Here’s Robert Reich on Detroit and Wall Street

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Debate to Come over Wall Street, Autos, and Everything Else: Cyclical or Structural?

First prediction for 2009: A widening gap between the public’s view of the bailouts of Wall Street and Detroit, and the views of the direct beneficiaries. The public believes the bailouts will permanently change these industries, but industry insiders don’t really want to change.

Exhibit one is Goldman Sach’s CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who says the firm’s business strategy doesn’t need to change.

What? Goldman got $10 billion of taxpayer money precisely because it and other big banks were so over-leveraged they threatened the whole financial system. I can understand why Blankfein doesn’t want to change. He took home $54 million last year. (He has foregone a bonus this year and is taking home a piddling $600,000.) But the public expects real reform for its $10 billion at Goldman and tens of billions more in other major banks.

Blankfein isn’t alone. I’ve heard the same thing from CEOs and directors all over the Street. They see the problem as cyclical, not structural. “The economy stinks,” they tell me, “but it’ll turn around in 18 months, and then we’re back to the same business.”

Or take the Big Three. They’ve agreed to become far more fuel efficient, as a condition for their bailout. But they promised this before — during the oil crisis of the 1970s, when Congress threatened higher fuel-economy standards. But after the crisis passed, they never delivered. Why? Because their biggest profits were in gas guzzlers that consumers wanted to buy as soon as the first oil crisis was over.

Will history repeat itself? Now that gas prices are half what they were six months ago, consumers who can afford it are suddenly less interested in fuel efficiency. They’re buying fewer hybrids and showing renewed interest in SUVs. So why should we think Detroit will revolutionize itself?

I’m not so cynical as to accuse anyone of bad faith. It’s just that both Wall Street and Detroit earned big bucks from their old strategies, before the bottom fell out of the economy. So it’s natural they’d view the bailouts as ways to hold on until the economy rebounds. And it’s clear they see their problem as cyclical, not structural.

Right now, Wall Street and Detroit are willing to say whatever they need to say to keep the taxpayer money coming. But when the economy begins turning up, my betting is that their Washington lobbyists will push back hard against any major restructurings the government wants to impose on them. New regulations of Wall Street will be watered down and circumvented; new requirements on the Big Three for green technologies will be resisted.

Yet the bailouts have been sold to the public as means toward fundamental change in finance and autos. If the bailouts are to do what they’re supposed to – stop Wall Street from wild risk-taking with piles of borrowed money, and push the auto industry into making fundamentally new products that conserve energy — Washington will not only have to set strict standards now and in the months ahead when the bailout money flows, but also hang tough when the economy begins to revive.

The emerging debate over Wall Street’s and the Big Three’s ongoing obligations to reform themselves is but one part of a much larger national debate we’ll be entering upon in 2009 and beyond — whether the economic crisis we’re experiencing is basically cyclical (in which case, nothing really needs to change over the long term, after the economy gets back on track) or structural (in which case, many aspects of our economy and society will needs to change permanently).

The Rhetoric of Shoe Throwing

Here’s a keen analysis by Richard Landes of the inglorious throwing of a shoe at an inglorious president.

The Shaming of the Shoe: Elder of Zion Hits the Nail on the Head

There’s a difference between the partitive and the possessive genitive. The shoe’s shaming (of Bush), or the shame of the shoe (for Al-Zeidi). I’ll go with the latter… but then, I’m an Occidentocentric, guilt-integrity kind of guy. Hopeless.

Elder of Zion has a revealing roundup of Arab news treatment of the shoe at Bush’s face incident. He nails it by pointing out that there is a confusion here between importance and impotence. I add some comments along the way.

Mixing up importance and impotence

The Arab press, and the Arab world in general, cannot stop talking about the Great Shoe Revolution. Here are only some of the articles in the past day:

Arab News:

    Al-Zeidi maybe one of the bravest men on this globe because not only did he defy and humiliate the emperor but also he knew very well what to expect at the hands of those who created Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and all the other secret prisons in every dark corner of the earth.

As EoZ points out below, the disingenuousness of this response is striking. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo pale beside torture in the average, run-of-the-mill Arab prison, which populate every dark corner of the Arab world. On the contrary, it’s the remarkably high standards of the West that make Abu Ghraib a scandal, not the deeds done there. As for our hero, Al-Zeidi, he’s thrown his foot at the leader for whom he is least likely to suffer reprisal, not the most. (See below, the remarks of Rania al Malky in the Egyptian Daily News about how no journalist is throwing shoes at Arab leaders who do as much if not worse things than Bush did.

So what’s going on here? On one level, this is classic demopathy, not unlike the French journalist who assured me in 2003, as French intellectuals were busy trashing the US for threatening to go into Iraq, that “courage is attacking the strongest, and the US is the strongest.” Courage is attacking those who are likely to hurt you for so doing; and in this case the US was the least likely to punish critics. (This is also true of that courageous anti-fascist “progressive” camp that continuously trashes Bush for being a fascist even as they benefit from Bush radically unfascist tolerance for their criticism.)

So even as you take advantage of your enemy’s commitment to tolerance and human rights, you denounce him for being the greatest violator of those rights. This would be pathetic if it did not garner such enthusiasm both in the Arab and the Western world. And of course, who escapes notice while people revile Bush’s (or Israel’s) violation of human rights? The really vicious violators.

Arab News again:

    Al-Zeidi has proved to be someone who can unite all factions and ethnicities.

This is a particularly revealing comment. What it says, in fact, is that a hollow preening gesture which (as even Arab commentators below are painfully aware) reveals the impotence and clownishness of the Arab world, can gather something that seems like unanimity among Arabs, not matter what their clan allegiances. Why? Because it’s about honor, and because it seems like in this case the US was dishonored. That’s something everyone in the Arab world can (seemingly) unite around… even the people who were liberated from Saddam Hussein by the US.

This is just the kind of pathetic unanimity that the Arabs can muster around the question of Zionism. No matter how much they despise each other, they can always unite around hating Israel. Feminists like to joke about how men think with their one-eyed head; Arabs think with their shoes and the results are accordingly sadly lacking in analytic rigor.

Al Arabiya:

    The alleged maker of the shoes that an Iraqi journalist hurled at U.S. President George W. Bush has had to take on 100 extra staff to cope with a surge in demand for his footwear, he said on Monday.“Between the day of the incident and 1:00 pm today we have received orders totaling 370,000 pairs”, Istanbul-based Serkan Turk, head of sales at Baydan Shoes, told AFP.

Saudi Gazette:

    Shoe: A sign of insult, not freedom

I thought this might belong in the category of critical comments, not foolishly supportive, but upon reading the article, the author makes it clear that Bush has not brought democracy to Iraq. The article itself is full of the kind of thinking that derives from honor not reason, takes every piece of information that criticizes the USA as true no matter how questionable or relative (i.e., a million Iraqis killed since the invasion in 2003, presumably most by the US; many Iraqis imprisoned without fair trial), and ignores anything that might smack of self-criticism. The “not freedom” is a swipe at the idea that this was an expression of freedom of speech “as claimed by some war enthusiasts in America’s right-wing media” (Victor Davis Hanson, among others). More thinking with one’s shoes.

Daily News Egypt:

    Journalist Montazar Al-Zaidi’s name will not only be listed alongside kings and rulers, Shajarat Al-Durr and Nikita Khrushchev, but will be part of an infinitely more important list which includes thousands of Iraqis who resist the American occupation that violates all the human and legal values which Baghdad introduced to the world long before the United States of America ever came into being ranging from the Mesopotamian civilization to Islamic Baghdad.

That’s pretty cute. And just when did the Iraqis introduce human and legal values? Under the Babylonian empire — Nebuchadnezzar? — or under the Abbasid Caliphate? More shoe thinking.

There are a few media outlets that are somewhat less happy with the incident.

The National (UAE):

    One of the saddest things about the incident involving the Iraqi thug who threw his shoes at President George Bush is that sometimes he is referred to as a journalist. The name of the noblest of professions has been dragged through the ditch into a dark place indeed.

This is a very important issue that illustrates just what journalism means in the Arab world. It’s nice to know someone over there knows what journalism is supposed to be about.

Daily News Egypt 2:

    Although I completely sympathize with this view and do not in any way detract from the tragedy of what has happened in Iraq, I still believe that even though the shoe attack was symbolically momentous, it also served to bring home more starkly than ever the complete impotence of the Arab world, whether on the mass public level or on the elite diplomatic one.Adding to the tragicomic nature of the whole sorry affair is the fact that not a single one of our revered journalists or even activists has ever had the grit to hurl a size 10 reminder of the unpopularity of his own Arab leader — many of whom have been around for close to three decades and who have likely caused just as much damage, if not more, during their respective reigns of terror.

This last editorialist gets closer to the truth. The Arab world has a massive inferiority complex, after decades of coddling terror, mismanaging trillions of petrodollars, ruling by sloganeering and human rights abuses. Their only relevance come from the disparate but related issues of happening to sit on top of huge oil reserves and supporting terror, sometimes tacitly and sometimes explicitly. Terror itself is simply a means to get attention, another puerile but deadly gesture to get the hated but admired West to sit up and take notice, like a toddler’s temper tantrums.

Brilliantly put. The sad thing is, not only are the Arabs playing childish games of demopathy — “don’t you Western imperialists repress me!” — but there’s a whole range of allegedly intelligent and passionate western writers who cheer on this folly.

Without oil, the Arab world would sink back into complete irrelevance. For a short blip of time, fifty or so years, this society had the chance to build themselves into something much bigger than oil – and it failed. Princes get filthy rich while average Arabs are lucky to get a tiny percentage of trickle-down wealth. They have made no great gains, neither in politics nor in science, culture or industry. Since World War II we have seen amazing gains in nations like Japan and Hong Kong, Israel and India – but the Arab world continues, to a large extent, to be mired in ignorance and seventh-century thinking.

This is why the shoe incident strikes such a chord. For a tiny moment, Arabs feel like they have won a victory over the despised West. Although they are loathe to recall this, there was a very similar visceral reaction after 9/11 in the streets of Ramallah and Beirut and Cairo (and Patterson), of spontaneous celebration that the pre-Iraq War US got its comeuppance on the world stage by a small band of Arabs. The exact same sense of pride is exhibited here, but the extreme emotion that results is more a reflection of longstanding Arab impotence than of newfound Arab importance.

Precisely. Nail on the head.

<!– –>

Job Loyalty

“Job loyalty” has been eroded in our day. Maybe this was inevitable when “workers” came to be defined more and more as “job-holders.” Surely, work in the world, as distinct from labor, used to imply mastery and uniqueness, as well as the capacity to “make” something, and not just “replicate” it. Moreover, that which is made has the quality of durability, which is a capacity to be used over time. Things made for use are different from those made for “consumption,” however splendid. Things made for use weave their way into our lives in a prolonged way, and are brought up into the meaning of our lives, even across generations.

So, it is not remarkable that a position is not likely to engender loyalty when held by a worker who does not sign his work, have a chance to construct a meaningful assembly of parts into a whole, who does not expect the object of his or her activity to last over time, and cannot gain enjoyment from the work either of hands or mind. In what way do his efforts engage him? In what way does a comradeship among workers form around the manufacture of products so made, as distinct from the mere comradeship of idling, or simply waiting for the next train. How does a fascination take hold over the nature and evolution of a “good” or service, if there is no possible connection between the item and a rational scheme of long term good?

I ask these questions but fear that they must be anachronistic. The creation of the “goods” of our world, which are sought after by all but a few is obviously, normally, a measured, highly sub-divided, highly mechanized “process” of manufacture. This process is engineered to bring about a plentiful supply for the mass of those who can afford them. Does the uniformity and internal and external consistency between products cause us to lose out in the end?

If we mass produce indistinguishable things so as to supply our neighbors and their neighbors (many times down the line) is this not a greater good than to seek to look after the quality of the sensuous and spiritual activity of working? Don’t our wages create the merit in each of our individual “job” lives, inasmuch as wages becomes a kind of compensation for the laboriousness and toil we have gained in our current dispensation as job holder? Can’t we just serve the “process?”

Does the emergence of a technically seamless “process” aimed at creating the good actually vouchsafe our connection to the good? Ultimately can such a combination of functions rightly bear the name of human action? If not, what process has a hold on us? If job loyalty is defunct then what does this say about what free people do from nine to five?

Moral Equivalence

I want to share the writings of Richard Landes with you. He’s a professor of medieval history at Boston University, and has simultaneously influenced current world events by exposing “Pallywood,” which is the name that’s been coined to refer to the Palestinian media attempt to create false news, especially of the anti-Israeli and anti-semitic sort. If you like him, check out his website, Augean Stables. Here’s a sample of a great piece of his.

Moral Equivalence

MORAL EQUIVALENCE

The “we are just as bad as… or worse than them” mentality

A pervasive argument appearing in the post-colonial paradigm is that of “Moral Equivalence.” In the case of Islamic terrorism the dynamics of moral equivalence can be seen among some figures of the western intelligentsia in their vociferous moral indignation at the behavior of Western nations that, they allege, led to acts of terror, and their understanding attitude towards the terrorist acts themselves (HRC). Even if they do not intentionally excuse terrorism, such writers produce the unhappy consequence of explaining Islamic terrorism in terms of “Western misdeeds and faults,” and of framing the debate in terms of “what the West did to deserve such attacks” and, therefore, reverse the moral equation. The West’s “wrongs” come to be seen as more reprehensible than the “reaction” (however “harsh” and “inexcusable”) by terrorists. The easy moral challenge is: “Are we not hypocrites, when we do the same thing?”

At some level, this is a pathology of self-criticism (MOS) – it is all our fault, and if we were better, then we could fix everything. Meanwhile, while we demand the highest standards of ourselves, we treat the terrorists as morally challenged, who can’t even understand the questions of intention and cannot be expected to self-criticize. We become incapable of making the distinction between victims and perpetrators, and end up blaming the victim.

Since the beginning of this century three major international events epitomize the way that moral equivalence in its extreme forms (HRC and MOS) have led some Western intellectuals to moral folly:

SEPTEMBER 30, 2000 – THE BEGINNING OF THE SECOND INTIFADA

Nothing marks the early 21st century more harshly than suicide terrorists, a morally depraved practice of blowing oneself up amidst civilians (to be distinguished from suicide bombings that targeted military or political enemies. In the meantime, Israel’s policies in the Gaza strip and the West bank are described as “state terrorism”. Therefore, not only both the Palestinians and Israel are guilty of terrorism, but Palestinian terrorist acts are understood as a reaction of a defenseless people – “their only weapon” – against a far more powerful force. “What choice do they have?” “If I had so little hope, I too might feel that way.” See, for example Cherie Blair’s comment. The idea that the Israelis deserved what they were getting, which underlay much of this widespread reaction to the assault of suicide terrorism, explains why the British were so surprised by 7-7… they thought this only happened with good cause (LCE), with no idea of the “moral” universe that motivates such violence.


AUGUST – SEPTEMBER 2001 – WORLD CONFERENCE AGAINST RACISM (WCAR)

For ten days, representatives from NGOs the world over met in Durban South Africa to discuss racism and how to fight it during this new century. Since racism is one of the most endemic traits of human societies, with prejudice based solely on physical differences like the color of one’s skin, so widespread in cultures around the world, one would have expected wide scope and much introspection on the part of participants. Instead the conference, like so many other venues at the UN, spent its time reviling Israel, a country integrating a population with the most varied racial types, and no time on the Arab world, where slave trading and massacring black Africans still goes on (Mauritania, Middle East, Sudan). Instead, recognizing that slave trading was one of the ugliest manifestations of racism, the congress condemned Western slave trade, discontinued over a century and a half ago.

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001: THE WTC AND PENTAGON ATTACKS

The moral equivalence orthodoxy interprets the terrorist attacks of September 11 as a specific reaction against an imperialistic US foreign policy. In short, “America had it coming“. In the aftermath of September 11 Noam Chomsky, one of the main contemporary creators of moral equivalence narratives, described the US led “war on terror” as contradictory, because the US has been guilty of state terror for decades and to him terror was overwhelmingly the weapon of the strong, not the weak (See here and here). In this narrative both US led wars against Afghanistan and Iraq are substantially worse than the terrorist attacks of September 11 or the rule of Saddam or the Taliban, and US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair as war criminals, on a par with Bin Laden. Critics of the Iraq war tend to give the moral ground to the “rebels,” described by filmmaker Michael Moore as “the revolution, the minutemen.”

IN ORDER TO FULLY UNDERSTAND the dynamics and consequences of moral equivalence one has to be able to identify and understand its main features:

EVEN-HANDEDNESS: This refers to the prevalent tendency in Western media to adopt an “objective, impartial” even-handed approach to situations and conflicts where open civil societies face their enemies, such as Islamists. Major news corporations such as the BBC, Reuters (see also here), and the Boston Globe, for example, refuse to label deliberate attacks against civilians as “terrorism”, because, according to the editorial guidelines of the BBC the “word ‘terrorist’ can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding.” Therefore according to Western journalistic standards of objectivity, in order not to “obscure understanding,” suicide bombers targeting Israeli civilians are invariably described as “militants” or “activists,” and Iraqi groups who indiscriminately kill fellow Muslims civilians – as “rebels” or “insurgents.”

INFLATED RHETORIC: The mistakes/flaws of western democracies, Israel and their leaders are invariably described in an exaggerated manner. Many times the rhetoric acquires a virulence that should disquiet any sober person:

When Guantanamo Bay is compared with the Gulag by Amnesty International.

When George W. Bush was described by the mayor of London as “the greatest threat to life on earth.”

When Nobel literature laureate José Saramago compared Israel to Nazi Germany and the territories to Auschwitz.

SIMPLISTIC AND INDISCRIMINATE ANALOGIES: In this case the tendency is to equate a negative example of behavior of Westerners with the worse kind of atrocity perpetrated by others. In the world of moral equivalence, for example, Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians are compared to what the Nazis did, US president George W Bush and neo-conservatives are seen as “extremists” and as fundamentalist as Islamists, and the American abuses at Abu Ghraib are somehow equivalent to torture under Saddam (see also here).

The following cartoon published in a mainstream UK newspaper provides a telling visual example of such a simplistic analogy:
moral equivalence
It’s clearly tempting to see the parallels, and feel infinitely morally superior to both. But if you can’t see the differences… what do you think brings you the culture in which you can so freely indulge in moral narcissism and so violently attack your own government? How long do you think you’d last in the culture that produces the fellow on the left above.


MORAL SELF-FLAGELLATION
: Moral equivalent proponents habitually blur the boundaries between useful self-criticism, essential and vital to any healthy civil society, and a moral self-flagellation, that maximizes “our flaws” and minimize “their” flaws, even when they represent a far greater danger and, as in the case of Jihad, an existential threat. If moral equivalence thinkers, for example, applied to the Arab world the same finely tuned moral criteria they apply to their own societies (roadblocks and barriers to protect against suicide terrorism as apartheid racism), their “moral radar” would be instantly overwhelmed by the violence and violation of human rights (honor killings, summary execution of “collaborators”). By contrast, if we gave ourselves half the moral “breaks” we give to the underdogs out there, most of our “sins” wouldn’t register.


WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO PROVIDE A SOLID COUNTER ARGUMENT TO MORAL EQUIVALENCE:

In an interview to BBC in May 2004 Noam Chomsky declared that the term “moral equivalence” is used as a weapon in the hands of those who want to supress free speech: “The term moral equivalence is an interesting one, it was invented I think by Jeanne Kirkpatrick as a method of trying to prevent criticism of foreign policy and state decisions. It is a meaningless notion, there is no moral equivalence whatsoever.”

Aside from the near incoherence of the passage (JK invented the term to denounce the phenomenon), the final line seems incomprehensible: isn’t that just what Kirkpatrick meant – that there were no moral equivalences between the US and the USSR? But the overall message is clear: by refusing to accept wild moral equivalences between the misdeeds of civil societies committed, however imperfectly, to defending human rights, with the behavior of totalitarian regimes, we somehow throttle any criticism… as if rejecting grotesquely inflated criticism were the equivalent of rejecting all criticism.

In an interview to Der Spiegel, Germany’s magazine of reference, in June 2005, filmmaker Woody Allen dismissed the events of September 11 in the following manner: “The history of the world is like: He kills me, I kill him, only with different cosmetics and different castings. So in 2001, some fanatics killed some Americans, and now some Americans are killing some Iraqis. And in my childhood, some Nazis killed Jews. And now, some Jewish people and some Palestinians are killing each other. Political questions, if you go back thousands of years, are ephemeral – not important.”

Allen, unwittingly perhaps, has repeated the “dominating imperative” that the Athenians called up to justify killing the Melian men and selling their wives and children into slavery. Now Allen wouldn’t use the idea to justify such horrors. He’s too civilized. He’s so self-critical that he can’t (or won’t) see the difference between some Nazis killing Jews on the one hand, and some Jewish people and some Palestinians killing each other on the other. Apparently he is not aware that the move to civil society that made someone like Woody Allen possible, came from trying, however imperfectly, to overcome this dominating imperative. In lumping everything into this crude political calculus, he strengthens the hand of people who really do want to slaughter the men and sell the women and children into slavery. They’re doing it right now (Sudan).

At the Augean Stables we believe civil society demands a different approach – one that avoids the traps, dangers and relativism of moral equivalence. There is something different and precious about the society of tolerance and human freedom that we are trying to build. We believe that recent events and dynamics described in this page are not unimportant or “ephemeral,” but fundamental errors that demand our reflection, and the creation of mechanisms to protect civil societies from real dangers and threats. We welcome contributions and examples of moral equivalence discourses. We will try to be, (dare we say it?), even-handed, and we will post any intelligent discussion on this issue, no matter how strongly we may disagree.

Let the dialogue begin.

<!– –>

Though I Sang in My Chains Like the Sea

Dylan Thomas’ poem Fern Hill merits a life-time of attention. First, the language is drenched in music, and the poem begs to be read out-loud for that reason. Second, the words and combinations of words rendering the farm and the boy’s home within the universe of the farm are choices so perfectly suitable to the narrative and the subject, and the images are so worthy of contemplation, so pictorial, so telling that they make you want to hoop and holler (!). Then, the artistic movement toward the exile depicted at the finish, the utter pathos, and the artistic embrace and identification with the all too human narrator at the last line—the suggestiveness and power of this invocation at the last line—these are electrifying! This is Great Art in its’ highest register. Here’s the poem… it may take many readings to come so close that you could just see it, but do it! It’s a lot of material… give it time— live with it for some decades. Keep a beginner’s mind, and don’t become impatient— it’s hard and poetic in different ways. Its’ so worthwhile. If anyone does this I will give them one million dollars! (not) Do it! Begin! NOTE: I couldn’t get the poem to fit perfectly. Sorry… ps. at the bottom is a bar to shift the poem so all words can be seen… Get a better copy, dear reader! pps. look up “dingle.”

Fern Hill

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
    The night above the dingle starry,
        Time let me hail and climb
    Golden in the heyday of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
        Trail with daisies and barley
    Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
    In the sun that is young once only,
        Time let me play and be
    Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
        And the sabbath rang slowly
    In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
    And playing, lovely and watery
        And fire green as grass
    And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
        Flying with the ricks, and the horses
    Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
    Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
        The sky gathered again
    And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
        Out of the whinnying green stable
    On to the fields of praise.

And honored among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
    In the sun born over and over,
        I ran my heedless ways,
    My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
        Before the children green and golden
    Follow him out of grace,

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
    In the moon that is always rising,
        Nor that riding to sleep
    I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
        Time held me green and dying
    Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

    -- Dylan Thomas

An Account of a Meeting on a Plane

I was traveling to San Jose, California from Chicago over Thanksgiving to visit my son, Ari. I sat next to a woman who was willing to carry a conversation with me for about a half of the four hour-plus flight. I don’t remember how, but we learned that, like me, she had been an English major at the same undergraduate school that I had attended, and that we had even had a teacher in common. She was a singer, and a member of a choir that performed at a site that I had regularly worked as the piano tuner.

We found that we had a fair number of things in common which fueled our talk. This lady was even interested in having me tune her piano, which was to be moved to her new place in a couple of months, and told me about her deep engagement with this piano and its’ role in her life and history. I was impressed with her life with music, her brightness, and her energy. She had an easy talkativeness, and a certain quality of bringing to the surface the details of things (it also turned out that she had attended law school and was a lawyer about to retire after a career in law.)

When we parted, I walked with her to get luggage, and we separated when she was called by the friends she was to meet. I was eager to get my luggage and get a cab to take me to my son’s school, where I was to observe his teaching and maybe play in the middle school band he directs. After our school experience when Ari and I had a chance to talk, I told him of my having met the lady on the plane, and tried to convey to him my sense of the surprise in finding such a very kindred soul just by the luck of the draw, as it were.

In the busyness of my next days I gave my flying partner no further thought, I must confess, nor the eventful companionship of our plane trip. Maybe a week after my return to my home I was making phone calls from my address book of piano tuning customers. This time I had reached for an old customer book from 1999. I paged through randomly, and came to a name and address in a nearby suburb. I dimly recalled an older lady that I seemed to remember had been kind and warm. The suburb is a wealthy one, and I figured that it might have been a good choice since times are hard now. Maybe she would have some extra money to get her piano tuned.

A female voice answered when I called. I explained that I was calling after having last tuned the piano in 1999, and that if they had not yet engaged another tuner I would be happy to do the job again. The lady on the other end replied that the piano was her mother’s, and that she now lived at the home, and was planning to take the piano to her new condo when it was ready.

Her mother had died one year ago at age 92—a long full life, a good mother, she reported. In fact, the only reason that her mother even kept the piano was for her, because she was the only family member that had played. She recounted that the last time her mother had had it tuned by me, it had been done to try to encourage her to play when she came over, because her mother wanted to overcome this lady’s excuse that the piano was too out of tune to try to play.

I was interested and somewhat moved, and a little speechless at the quiet loveliness of the story that this lady unfolded. I expressed condolences at her mom’s death, and I told her that I remembered her mom’s reiteration of that same reason for having me come out nine years ago. I told her I remembered her mom’s kindness, and sweetness, and that is partly why I called that number right now. I was in the process of explaining something more when this lady interrupted me, in a jarring way I thought.

“Did you just fly to San Jose, California?!!!” she asked.

I wasn’t sure I heard her, but when my mind fastened upon what she said and asked, I replied,

“Yes.”

She said, “I’m the person you sat next to!”

I replied,

No!!!!!!!!

We both stumbled over each others’ expressions of amazement, and began to try to piece together our different stages of the way to this juncture and its’ happening. Among other things, I asked at one point whether she put two and two together because of my calling as a piano tuner (a bit of a rare breed of worker.) She replied with conviction that that was not what had alerted her… it was my voice. She remembered the voice before she consciously remembered her association with my identity as a piano tuner.

I was moved by this. This lady had really listened to my voice. I am grateful for her recollection and witness, and keen ability to respond to a voice which had its’ origin in a chance encounter. I admired her ear, as one who relies quite a bit upon “ear” as a piano tuner and social worker. I admired her person, because it was so clear to me that meetings with people mattered to her.

I am arrested by the great complicity in things—in a sense I had already tuned for this lady. How wonderful! Also,I had been allowed to be involved in one side of an action of her mother’s that was so basically that of a mother, and precious to her, I sensed. I even remembered the poignancy nine years later, just from her mom’s expression of it. Then I was allowed to feel and come to know this happening yet again, from her daughter’s side in a very pure way, because it was completely unsuspecting until the moment of revelation.

Moreover, had we met only on the plane, I would have been charmed, and happy to have been uplifted by a sweet moment of previously unsuspected and yet wonderfully confirming meeting. Our anonymity within the categorical “social” experience of airline travel was broken through. I’ve lived long enough to come to value this as a gift, and maybe one of the particular gifts of traveling, if one is open to it.

How many people traveled on this day before Thanksgiving? Tens of thousands? How many millions live in the Chicago area? Over ten million? How many pianos have I tuned in thirty years as a full-time tuner? I can’t figure that out. It is more than the probability—it is the surprise and the revelation of our rich and unforeseen commonality,—and the unforeseeable way that our deeds may work in the world. I look forward to tuning her piano. Again.

It’s a Comic Universe

Most people give tragedy the last word. The twentieth century spoke and scores of millions were annihilated. The horrors were not abundant, but were superabundant. We find ourselves possessed of fresh, and stupefying nightmares, which are memory’s burden and the warrant of our diminished state. Our plight and our plea before G-d, leaves us astonished and anxious. Like Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, we are tempted to say, “War has determined us.”

Now, after the first years of the present century humankind flounders and does not flourish, breaks apart, not through. The distance between us has thickened, and muddied. There is disengagement and disorientation— direct speech between people wastes away. Mistrust abounds. The ‘Big Lie” is afoot. Where are our leaders and our teachers, our advocates? Fear everywhere denies us the expectations of hope, renewal, and transformation.

So, my title urges that “It’s a Comic Universe.” You may ask, “Will the travails mentioned in this gloomy preamble now be transmuted into a characterization of the current human condition as really just some “merry prank?”” Having just heard the rebuke directed at a debased world, are we now to hear the rebuke comically lightened in its’ onus by a deft turn of phrase or an act of existential slight-of-hand? Surely this can’t be meant.

There is a Woody Allen commencement address which I can only paraphrase, which speaks to the point here. He started his address to the students with something like, “The world which you receive as graduates today is at a crossroads. On the one road lies destruction, devastation, ruin and demise. On the other, there is defeat, disintegration, loss and annihilation. Dear graduates, as you go out into the world, will you choose wisely?”

I beg you to believe that this is not where I intend to leave you, dear reader. What I would like to do is to seek an answer here by making clear the difference between “change” and “renewal and transformation.” Then I would like to talk a little about the nature of comedy—as a genre and as a creative alternative to despair when facing dismay over the “insuperable defects of actuality.” (Wiley Sypher. Comedy.)

Change suggests a process that is a departure from what is currently happening, but is still continuous with and derivative from what is currently happening. There may be a “calculus” of change which predicts the future by plotting the graph based upon the past, in effect. To seek “change” suggests an openness to alteration with0ut knowing distinctly where or how to place one’s feet on the path. There is a haunting passage to be found in Faulkner which portrays newly freed southern ex-slaves migrating to the north after the Civil War—driven by a spirit of numbness, weariness, and eerily possessed of little but forward motion. They have a dream, but so beaten down are they that they are portrayed as utterly insensitive to the quality of their current experience.  I believe Faulkner wanted to show us that this wave of immigration still hypnotically carried its’ burden of slavery with them, poignantly and alarmingly, despite change, or, more exactly, when carried along by change alone. Transformation and renewal were yet to come, and were nowhere evident.

What I have in mind by the terms “transformation and renewal” is both planning and action, done in a spirit in which the means are like the end. Though we may not see every foot of the way ahead, and we may be weary and stricken, we go forward with an unalterable openness and willingness both to be both bold and self-critical. This means that then, despite what may be our meticulous planning, we teach ourselves to be utterly open to surprise, and to be lovers of rebuke when we have strayed in our aim. We may, thereby, enhance our toleration of risk, and nurture our humility as well. We unwaveringly cultivate a spirit which welcomes the play of the possible, and even exults in the possible. Our deepest individual and collective being dares to imagine and to utter, “It’s not too late.”

If we walk this path, we cultivate, discipline and educate our imagination to seek the real above all—- and develop the courage to see things as they are. Transformation and renewal (both inner transformation and renewal, and outer) become our unwavering path and receive all of our heart and souls passion and outreach. In this world we find that we need not concede the victory to the pasts’ unstinting weight. We imagine the real, even in its’ highest and most civilized register, and we make our work real at the same time.

When we play, we exult in the possible. We freely dare the impossible as well. Likewise the genre of comedy posits a universe which is providentially arranged for us, and operates like the play of the divine. The comic universe is one which is superabundant in the possibility of transformation and renewal at every instant,—and a bestowing universe signals this at each point in the comic work. Somehow in comedy we are given to anticipate the “happy ending,” the coming together in unity and betterment at the end. Here we are brought face to face with our flaws and foolishness— even our depravities. Through comic transformation and renewal, a comic humbling followed by garlands and ceremonies of regeneration, we are brought to the highest good.

We come, thereby, to know that “it is not too late” for such a world. Comedy (as a genre in literature, art, and music—which is not to be confused with simple “humor”) tells us with a smile, and perhaps a laugh, that we may, indeed, imagine a world of turning—a world in which the wheel of fortune needs to come to its’ lowest point, truly, to begin its’ ascent to its’ highest. Brave imaginings. Who is to say that this is not our world and our universe?