therapeutic calls for inclusiveness, an unfortunate renewal of identity politics with a new harder edge-we saw that in the campaign with the slips about reparations and oppression studies, the clingers speech, Rev. Wright, and the ‘typical white person’ put down. Then with Eric Holder’s blast about Americans  as “cowards” and now with the Supreme Court nominee’s somewhat derogatory remarks about the proverbial white male judge. We are not hearing praise of the melting pot ideal of intermarriage, assimilation, or integration-even if such elites in their private lives do not predicate their daily regimens in terms of racialism. I spent 21 years in a university in which quite affluent elites sought any multicultural patina possible for an edge in professional advancement and general leverage–the hyphenated name, the addition of the accent mark on the name, the non-American accentuation, occasional ethnic dress, the relabeling of one as a designated minority who otherwise had not previously emphasized race, etc.—that would suggest they were not part of the popular capitalist culture-supposedly centered on the white male-around them. Yet I left sensing the industry of race was doomed, due to the power of popular culture, the unworkable labyrinth of racial identification due to intermarriage, the laughable contradictions (the jet-black immigrant from India got no favored treatment, the light-skinned Costa Rican name Jorge piggy-backed onto the Mexican-American experience), the son of the Mexican father who used his name Gomez was authentic, the son of the Mexican mother who carried his non-Mexican father’s name Wilson was not. And on and on with this ridiculous neo-Confederate practice of adjudicating percentages of race to the  sixteenth, and drops of targeted minority blood—a racist enterprise to the core. The only constant? The white male was fair game. It mattered little that more women were graduating than men, that under the racial spoils system we were beginning to see white males in less percentages than those found in the general population at the university; instead, it was sort of OK to trash, as in the manner of Sotomayor’s comment, the proverbial white male, as if we are collectively ashamed of everyone from the Wright Brothers to Lincoln to John Wayne to JFK.

In a weird way, I don’t think we’ve seen officials of a government as racially conscious since the days of the 1930s.  Surely in the last three decades one’s race has never been so emphasized as it is now-and large numbers of all races will begin to resent that once again we are not talking about the content of our characters, but our racial pedigrees and the degree to which we can all showcase the modern populist version of being born in a log cabin. There is a feeling I think that every Obama appointment for some reason either will fit some desirable race/class/gender rubric, or, if not, will soon have to  be “offset” one-for-one, by another PC selection to come: sort of Obama’s racial version of Al Gore’s carbon offsets. This is very disturbing, and one is surprised that sensible people seem to be happy with seeing people in terms of racial profiles rather than simple human beings with a common humanity.

Here in the eastern Mediterranean, one should remember the story of the last 3,000 years is the escalation of such tribalism into mayhem, as those of different races and religions went at it ad mortem. Why emulate the former Yugoslavia, or Kurd/Shiite/Sunni, or Rwanda, when the US alone had created the basis for a multiracial culture under the aegis of a shared Western paradigm?

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