Who is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a pre-primer

I caught a bit of a television program devoted to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) affair this morning, and I have done a bit of research on the Internet.

First, this affair is huge in France, newspaper sales have skyrocketed, the news weeklies are devoting 13-20 pages to it this week.  DSK was, prior to this affair, thought to be the frontrunner for the nomination of the Socialist Party to oppose Sarkozy in 2012. DSK is widely thought to be a man of some brilliance in the financial/economic realm, as well as in the political realm.  Despite having to apologize to the IMF quite early in his tenure for an affair he had with a subordinate Hungarian economist, he is regarded as having rescued the IMF from irrelevance and obscurity by orchestrating the bailout of the European banks and the Greek government.

DSK is married to a glamorous former telejournalist, Anne Sinclair, who was one of the most famous media figures in France in the 80’s and 90’s, a Barbara Walters-like figure, but with more substance.  They live together in a Georgetown townhouse.  Sinclair was born of French parents with the name Schwartz and is the granddaughter of the very successful artdealer Paul Rosenberg, who represented Picasso and Matisse, among others.  Sinclair was born in New York, her parents had fled Europe, but went to high school and university in France.  It is thought that DSK might have been able to introduce economic policies that would bring France out of the economic doldrums.  It was this hope, possibly widely shared among the French professional class, which wants only results and cares little about ideology, that made him the frontrunner for the Socialist nomination.

He is a charismatic figure with certain liabilities known best to himself (he rehearsed them recently to a journalist in a published interview):  his Jewishness, his womanizing, his money, much of which comes from his third wife, Sinclair.  DSK reminds me of Helmut Schmidt somewhat.  There was no note whatever in the telecast I saw of complaint about American prudery or about draconian American laws concerning sexual assault or rape.  French journalists are trying not to prejudge the case, and there is no sense that the Americans have somehow overstepped any bounds.  There were prior allegations of abuse in France, one from a 22-year-old novelist, another from a Socialist politician.

Prickly Expat Egghead Buys a Kindle E-reader

Readers of my blog may be interested to hear reports of my experiences with the Kindle e-reader.  I purchased the device yesterday.  The one I purchased was the “Wi-fi” model, on the grounds that I would not often need or want to download content while in transit.

Generally speaking, there has been one overwhelmingly pleasant surprise and some minor disappointments.  The overwhelmingly pleasant surprise has to do with the amount of free content available for the Kindle through http://openlibrary.org/subjects/accessible_book

Here are some titles that I have downloaded at no charge in my first day of Kindle ownership:

Austen, Jane:  Pride and Prejudice

Eliot, George:  Middlemarch

Gibbon, Edward:  The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 4

James, William:  The Varieties of Religious Experience

Knight, Frank H.:  Risk, Uncertainty and Profit

Proust, Marcel:  Du côté de chez Swann

Swift, Jonathan:  Gulliver’s Travels

Whitehead, Alfred North:  The Concept of Nature

It appears that many titles are available for Kindle download but are, in practice, barely legible.  Examples are the “Essais” of Montaigne in French and Durkheim’s “Les règles de la méthode sociologique.”  These downloads produced too many illegible characters.  Both works are probably available in English translation Kindle editions that are legible.  It does not appear that the Kindle supports reading texts in Greek.  The quality of the open-source Kindle editions varies considerably, and many of the scans contain heavy underlining.  Users are advised to view the prospective download in the online reader at openlibrary.org prior to download.  Some books, e.g. James’s “Varieties of Religious Experience,” are available in several Kindle-formatted editions, and it looked to me as though the 6th impression of the Longmans edition provided the most readable print combined with relatively little markup of the text.

I originally purchased the Kindle primarily in order to be able to purchase trade books at reduced prices.  The first book of this sort I purchased was “Freefall” by Joseph Stiglitz.  It appears to me that, if I am at home, I would normally prefer to read a book formatted for Kindle on my PC – the Kindle device itself is mainly for being in transit or perhaps for reading in bed.  (I believe that Nicholson Baker reported being very pleased with the Kindle for that purpose.)  But I suspect that I will also be repairing from the computer at a desk to a more comfortable sofa and using the Kindle there.

The true Kindle devoté might want to wear the device around his neck, in order not to lose it.

In practice, it appears that one can accumulate a large and exceedingly rich library of works that are out of copyright on the Kindle.  It may be too much to hope that Amazon would support the reading of Greek, Russian, Hebrew, etc. in future versions of the device.  It would be nice to think that millions of readers will be availing themselves of the opportunity to read classic works on their Kindles.

In future posts, I may report on the ergonomic and technical features and flaws of the Kindle.  My initial reaction is that this is a wonderful waystation along the road of the digitalization of human culture.

Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island”

I have often said to friends and acquaintances that I think Martin  Scorsese is a hugely overrated director.  “Goodfellas,” which I recently watched for the second or third time, chronicles the history of people so repulsive that one hardly knows where to begin.  Scorsese has given the phrase “banality of evil” new meaning, and he has done so repeatedly in his movies.  Looking at gangsters objectively, or from a distance, fails to make them attractive subjects.  But Scorsese’s entire approach to the phenomenon of the Italo-American gangster is to attempt to endow his gangsters with the charm of the quotidian.  Yes, gangsters like to eat and cook and have sex.  Still, where they belong is in jail or in a cemetery and away from human view.  The antiheroes of “Goodfellas” are despicable, stunted creatures.  Watching a movie like this becomes an exercise in self-loathing.

I cannot improve upon what A.O. Scott had to say about “Shutter Island” in his “New York Times” review:  “But in this case the equivocation, the uncertainty, seems to come from the filmmaker himself, who seems to have been unable to locate what it is in this movie he cares about, beyond any particular, local formal concern. He has, in the past, used characters whose grasp of reality was shaky — or who stubbornly lived in realities of their own making — as vehicles for psychological exploration and even social criticism. But both Teddy’s mind and the world of Shutter Island are closed, airless systems, illuminated with flashes of virtuosity but with no particular heat, conviction or purpose.”

http://movies.nytimes.com/2010/02/19/movies/19shutter.html

While I was often gripped by the technique in this movie and by the claustrophobic atmosphere of pervading dread, I also felt terribly cheated in the end by the simultaneously overwrought and superficial nature of the screenplay.  I honestly do not understand how people of talent can commit themselves to this kind of childish manipulativeness.

I did catch a few minutes of “After Hours” on television recently also, and that is a well-made, funny movie, one I will watch with pleasure again in the future.  And I watched the entirety of “Raging Bull” again recently, widely regarded as Scorsese’s masterpiece.  Here again, the central character is mainly repulsive, and the fight scenes in this movie are not the masterpieces of realism they are sometimes represented as being.  In fact, they are highly stylized and unrealistic.  The fight scenes in “Hurricane” are considerably better, for example.

“The Last Temptation of Christ” awaits me.

Coincidence in a State of Mourning

My mother, who died on December 3, 2010, was living in a large condominium complex for seniors that also had assisted living services.  I asked the management if I could see what she had put in her storage locker in the basement.

There were two empty suitcases and a box filled with papers.  I would like to have one of the empty suitcases, it would come in handy.  One of the suitcases had a plastic label attached to it that said “Ruby Cohn,” with a San Francisco street address.  When I looked at the papers inside the box, there were several envelopes addressed to “Ruby Cohn” and some literary manuscripts.  I realized that the belongings in the locker assigned to my mother did not belong to my mother, but rather to Ruby Cohn.

I knew a Ruby Cohn in San Francisco.  I asked at the desk to see if this were the Ruby Cohn who had taught French and literature at San Francisco State College, where my father had also taught for a few years before he died in 1964, and it was.  I had a survey course in modern European drama from Ruby Cohn at SF State in the winter of 1967, what would normally have been my last semester at Lowell High, but I graduated early from Lowell and took three courses at SF State instead.  This was one of the best courses I ever had, certainly one of the best lecture courses I ever attended.  I have wonderful memories of Ruby Cohn, who was rumored to have had an affair with Samuel Beckett.  I cannot see or hear about a 20th century European play without thinking of Ruby Cohn.  I ran into her several years later.  She was on her way to the library at U.C. Santa Cruz and I was on my way back.  She was a visiting professor there, I think I remember telling her that I was then a graduate student in Classics at Berkeley, so I don’t know exactly what I was doing at Santa Cruz, where I did my undergraduate work.  But she remembered me well and wished me well, I had got an “A” in her upper division course, I was precocious.

I would very much like to own the suitcase that belonged to Ruby Cohn.  It somehow seems destined that I should own it, since it has been sitting around empty in a locker for 2.5 years.  It appears that Ruby Cohn died while at my mother’s complex just before my mother arrived there.  I had no idea that Cohn had ever been there before visiting the locker, nor do I know what sort of physical condition she had been in.  On the one hand, it is not terribly surprising that an older upper middle-class woman on her own who had lived in San Francisco for many years would live in this facility at the end of her life.  On the other hand, it is surprising that the things I discovered in what was supposed to be my mother’s locker turned out to belong not just to someone I knew, but to someone whose influence on my life was  greater than that of all but a few people.

Whether or not I get the suitcase, because I have asked to have it, I think I will interpret this incident as a sign that I am supposed to be writing imaginative works.  I think that is what Ruby Cohn would have wished for me in my later years of relative leisure.

Brief Eulogy

As already noted on my Facebook page, my mother, Barbara Scodel, died on December 3 at the age of 87.  Her health had been deteriorating seriously for about two years, and she had had three major strokes over the past six years or so.  She was a person of great generosity and joie de vivre who had a rich and varied life.

I am the eldest of four children, and my father died when I was 14.  My mother went back to work after my father’s death and saw all the children through college, something that would have been much more difficult to do in today’s harsher economic climes.  She was a woman on her own with four children, a $20,000 insurance settlement, and perhaps $10,000 equity in a house in 1964.  The University of California university system was almost free in those days.

My three younger siblings and I will all miss my mother.

Something Lost

I have lost my [writer’s] voice.  If I look very hard, will I find it?  There are no guarantees.  I don’t know where I lost it.  It could be anywhere.

My San Francisco Giants win the World Series

I saw all the Giants playoffs games this year, I think, and I do not watch baseball.  The last time I saw this many baseball games was probably in about 1964.  I always tell people that I stopped watching baseball after Willie Mays got traded to the Mets, but I don’t quite know if that’s true.  I don’t really know if that’s the main reason I stopped watching.  I know I was very upset about it.  My father had told me that Willie Mays was the greatest baseball player of all time, and I believed anything he told me.  I copied Mays’s batting stance, including the obligatory number of faux warmup swings before each pitch.

So when did outfielders start to catch with only one hand?  I know that’s been going on for quite a while, but I don’t understand it.  I was taught to balance the glove gently on the off hand, whenever possible.  There’s no conceivable advantage to this one-handed thing, as far as I can tell, unless you’re catching the ball on the run.  I also copied Mays’s underhanded style of catching a routine fly ball.

I watched the World Series on ESPN America.  The color guy was Rick Sutcliffe, who was pretty good, although he did lapse into the apparently obligatory state of baseball-induced chauvinistic corniness on many occasions.  (This new practice of an obligatory rendition of “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch, often by someone connected to the military, is a bit nauseating.)

Sutcliffe was quite critical of Ron Washington’s managing.  In the concluding Game 5, for example, he said that Washington should walk Renteria intentionally when Renteria came to the plate with two men on, and that turned out to be a very good call.  He did that any number of times during the series.  He didn’t like Washington’s management of his bullpen, he thought Lee should have pitched Game 4, he basically really did not understand what Washington was doing.  He would also be very critical of the home plate umpires.  In the penultimate World Series game, he couldn’t figure out what the strike zone was.  That’s a weird thing about baseball, something I really don’t like.

ESPN America is a strange phenomenon.  The only commercials they have are for other programming on ESPN America, so there are a lot of promotions for “Sports Center,” which looks like it has some quite funny bits.  Then there are endless promotions for televised poker. My father was also quite a good poker player, but I have never had the slightest interest in gambling, I don’t really approve of gambling. What I find amusing is the black-and-white commercials that feature chips falling through the air in slow-motion, in freeze-frame, players manipulating chips as though they were Ricky Jay.  Instead of a bunch of obsessive types who are making probability calculations, one would think that a young Robert de Niro is going to screw a young Sharon Stone on the table in these televised poker tournaments.  That might be worth watching.  ESPN America also had endless little nostalgia spots featuring Bob Feller, Jackie Robinson, and Curt Flood (Curt Flood – we’re supposed to be nostalgic about the introduction of free agency?? – they don’t even mention the stolen bases.)

I had never heard of Vladimir Guillermo.  Watching him try to play right field in Game 1 was hilarious.  The bookend to that was hearing that Aubrey Huff laid down his first sacrifice bunt in a 10-year career in last night’s game, a very good bunt, too.  There are certain stats which are now de rigueur that never came up before, at least I don’t remember them:  number of first-pitch strikes thrown by the pitcher, number of hits, runs, and RBI’s with two outs.

Some of these players are whales:  Pablo Sandoval, who I gather was a lot better last year, the catcher Molina, who was a Giant until recently, the Rangers pitcher Hunter.  And Jose Uribe looks like a football player who is going to pull his hamstring at any moment.  It is  very difficult for me to tell why Lincecum is so difficult to hit.  I think one has to have played baseball at a high level in order really to understand this.  I mean, I know all the explanations that people might give, but I still don’t really understand them.  I think you’d have to be standing at the plate, trying to hit the ball, in order really to get it.  The part I really don’t get is how he gets hitters to swing at so many pitches that are not close to being strikes, especially when his fastball is not overpowering.

Before the playoffs started, the only Giants players whose names I knew were Uribe and Zito, who did not play.  It’s amazing that they could win the Series and have so much money sunk into a player who did not play.  I did not know the names of any player on any of the opposing teams prior to the playoffs.  In the old days, I would now know the lifetime stats of most of the hitters on the teams I saw, but you don’t get that anymore.  Now you learn what a hitter did with a 2-1 count and runners in scoring position over the course of the current season.  I think this Moneyball thing has been taken to an absurd extreme.

The thing I like least about baseball is that pitching determines everything and that it seems like one has to be a professional baseball player in order really to appreciate and understand pitching, at least in some instances.  It’s not difficult to understand why Sandy Koufax was hard to hit.

There were some other hilarious moments in the commentary on last night’s game.  Sutcliffe was beside himself in ecstasy because a pitcher congratulated his center fielder for making a fairly routine play.  He could not get over the camaraderie exhibited by Cliff Lee in the dugout in the bottom of the sixth.  This all reminded me of Dick Vitale shouting, “What a great time out by [any Division 1 college coach]!”  America is a strange country with two very strange sports, baseball and football.

Congrats, though, to the Giants and their fans.  I just remember McCovey lining the ball straight into the glove of Bobby Richardson, that ball was just creamed, 1962.  That was how the Giants lost the Series in Game 7 that year.  I probably did not recover for days.  It is fifty-six years since the Giants last won the Series, just a few years before I would have started playing and was introduced to the church of Willie Mays.

As Mideast peace talks recommence…

Here is something I wrote for the bloggingheadstv fora about ten weeks ago, just after the flotilla incident.  The post attracted a certain amount of praise, so I am putting it here also, as I probably should have done at the outset.

The blockade is not just collective punishment. It is collective punishment that may or may not be intended to elicit a particular reaction in the residents of Gaza, namely to oust Hamas, to take collective action to eliminate military and terrorist actions against Israel, and to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

But there are two possibilities here. One is that there is no such intention to elicit reactions, and in this case Israel’s announced desire for peace with the Palestinians and a two-state solution is disingenuous. The other possibility is that it is sincere, but misguided, because who, in his right mind, thinks that the Gazan population is going to be worn down to such an extent by Israel’s blockade and occupation without occupation that the ostensible desired political goals would be achieved? No people with even a minority of committed political actors who wish to retain their human dignity is going to give into this sort of blackmail, and, as I pointed out previously, the Jews of Europe ought to know this as well, or better, than any people. So the policy is either stupid and misguided, or it is dishonest. And my guess is that it is a mixture of these two things, it’s both at once, but that is small comfort to those of us who really want a two-state solution (please, Wonderment, don’t chime in here on cue, I know your views).

However, at the current moment the balance of power in Israel is with those for whom the stated goals of the occupation without occupation are disingenuous. But I’m not too sure, in this instance, what the proponents of the policy are really after. They are going to grind people down militarily until what, exactly? I don’t think even they know. Maybe it’s just a way of temporizing until the world is so overwhelmed by its other incalculably great problems that this festering sore just becomes a minor annoyance. And in this sense, the problem is analogous to America’s historical race problem, because clearly in the early 1960’s there were lots of white Southerners who thought the problem would eventually go away, that there was a legal/military solution that would be in favor of separate but equal.

The Israelis are on the wrong side of history here. Everyone seems to know this, except for the Israelis and the Americans. But the Americans will come to know it, they are coming to know it now.

So as we throw up our hands in despair, and the Eli’s of the world demand that Israel have a serious and reputable partner for peace on the Palestinian side which recognizes Israel’s right to survive as a Jewish state in the region,
the Heathers of the world just reply that, yes, it would be nice to eliminate the most radical elements on the Palestinian side and to be left only with those who are realistic and will accept the continued existence of the Jewish state in their midst, run by descendants of the people who stole their land, but that’s not going to happen, so Israel had better find another way of addressing the problem than the military way.

This problem has been complicated infinitely by Israel’s settlement policy. Every goddam person in the world knows this. Eli talks about the painful steps Israel took to dismantle some settlements in Gaza. That’s not enough, Eli, not nearly enough. The USA has sat by and watched Israel annex ever more land on the West Bank, it has a declared policy of saying that the settlements are either illegal or “unhelpful,” but in the end it does nothing. So if the USA wants peace there, and a two-state solution, it has to try to force Israel to take yet more painful steps, and either start dismantling settlements on the West Bank, instead of expanding them, or make it clear that some of those settlements are coming down in a final disposition of things. It’s that simple. Yes, that will be difficult politically, but tough.

Anyone who doubts the veracity of what I am saying can listen to a recent speech given by James Baker III to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, at foratv or on youtube. This is James Baker we’re talking about, not Noam Chomsky.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=a0_0TFVUnlA

But hey, what does James Baker know, when compared with Victor Davis Hanson, or Rush Limbaugh, or Eli fucking Lake?

Israel’s strategic error has been to think that it could expand territorially and win its political struggle with the Palestinians militarily. At first, the expansion of settlements was probably thought of as a bargaining chip. Settlements would come down in a final settlement. The problem is that the policy got away from the Israelis, so that now dismantling West Bank settlements is, in fact, going to be extremely painful and difficult for Israel politically. What Israel ought to have done, and must still try to do, is to make it clear that it wants to make amends, that it will accept a final disposition that the EU, for example, would regard as just. It must regain the moral high ground in order to marginalize the Palestinian extremists. It cannot do this by offering a cantonized hodge-podge of territories to the Palestinians, that’s simply impossible. Israel’s entire problem has been that it has come to be dominated by the “peace through strength” crowd, every concession made in advance is regarded as a debilitating sign of weakness. It is true that peace through weakness is not a good strategy. Here, the problem is that peace through strength has been misinterpreted, and Israel cannot possibly win its struggle for survival if it continues on the path it is on. It is simply too small, and will be too isolated in the world, nuclear arsenal or not. The best parallel here is, in fact, South Africa.

Conversation about aging and mortality

The following recorded conversation about aging and mortality resulted from the friendships that formed in an online chat group ostensibly devoted to the NBA professional basketball team, the Golden State Warriors.  So this is something that has come from my participation in the online experience.

I have always lived under the shadow of death, because my father died at a young age very suddenly.  This summer has imposed the reality of mortality yet more upon my consciousness.  The kind of conversation that occurs here should be much more common than it is.

The recording I am citing begins with an excursion into astrology.  Those who are not astrologically disposed can skip straight to the interview segment.  The broadcast may not be available at no cost much longer.

www.blogtalkradio.com/freeassociationradio/2010/07/29/the-daily-farcast-with-robert-phoenix-special-edition

California’s same-sex marriage decision

I have now read Judge Walker’s decision in California (documents.nytimes.com/us-district-court-decision-perry-v-schwarzenegger?ref=us), and I think I conceded far too much in a recent online colloquy with someone in the blogginheadstv fora who was opposing same-sex marriage, primarily on the grounds that heterosexual marriage has been the preferred means for achieving the state’s interest in perpetuating or increasing its population.

According to evidence offered in the case, 18% of same-sex couples in California are raising children, a much higher percentage than I had imagined.  The male couple plaintiffs say that they want to be married prior to starting a family.

According to evidence offered by plaintiffs, there is a body of social scientific work that demonstrates that children raised by same-sex couples are as well-adjusted as those raised by heterosexual couples.  The State of CA offered no evidence on this question, and the proponents of Proposition 8 offered only evidence which compared childred raised by two parents of the opposite sex with children raised by single parents or divorced parents, but in no case with children raised by two parents of the same sex.

On the question of whether California’s domestic partnership classification satisfies the desires of same-sex couples to marry, the judge is unequivocal in saying that it does not.  The domestic partnership classification is simply an invidious form of discrimination.

On the question of whether the discrimination felt by gays and lesbians is overstated, not just in the past, but recently (as the entire Proposition 8 campaign apparently demonstrated – I was not in California to witness it), the judge was equally unequivocal in rejecting claims that the extent and degree of such discrimination are overstated, at least in the US.

In his legal conclusions, Walker states that, “Proponents did not, however, advance any reason why the government may use sexual orientation as a proxy for fertility or why the government may need to take into account fertility when legislating.”

No evidence was offered to the effect that same-sex marriage reduces the rate of marriage or the fertility rate among heterosexual couples.  I am myself somewhat skeptical about this lack of evidence, because we know that people have children within heterosexual couples and subsequently become gay or lesbian.  Presumably, some subset of gays and lesbians will eschew the earlier stage of heterosexual relationships entirely, and the bearing of children within them, if same-sex marriage is available to them.  On the other hand, their hypothetical heterosexual partners might find other partners with whom to procreate, and some lesbian couples will bear biological children, so the effect of same-sex marriage on the fertility rate could be minimal.  Looking at the matter of a nation’s fertility rate in an a priori way, an argument can be made that any effect of the introduction of same-sex marriage on a nation’s fertility would be nil or very slight.  In principle, the fertility rate could even increase, for the reasons noted.  The real danger here, the imagined one, is that heterosexuals will be converted to the “gay lifestyle”, that people who would otherwise be expected to marry heterosexually and have children will not, because of the introduction of same-sex marriage.  Another possible danger is that the divorce rate among same-sex couples would exceed that of heterosexual couples and thus further undermine the claim of marriage to contribute to the stability of society and of the way in which the state’s interest in perpetuating its population expresses itself.  But the opposite result is also equally conceivable, that the divorce rate among married same-sex couples will be lower than that among heterosexual couples.  In fact, I would expect this to be the case, at least for some initial period.

The tenor of the decision lends credence to my hypothesis that more children would be adopted, in the aggregate, if same-sex marriage were available.   Plaintiffs, including the City and County of San Francisco, also offered a lot of economic evidence that tends to demonstrate advantages to the state of allowing same-sex marriage.  Reduction of crime is not offered as such a reason, however.

I find it virtually inconceivable that Scalia, Thomas, Alito, or Roberts will vote in favor of same-sex marriage.   Kennedy may be more in play than I have estimated.  It will be interesting to see whether the conservatives emphasize the fertility criterion, and, if they do, how they do so.

A recent CNN poll cited by Frank Rich in his NYT column of August 15, 2010, found that 52% of Americans favor a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

www.nytimes.com/2010/08/15/opinion/15rich.html?ref=frankrich

Judge Walker is very clear, however, that the question before us is not one that can be subjected to plebiscite, but is one of fundamental constitutional rights that can have nothing to do with elections or polls or the absolute number of citizens whose fundamental rights are being denied.  So two things are true for my interlocutor, that the majority opposes same-sex marriage and that there is no widespread discrimination against gays and lesbians.  But the first true thing may not be true and would not be relevant, even if it were true, and the second supposedly true thing is false.

Having read the decision, I am more confident than I had been that none of the four liberal Supreme Court justices will vote against gay marriage.  Therefore, it really is up to Kennedy, in my view.   I don’t know how the conservative justices will frame their opposition, but I am sure that they will find a way.