The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

WHAT EXACTLY IS AGLEY, ANYWAY?: The best-laid plans of mice and men, Robert Burns once wrote, gang aft agley. For those of you unfamiliar with Burns, this famous line from Burns’ ‘To a mouse’ is, when you come right down to it, simply Murphy’s Law in Ayrshire dialect, Mr. Murphy not yet having promulgated his famous law at the time Burns wrote the poem. Murphy was a young man then, brimming over with enthusiasm, as young men are wont to be, and confident that there was no problem so great that it couldn’t be made even greater with the injudicious use of pesticides, peanut butter, and onomatopoeia, a belief that has been the basis of more than one successful career in the civil service. It wasn’t until much later, when time and life and popular mechanics wore the poor man down to a stump of his former self, that Mr. Murphy came to his singular contribution to existential philosophy. Having the IRS audit his income tax returns for the past 34 years did nothing to improve his attitude and I am sure it was the rare day when Mr. Murphy did not wonder privately why he’d ever bothered leaving Ireland.

Now you are, no doubt, wondering what all of this has to do with the price of tea in China, and the answer is nothing, really, I am just spouting off as usual, but the thing of it is that I had a whole bunch of ideas lined up to go for posts and I have not gotten to any of them due to a sudden spike in the aggravation index. The aggravation index, for those of you interested in statistical conundrums, is a method of determining just how irritated you are at any given time. It is a ten point scale, with 0 representing a state of complete harmony, a point of near-karmic bliss and love of one’s fellow human beings, and 10 representing the point at which you have decided to take a chain saw to that rotten little kid who’s been whining and crying and in general annoying you all day about one thing or another until you can’t take it anymore. I usually average about a 1.5 to 2.3 on the scale; any lower than that and I wouldn’t have anything to write about here and any higher I wouldn’t want to write about it; the memories would be too painful. So, Tuesday night I go to my local Barnes & Noble superstore and waste an hour looking at books I have no intention of buying, and then I walked over to the supermarket to get the gallon of milk and the razor blades I actually left the house to buy. I come back, put the milk and razor blades in the trunk, get in the car, and turn the key in the ignition…and then, suddenly…BOOM!

Having now piqued your interest in such a crude literary sound effect, I should point out that there wasn’t any boom. There wasn’t any bust, either; there wasn’t anything. The battery, an original member of the Ford Taurus team that has spent the past six years keeping me on the road, had died. You may not consider this much of a problem, but I loaned my jumper cables to my mother’s next-door neighbor four years ago and I still haven’t gotten them back from him yet. Faced with the problem of staying all night in a parking lot, which is not as bad a fate as it might sound, but it was one I always prefer to miss out on; you never know who you are going to meet in parking lots—you come upon all sorts of known miscreants like robbers and thieves and life insurance salesmen in bookstore parking lots, all of whom I would rather not meet in the course of a day, if I can help it. Therefore, I immediately went through the number of people I knew I could rely on to pull me out of my predicament and finding them all a bit wanting, I called my mother, as any good boy should, hoping against hope she could rouse the neighbor to bring the cables and a car to help me out.

But alas and alack, and just how many of life’s little troubles get blown completely out of proportion by the lack of a lass is a scientific problem that does not get the attention that it should, the mother had gone to bed and now I had to listen to myself telling myself to leave a message after the tone and Mom would get back to me as soon as she could. This, I knew, would be sometime the following afternoon, an unappealing prospect, to say the least. So I hung up on myself, which an odd sensation, really; most people love the sound of their own voices—there is an expensive asylum for those who have this problem to a truly manic degree in Washington, D.C.—and here I am swearing at the voice on the other end of the line in the same voice that was telling me to leave a message after the tone. My circumstances decreed, however, that I not spend a lot of time thinking about the strangeness of confronting one’s own electronic Doppelganger; I was no further along than when I called home and the store would be closing shortly. I then called my brother, hoping against hope that he would be home instead of out with his girl friend that he won’t bring home to meet our mother, in and of itself not a good sign, but that is just my opinion, you understand; I could be wrong about her.

The brother was in fact home, and he was in full possession of his jumper cables, and what’s more, he would be more than happy to drive the twenty miles or so to Barnes & Noble at 10:30 at night after a long and mostly frustrating day at work and help me out of my jam. At least this is the sense I got once I picked out the assorted profanities, blasphemies, and scatological references from his answer. Be that as it may, however, he would come and help. So it was just a matter of waiting for him to arrive, which time I spent holding color slides up in front of the Barnes & Noble sign, said sign making an excellent light table, especially the capital B and the small E in Noble; the ampersand was not as good as I thought it would be, but then it’s not a real letter, is it?

At length the brother arrived, jumper cables in hand, and he hooked his operational battery to my utterly diseased one. The resultant jump, however, did nothing for my car and he gave it another blast. This time the battery responded with an anemic buzzing noise before fading away. The brother, now perturbed by my battery’s refusal to charge, gave it another jolt, this time revving his motor and calling my battery names that I shudder to repeat in mixed company. This time the battery responded with a half-hearted rev and a vroom, and the engine turned over and all was right with the world…except that it wasn’t.

Halfway home, with the brother following close behind me, I began to get numerous warning lights flashing on my dashboard, and I do mean numerous. Lights I didn’t know I had were flashing like Christmas trees. I correctly surmised, given the signals that something was wrong with my car; you’d have to catch me pretty early in the morning for me not to pick up on this fact. I pulled into the local Indian-owned gas station, a cheery place offering gasoline, newspapers, junk food, and pornography for the weary traveler, and pulled up to a pump, whereupon the battery once again pooped out. The brother, himself pooped out from lack of sleep, screamed at my car, and then we did the whole jumper cable thing again. This time I’d have to settle for the anemic buzz; I’d have to drive home in this thing taking the shortest route I could think of, which is what I did.

I should point out to the motoring public that the power in power brakes means electric power, and although my brother explained to me that the electricity that powers all such automotive functions comes from something called the alternator, the battery plays an important role in this process as well. I learned this as I drove the shortest route home, which involves going down a very steep hill in a car where the high beams became the very low beams, multiple warning lights popped on just for the fun of it, and my car, which usually is a warm and caring piece of machinery that wants to save the whales, voted for John Kerry, and gives regularly to charitable causes, became a tormenting devil out to see just how high my blood pressure could go in ten seconds. There is nothing quite like the dawning horror that comes when you start going down a very steep and winding hill in a car with limited braking and steering power and you realize that at this juncture, it’s too late to rethink this situation, you can’t get out of the car. You’re going along for the ride, bubba, whether you change your mind or not, and pumping your brake like you were keeping time to Jimmy Sturr’s polka band ain’t gonna help.

I wish to report, however, that I did make it home with no visible bumps, bruises, or other abrasions. My brother did want to know what the hell I thought I was doing going all over the road and flying down the hill at that speed. I told him that I was sort of curious as to whether or not I would survive the ride and I wanted to make it interesting. This is the sort of thing I say when I am no longer in danger of wrapping my brains around a tree. When I am in danger of wrapping my brains around a tree I am usually screaming for my mother. It’s not dignified, but at times like that I am usually not spending a lot of time worrying about my damn dignity.

Monday, August 28, 2006

MATHEMATICS AND THE HARM THEY CAUSE: John Derbyshire, of National Review fame, or infamy, the adjective in this case depending wholly on your position on the political spectrum, has written a new book entitled Unknown quantity: a real and imaginary history of algebra. For those of you who may not know this, algebra is the gateway to the study of higher mathematics, a gateway that is as mysterious to me now as when I was flunking the subject in the tenth grade. But I will admit that I am not the best critic of such material; I only passed math class that year because some yeshiva students in Brooklyn broke into their principal’s office, mimeographed all the tests (remember mimeography and the smell of a freshly mimeographed pop quiz? Those were the days, my friends), and then sold the copies all over the state of New York.

The end result of this well-intentioned but somewhat misplaced sense of entrepreneurialism was that the state education department had to pass everyone who took a Regents (college prep) course in anything that year, and so it was that I passed an algebra test just a year after I had failed, and I am talking here of failure on a massive scale; I think my final exam grade of 12 was the lowest grade ever recorded by someone not actually trying to fail, and I think they spotted me five points just for spelling my name right; a class called General Mathematics, a class the state education department designed to help utter innumerates and other numbskulls recognize that numbers could serve a higher purpose than denoting the channels on a television set. So it was, then, that I came to pass the mathematics requirement needed for graduation, for in those days if you passed the Regents test in a given class you passed the class, even if you did nothing in class all year long except chat with your friends and try to score dates with cheerleaders when the teacher wasn’t looking. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t thank the good Lord above for those Jewish kids and their larcenous impulses, and this may be one of the many reasons why I am a great supporter of Israel even unto this day.

In any case, Mr. Derbyshire has apparently written an excellent book on the subject, if the review in the May 15th issue of Library Journal (yes, I am only now getting to the May issues and yes, I am behind in my book ordering; so sue me) by a Mr. Ian Gordon of Brock University Library, St. Catherines with a S, Ontario, Canada, is anything to go by. Mr. Gordon praises Mr. Derbyshire’s newest opus and tells us, the prospective library purchaser, that the book is “…written at the high school level for a general audience interested in recreational mathematics…” at which point I fell out of my chair, shocked to the very core of my being.

I will assume, for the purposes of our discussion, that Mr. Gordon is a Canadian. I will further assume that to the denizens of any nation so depraved and lacking in common decency the idea that there might be a general audience for so loathsome and heinous a practice as recreational mathematics to be one utterly unworthy of notice, especially in a nation so lost in the politically correct multicultural dreamscape that today afflicts so much Western thinking that the government will not prevent, and I know this will shock you as it did me, allegedly competent adults from putting mayonnaise on a French fry while there are small children in the room. I can assure Mr. Gordon, however, that here in this our Great Republic we will have none of this contemptible degeneracy. We will not stand idly by in the face of such harmful practices and make excuses for those who commit such enormities. It has taken American society the better part of a century to root out recreational mathematics once and for all, and there will be no going back to this vicious practice, despite the best efforts of Mr. Derbyshire and Mr. Gordon to resurrect it.

For millennia, the idea of recreational mathematics was an oxymoron of the highest order. Mathematics was the special province of an elite corps of highly trained mathematicians, men who protected the arcane secrets of numbers from the great unwashed. In this quest, governments helped the mathematicians keep their secrets, not that they understood the mathematics—very few governments do—or because they wanted to help the mathematicians—most government types have no clue what the mathematicians and the scientists are talking about anyway, but because they didn’t want the public to learn all the esoteric secrets of numbers and then find new and innovative ways to cheat on their income taxes.

Similarly, the Roman Catholic Church was deeply suspicious of mathematics, seeing the subject as possibly heretical and certainly dangerous to Christian morals. For many years, the Spanish Inquisition, with the connivance of the mathematics faculty at the University of Salamanca, investigated any person who knew more than the three times table, something that often had tragic consequences. In 1543, for example, the Inquisition burned Jose Antonio Lopez Garcia, a well-known horse thief and tax lawyer, at the stake in the Plaza Mayor in Seville for knowing how to multiply two fractions with different denominators. The Inquisition also burned his favorite horse, who, under the vile tutelage of this sociopathic fiend, could count to four with his left hoof and calculate the earned run average for a baseball team’s relief pitching staff for the season in just under a minute with its right. At the time everyone agreed that this was a shocking waste of perfectly good horseflesh, but the Inquisitors held that the protection of Catholic souls from sin outweighed the practical benefits of a mathematically minded horse, and to permit a horse to escape punishment for heresy might cause scandal amongst the believers and encourage the spread of heresy in every barn and livery stable in Spain.

Nor was such extreme caution peculiar to Spain and Catholic Europe. In England, for example, Sir Isaac Newton published his great Principia Mathematica in Latin so only a select few could actually read the book. The government further required that Newton sell the book only in bookstores on London Bridge, where this landmark book of mathematical and scientific thought sat on the shelves next to such masterpieces of the genre as Hot Brazilian Babes, Debbie Does Dunwich VIII, and Daniel Defoe’s Knaughty Knora’s Knockers, or life in Scotland. The booksellers, a skittish bunch afflicted with nervous tics caused by the perpetual need to keep one eye out for the vice squad, would only sell the Principia to men over the age of 25, and would only let the book out of their shops wrapped in a plain brown wrapper. Even with these restrictions, the Principia became something of a cult classic, although much of the book’s notoriety may have had more to do with the nude picture of the King’s mistress, Nell Gwyn, in the centerfold than any sudden public need to understand the laws of celestial motion.

No, it is not until the Gilded Age that mathematics becomes the guilty pleasure of a few sick individuals who try to lure others into their loathsome world. Recreational mathematics first raised its rancid head in Storyville, New Orleans’ fabled red light district, where Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver played the piano in bordellos while doing significant work in game theory and algebraic geometry, respectively. The inmates of these establishments, always looking for a new way to make a buck, began performing quadratic equations for their customers with their shoes on, a practice that led to the military shutting down Storyville once and for all in 1917. Too many soldiers and sailors were coming down with differential calculus at the time, damaging the war effort, and so the military first declared Storyville off-limits, and when that order proved unenforceable, they closed the district down once and for all.

Storyville went, but the taste for recreational mathematics it spawned remained, a constant undercurrent of filth beneath the pleasant tenor of twentieth century American life. Everyone knew that such things happened, of course, but certainly not where you lived and to people you knew. Parents warned their children not to take candy and multiplication tables from strangers, and police departments throughout the country kept an eye out for known miscreants with a mathematical bent, and for a long time this was enough to control the spread of this morally noisome practice.

And then the Sixties happened. Young people rebelled against the manners and mores of their elders and openly experimented with every manner of forbidden behavior. Many tried drugs, many more tried free love or protesting the war in Vietnam; some tried trigonometry or long division with base eight numbers. The results of this mass dive for the gutter were predictable, to say the least, and the disgusting details and the heartache they caused are warnings to us all of what happens when people indulge in this sort of thing.

Then there are those who enjoyed the experience, shocking as that might seem to anyone with a serviceable moral compass. Many of these people fled to Canada during the Vietnam War, due to constant FBI harassment; J. Edgar Hoover believed that recreational mathematics was a sure sign of Communistic tendencies. Most now live on wheat farms in southern Manitoba, although at last report there was a small colony in Saskatchewan as well. If I may venture a guess, Mr. Gordon has met and possibly even known one or two of these bestial wretches, and found them pleasant and sociable, if not entirely well-read; recreational mathematicians prefer to read phone books, add up all the numbers on a given page, and then calculate the square root of the result to the ten thousandth place; and no doubt wondered what all the fuss was about, Canadian multiculturalism having blinded him to the glaringly obvious threat to society and its mathematical norms. The constant reader may wish to purchase Mr. Derbyshire’s book, if only to learn more of the problem’s historical background. As for me, I think I will skip it; books about mathematics only aggravate my hay fever.

Friday, August 25, 2006

END OF THE PLANET BLUES: If what I hear is true, and I see no reason to doubt it, the International Astronomical Union, an AFL-CIO affiliated group currently under investigation by the FBI and the Department of Labor for having ties with known organized crime figures in Illinois and Ohio, has declared that, due to the power of their collective superior intellects and despite the many attempts by the Disney Corporation to influence their decision, Pluto will no longer be the ninth planet of the solar system. Henceforth Pluto, long the most mysterious and elusive of the planets, will be a member of some new astronomical category called dwarf planets. If this is so, then does everyone who got this answer wrong on pop quizzes in science class in the fifth grade get extra credit for getting the right answer in the first place, despite what their snotty science teacher said, and why, just to satisfy my curiosity, are these planets called dwarf planets? Wouldn’t vertically challenged planets or planets of minimal stature be more in keeping with the inclusive tenor of our politically correct times? And should these very same mobbed up astronomical pundits decide that Saturn should belong to some other arbitrary category than that of planet and great visual effect, how will this change effect the resale value of Saturns here on Earth, since it’s clear that people bought this automobile on the strength of its planetary name? I do not wish to sound like a naysayer here, but there is a strong possibility that General Motors is on the hook for false advertising, at the very least.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

SPECIALIZATION AND THE MODERN WORLD: Our modern age is one of ever increasing specialization, as the demands of an ever-growing information society require more and more expertise in ever-smaller fields of knowledge. No one, for example, really understands what computers are all about except techies and eight year olds, and there is no point talking to a techie; not only will you not understand what the hell they are talking about, but they almost always smell of stale Cheese Doodles, which is a bit nauseating, to put it mildly. With an eight year old things are different; not only can you understand what they are saying, but you can get them to work for ice cream, which is invariably cheaper than paying a techie’s salary, and if they prove especially recalcitrant you can always threaten to call their mothers and get them into trouble. The sight of a computer ignorant horde of adults putting the screws to a small child is not an edifying sight, to be sure, but sometimes we must do what we must do. Adults need someone who knows this stuff and for the majority of adults in this country today, computers are an awful lot like our cars—we can make them work, but we are more or less clueless about why they work.

Our society’s ever expanding need for specialization, an oxymoron if ever there was one, has even manifested itself in the egregious mold pit wherein I labor day in and day out for my daily bread. Librarians are not merely librarians anymore. No indeed, today there are map librarians, serials librarians, reference librarians (my own not very remunerative field of endeavor), children’s librarians, cybrarians, information specialists, school library media specialists, and a host of other exotics who spend their working lives trying to organize the ever swelling flood of information now threatening the nation’s already fairly limited attention span. Given this pullulating list of librarian specialization, it is surprising, or at least I find it surprising, that there is no one in the field of information science who spends a lot of time and energy thinking about the problem of the hydrodynamic turd and its role in the modern American public library.

I must admit here that I did not know that hydrodynamic excreta was a problem in the modern American public library until yesterday, but you do live and learn, don’t you? In any case, I first learned of this problem from a man of indeterminate mental stability who had locked himself in our men’s room and had flushed the toilet no fewer than 72 times in an apparently endless effort to send the aforementioned excreta on its way to the municipal sewage treatment plant. This, he yelled over the transom, was not possible, given the near perfect hydrodynamic shape of his ordure, which caused said ordure to merely spin around in the bowl like a rookie just up from the minors trying to hit a knuckleball and prevented the excreta from disappearing from public view with the tactful alacrity we all find so endearing about modern American plumbing. It goes without saying, however, that you will not find any studies in the professional literature on this subject, just as there are be no courses taught in MLS or MLIS programs on how to deal with the problem of hydrodynamic stools anywhere in this our Great Republic.

In fact, you would find, should you ever bother to look, that the information science curricula of almost any graduate school you care to mention does not prepare you for a great many things, almost all of which seem to occur in rooms with a great deal of plumbing. There is, for example, the aforementioned torpedo shaped turd that wouldn’t go down the drain, and then there is the problem of what to do with a cadaver in a public bathroom, should you ever be so lucky as to find one there; as I have mentioned here before, I had to figure that one out on my own. Clearly, the benefit of having a cadaver on the men’s room floor is that, unlike an overflowing toilet, the cadaver does not drive up the library’s water bill nor does the staff learn of the cadaver’s presence when some kid tracks a vile admixture of water and human waste out onto the freshly shampooed carpet in the main reading room. This is on the plus side of the ledger. The disadvantage to having a cadaver on the men’s room floor, of course, is that cadavers do not, as a rule, keep well in restrooms or in any room without refrigeration, as you probably know, and that library patrons tend to find a cadaver in the men's room a bit unnerving, if not an actual distraction from the business at hand. This reluctance is somewhat hard to explain, since your average cadaver, assuming it shares the somewhat enervated inertia common to most cadavers these days, will hardly pound on the stall door while you are trying to evacuate a particularly reluctant stool and ask you to please hurry up, he has to go, too, the he in this case having already gone in a larger and more existential sense.

And yet this is the sort of thing one must expect in a society that requires ever-greater levels of specialization from its work force, and whose fault is this, really? Hardly the workers themselves, who must constantly re-equip themselves with new skills lest their employers send their jobs to China or India. No, it is not the fault of the workers, nor is it the fault of their employers, who must struggle to keep up with a global market of infinite complexity and competitiveness, so whose fault is it? Frankly, I blame the Jews.

Now, you maybe asking yourself, why the Jews? Why them and not, say, Eskimos or the Amish? Well, consider the years of experience they’ve had as scapegoats. We’re talking about literally centuries of having to take it in the neck for someone else’s complete lack of religious and economic understanding. This means that we are talking about a highly trained, completely professional group of scapegoats here, not some bunch of amateurs who saw your ad in the classified section of the Village Voice, stuck between the ads for unfurnished apartments for rent, transsexual dominatrixes, and all those Korean bordellos in the West 30’s, and are willing to try anything at least once. Jews are on the job and ready for scapegoating when you need them, so you are not at the mercy of some fly by night scapegoat who’s just in it for the cheap thrills and the money and who will disappear at the end of the week with all of your rubber bands and paper clips in order to set up himself up in the life insurance business. So remember, if your company needs a good scapegoat, don’t settle for the second rate; get the best scapegoats money can buy. Remember, get Jews.*

(*This message has been a paid advertisement brought to you by Mel-Mahmoud Enterprises. Mel-Mahmoud Enterprises, provider of the world’s best scapegoats for at least the two or so weeks; you’d have to check with the LAPD about the chronology, but hurry: I’m pretty sure Mel doesn’t like Mahmoud very much and I know that Mahmoud returns the sentiment. So get in on this outstanding offer while they are still talking to one another. Call now—operators are standing by! Check or credit cards only, please; no cash or C.O.D.s allowed. Offer void where prohibited by law.)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

POINTLESS ACTIVITIES: My apologies to one and all for the lack of posting this past week, but I’ve been spending the majority of my computer time over at The Reform Club, where I have been arguing with an ideologue. This is an entertaining but ultimately futile activity, somewhat akin to collecting 17th century Norwegian toothbrushes and then writing long scholarly monographs about the importance of these toothbrushes on Swedish military adventurism during the Thirty Year’s War that no one in their right mind would want to read in a hundred years of Sundays. It’s sort of like arguing with that kid who’d always say, “I know you are but what am I,” to everything you said to him. Still, it’s been sort of fun, all in all, watching someone use logic so convoluted and reasoning so circular that they could scratch their own backsides with their foreheads without working up a sweat.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

JUST AN OBSERVATION: It’s an odd sort of world, isn’t it? Here we are, just over sixty years removed from one of the most horrific crimes in human history, an event burned into the memory of tens of thousands of people still living, and yet, despite this, in one European city after another you can see signs and read newspaper articles by apparently intelligent people that confuse the modern state of Israel with the Germany of the 1930’s and 1940’s. It is difficult at best for any thinking person to take such rubbish and the dolts who spout it seriously, and yet there appears to be thousands of otherwise rational people who accept this vicious nonsense as the plain truth and manage to leap across the moral chasm between murderers and the murdered with the greatest of mental ease.

You can see this mental agility all the time nowadays; you can hardly turn your television on these days without seeing someone carrying a sign that equates the swastika with the Star of David or some caricature that depicts an Israeli leader wearing a Nazi uniform. The problem for the Israelis is that they are not Nazis; life would be so much simpler for them if they were. The Israeli solution to the current situation in Lebanon has been to act with as much restraint as possible given the military situation, which seems sort of silly to me, since no one will give the Israelis any credit for their restraint anyway, so why bother? The Nazis would have responded to the attacks from Lebanon in much the same way they acted in such places as Lidice in 1942, the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, Oradour-sur-Glane and Warsaw itself in 1944: they would have attacked Lebanon and simply destroyed the country from the border to the Litani River, killing everyone and destroying everything in their path. After the slaughter was over, the Fuhrer would have given everyone involved a medal and thanked them for their service to the Fatherland. This is not likely to happen in Israel any time soon, despite the more rabid frothing at the mouth ravings of the loony Euroleft. It does make you wonder, though, why these folks are so completely off the wall when it comes to criticizing Israel. Personally, I think all of this is just that old Jew hatred they do so well, revamped and refurbished for a new generation.

You can say that they’re not anti-Semites, they’re just anti-Zionist, but when you can come right down to it, what’s the difference? Everyone has the right to criticize the State of Israel for its policies and actions, just as you can criticize the government of any democratic country. Being anti-Zionist, however, questions the legitimacy of Israel as a state because it questions the right of Jews to have a state in the first place. The Euroleft doesn’t mind an Israel that shares its territory and sovereignty with the Palestinians or doesn’t defend itself against attacks on its citizens and its territory by foreign terrorists; they don’t mind this because had any such Israel actually existed, it would have been destroyed years ago and spared Europe the uneasy conscience.

The queasy conscience comes from what actually happened on the Continent during the six years between 1939 and 1945. In the official version of events, everyone except for a few traitors and malcontents was either a member of the Resistance or an active supporter, that the governments in exile maintained a absolute hold on the loyalty of the people of their countries and were simply waiting for the Allies to liberate them in order to return, reinstate national sovereignty, and to lift the Nazi yoke from the neck of a long suffering population. There is much truth to the official story; too many brave European men and women died in front of Nazi firing squads or in the death camps or in Gestapo torture chambers from one end of Europe to the other for anyone to deny the very real achievements and the courage of the various Resistance movements.

But this is not the whole story. Whether today’s Europeans wish to remember this part of the story or not, the fact is that much of Europe collaborated with the Nazis and did so eagerly and willingly. The Waffen SS, for example, had no trouble recruiting Belgians, Frenchmen, Danes, Norwegians, Dutch, Bosnians, and many other nationalities to fight for Germany and many on the political Right could not wait for a chance to collaborate with Germany. In France, the Vichy government and the extreme French Right went out of its way to be helpful to the Germans, something that must have caused no end of confusion amongst many French senior citizens at the time. In their youths, these old folks would have seen a good many of these same right-wingers, men like Charles Maurras, go along with the French Army’s denunciation and frame-up of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer accused of spying for Germany, an event that brought French anti-Semitism out into the open for all the world to see. It was while watching the French mob bay for Dreyfus’ blood that the Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl realized that the Enlightenment hope of assimilating Jews into European society was wishful thinking and always had been, and that the only safe place for Jews would be in a state of their own with an army of their own to protect them. It’s also a nice bit of historical irony, when you think about it: Dreyfus’ enemies collaborating with Germany, the crime they accused Dreyfus of and that he didn’t commit.

After the war, of course, this history was quickly buried, both figuratively and literally; a spate of executions of the worst collaborators and those simply too slow or too stupid to get away in time allowed the masses of compromised others to get on with their lives without their consciences bothering them too much. By the late 1940’s, it was clear that the United States and the Soviet Union were in for a prolonged bout of ideological hostility and that the United States wanted and needed European allies in this new struggle, and best of all, the Americans were not going to be overly picky about what some people did during the war. This suited a lot of Europeans just fine and dandy, since their immediate pasts did not bear close examination, and so the rush to sign up on the American side of the Cold War began.

The Jews, however, wouldn’t simply vanish and spare many Europeans the occasional twinge of guilt. No indeed, they insisted on surviving and after the war they founded a state of their very own, of all things, and then did all sorts of un-Jewish things like defend themselves against attacks from people intent on murdering them en masse and pushing the few survivors into the sea. For a long time, the Europeans didn’t say much about Israel; no one liked bringing up the past, especially the uncomfortable parts I alluded to earlier, but after Israel’s victory in 1967 all that changed; no one roots for Microsoft, after all, and Israel’s victory made anti-Semitism palatable again, if that disgusting old wine came in the new wineskin of anti-Zionism. You might wonder why the Europeans are demonizing Jews again when they have brand new Muslim minorities they can demonize, marginalize, and otherwise treat like crap, but if I might venture a guess, it’s because the new Muslim minorities won’t just sit and take it in the neck the way the old Jewish minority did back in the days before there was a State of Israel. Having a pogrom is no fun if the victims fight back, and then, of course, there’s oil; Muslims have it and Jews don’t, and any European state that tries to trade in its old and used anti-Semitism for a brand spanking new Islamophobia is likely to have the price of the oil it buys skyrocket through the metaphorical roof. So the Europeans are sticking with the tried and true prejudice they’ve come to know and love for all these millennia. They’ve just poured the nasty old witch’s brew into a new bottle and they’re calling it by another name, but no matter from what angle you choose to look at it, the vile stuff’s the same old swill it always was.

Monday, August 07, 2006

GENERATIONAL WOES: I may be wrong about this, but I think that as a general rule you should always avoid calling your own opinions general rules, since as a general rule this is usually an attempt to universalize your own petty prejudices and give an aura of permanence to what is often merely the passing foolishness of a given age. Having said that, I think that as a general rule I am a fairly tolerant person. I try to get along with everyone and I tend to accept people as they are and I don’t try to change them, knowing that as a general rule people are who they are, whether you like it or not. So it’s best just to go with the flow, which is a philosophy that makes life livable, I think.

So, just as a matter of courtesy, will someone please let me know when the baby boomers finally and long last reach that state known to previous generations as maturity? I know that maturity should happen at some point and I would like to be around to take some pictures of the great event if and when it finally occurs. As a matter of full disclosure, I should point out that I am a member of the baby boom generation and that frankly I dislike being a baby boomer, if for no other reason than being one puts me in a demographic cohort with a large number of morons I would just as soon avoid. I’ve often wondered if there was some way of getting the late boomers like me, the boomers born after 1955 or 1956, reclassified in some other category—Generation W, for example—that would, at long last, free us from the manifold stupidities of the classic boomers.

After all, we do not share any life experiences worthy of the name. Those of us who belong to Generation W did not protest the war on campus; Catholic schools in the Bronx did not have campuses in the 1960's and the nuns suppressed any attempt to protest anything with a good swift smack across the back of your head; if they were in a particularly nasty mood that day they would use a ruler to smack you with, and you couldn't complain about getting smacked to your parents, since most of our parents believed that if the nuns smacked you then you did something to deserve smacking and so your parents would smack you too, just to get in on the act. We did not engage in free love; there were no sex education classes in those days, except for what little information we could glean from the walls in the boys’ restroom, most of which lacked any real philosophical content and any physiological terminology longer than four letters, so we’d never even heard of free love, much less engaged in it, and no, we did not serve in Vietnam, either; however desperate the Army was for warm bodies after the 1968 Tet Offensive, the local Bronx County draft board wasn’t going to spend its valuable time trolling through playgrounds from Riverdale to City Island looking for nine year old boys willing to go overseas to fight for their country in an unpopular war, especially a country where there were no Captain Crunch cereal, no Saturday morning cartoons, and no place to get a decent egg cream (non-New Yorkers may insert the favorite snack/beverage/whatever of their choice here; for me, it was egg creams, a New York delicacy which, despite the name, contains neither eggs nor cream).

This list can go on and on, of course, almost ad infinitum or ad nauseam, whichever comes first, but I think that the examples given are enough to show that for Generation W the link to the life experiences of the baby boom generation is, at best, tenuous and at its worst a classic case of guilt by association. We are not them, they are not us, and so let us depart the one from the other, the better to reach our own generational goals. I am not sure what the generational goals are for Generation W; if anyone has any bright ideas I am more than willing to listen to them; but for the boomers the main goal, and I base this conclusion on my own observations of boomer behavior, is to get to their second childhoods without ever really having left their first.

The reader is, no doubt, wondering just what brought on this somewhat intolerant screed about the generation to which I ostensibly belong, and since it’s sometimes a chore to pad these things out to eight hundred or so words, I will tell you. Here in our happy little burg scarcely a week goes by without some sort of festival in one or another of our municipal parks. Most of these happen in Memorial Park, which is the big park in the center of the city, but there are also a good many held down at Riverfront Park, where you can see the river, catch the river breezes, and, on the weekends, buy fresh produce at the farmer’s market. Riverfront Park recently was the site of the local Latin American Festival, an annual event celebrating the culture and diversity of our happy little burg’s diverse Hispanic heritage, even if the only Latin American flag anywhere in sight was que bonita bandera de Puerto Rico.

As always, the food was good, the girls were pretty, and the music was great. There was a girl rap group, which I didn’t care for, since I don't like rap, girls or no girls, and then a Hispanic doo-wop group doing hits from the 1950’s, which I did like, since I do like doo-wop, and then the salseros and merenguistas came and did their thing, which is what everyone was waiting for. And I was there as well, doing my thing; I went down to the park with both cameras loaded and ready to shoot. And I took a lot of pictures, some of them actually pretty good, if I do say so myself. So there I was, taking pictures left, right, and center, and there, in the midst of one hot salsa tune, I saw them. Yes, even in the midst of a Hispanic celebration, there were baby boomers, and even worse, gringo baby boomers. There were two of them, a man and a woman, and you could tell that they were classic boomers, not merely from the preponderance of gray in their hair, but from the too young clothes they wore, as if red t-shirts, shorts, sandals, and an air of perpetual grooviness could hold back the onward march of time, and from the way they danced to the music. I do not wish to sound like a philosophical ethnocentrist here, but I think it is fairly safe to say that salsa and merengue are, as musical forms, culturally specific, and that when one is dealing with a culturally specific musical form one should respond to it in a culturally appropriate manner. You do not samba to Johann Strauss’ Die schöne blaue Donau, after all, just as you do not do the funky chicken to Jimmy Sturr or the Watusi to Benny Goodman. In short, a salsa band is not the Grateful Dead, and when listening to salsa you do not mindlessly wriggle about grooving to the music in some pathetic Sixties throwback free-form retro acid alterative modern dance gyration that makes you look like you’ve got a large and fairly angry electric eel stuffed up your ass sideways. When you respond to a culturally specific musical form in this manner, you do not look like a free spirit being one with the universe; you look like a jackass, except, of course, el burro sabe mas que tu, and don’t you ever forget it, buster.

I suppose I shouldn’t let things like this annoy me, but they do. Those people weren’t doing anything except having fun, and why shouldn’t they have fun? It’s a free country, after all, and if they want to look foolish then let them; what’s it to me? Nothing really, but I couldn’t help comparing these two with their chronological companeros, especially the ones that I know were not born here in the United States. They came dressed casually as well, but they didn’t try to look like over the hill teenagers; they were adults and they dressed and acted like adults. They seem to understand that however much fun adolescence was, that part of their lives was now long over. The boomers will never admit that, not now, not ever. Why be a boomer at all if you can’t obsess year in and year out about your childhood and adolescence? What would be the point of existence then?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

111 IN THE SHADE, BOYS: There is, I fear, not much in the way of humorous observation here at the moment. This is not because I don’t have anything to write about; it’s because it is 111 degrees Fahrenheit (43.8 Celsius for those of you who insist on that sort of thing) on the heat index outside and I don’t feel like leaving this egregious but otherwise air-conditioned mold pit for the comforts of home, where I have a fan that works whenever it takes a notion to. That the notion will usually strike the thing sometime in the middle of January does me no good here at the beginning of August. I do have an air conditioner; I am not a total Luddite, despite what my brothers say about me, but if I put it on then my television won’t work. The reason for this technological quandary is that my father built the house I live in.

Now my father was a plumber of rare device—he worked on skyscrapers for most of his working life and when he started installing the plumbing in private homes he gave them the plumbing systems he knew best: humongous ones. If you own a house my father worked on, five will get you ten that you’ve got enough copper piping in your cellar to drain the water out from under Noah and the Ark in less than thirty seconds flat. His grasp of electrical wiring, on the other hand, was a bit more whimsical, and I have spent much of my life marveling at those people who can turn on their microwaves without worrying that the clothes dryer was suddenly going to stop in mid-cycle and leave you with damp underwear and clammy socks the next morning. So as unattractive an option as staying here in this mycological cesspit is, it beats going home and sweating like Mrs. Murphy’s pig.

This leaves me with nothing really to do here, but even if I have nothing to do, and I don’t, I have to look busy while I am not doing it. Therefore, I sit here in full view of the patrons, most of whom are here beating the heat as well, typing away at this thing so as to impress them with my industry on this swelteringly hot day. I don’t know why I am bothering trying to impress them; they didn’t vote for our budget, so clearly all of my industry when I am, in fact, working, is going for naught, but one must uphold the bureaucratic niceties at all times. It wouldn’t do for someone to think that I am not working as I sit here not working; the public library and those who toil in its clutches must always look like we are working away, trying to meet the public’s information and entertainment needs. I really must my house rewired…or buy a pool, whichever is cheaper.