Saturday, October 26, 2002

Paul Wellstone

Paul Wellstone

amongst the many sincere tributes paid to the late senator paul wellstone were interspersed various short clips of his remarks over the years showing his passion and committment to the issues he believed in. in one of those clips he reiterated his intent to stand alone in the senate if voting in the majority meant going against his convictions. in the other he expressed his gratitude to the many of his constituents who he said had come up to him after his nay vote on the iraq resolution to pledge their support for his independence of judgment even as they disagreed with that particular vote.

the image of senator wellstone held here is the one he celebrated in those remarks, that of the, sometimes lone, dissenter speaking on c-span in the senate well, empty except for him and the stenographer. it is an image shared by others as well. platitudinous euolgies aside, it apparently was hard to dislike wellstone, his convictions being so obviously and sincerely held and his personality so generous of spirit. his opponent, former st.paul mayor norm coleman, decided on what here seemed a brilliant, and the only potentially successful, strategy to unseat him. our virtues are our vices and wellstone's principled virtue had the concommitant of ineffectiveness if not irrelevance.

this race, already closely watched for it's effect on control of the senate, shone a spotlight more than most on the politician's existential dilemma, the ancient dialectic in representative politics between voting one's independent judgment and voting one's constituency's desires. these are often short-handed as being "principled" and "pandering" which is why coleman's campaign slogan probably wasn't "to get along, i'll go along," but that view is short-sighted as well as short-handed. there is no formula that tells politicians when to do one and when to do the other.

the case for the "principled" position was most famously laid out by edmund burke in his "speech to the electors of bristol" in 1774 when he was campaiging for a seat in parliament. he offered in himself:

"unbiased opinion, mature judgement, and enlightened conscience. parliament is a DELIBERATIVE
assembly of ONE nation, with ONE interest, that of the whole, where, not local purposes, not
local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole."
[emphasis in original]

courageous. wise. principled. would that we had leaders like him today. the electors of bristol could have had him but there weren't enough of wellstone's selfless norwegians about and they decided against it. burke lost, presumably to someone more biased, less mature and less enlightened, but guided more by local prejudices.

the countervailing view is the realpolitik of harold lasswell, the title of his most important work perfectly expressing his view of where the emphasis in politics should be.: "politics, who gets what, when, how." why is this considered a crass view compared to that of burke? if england had wanted a parliament of m.p.'s elected nationally it could have had it. it chose instead to have representatives run from different geographical units. why shouldn't they vote "local prejudices?"

wellstone's minnesota twin, hubert humphrey, had no difficulty explaining his preference for lasswell over burke when he said, contrasting himself with michael dukakis, "dukakis doesn't care if shit come out of the pipes so long as the pipes are nice and shiny. i don't care what the pipes look like so long as the right thing comes out."

but if one only votes one's constituency's desires then another kind of irrelevance is produced, that of the non-thinking scribe who simply records his masters wishes. there's a name for that too, it's called direct democracy and it's mechanism is not the election but the referendum.

our founding fathers had deep misgivings about too much democracy. the electoral college was to be a serious buffer between popular preference and selection of the president. wellstone's senate was to be exclusively appointive, the better to ensure a critical mass of "unbiased opinion, mature judgement and enlightened conscience," or, to provide a sinecure for those who couldn't get elected to the mean house of representatives.

these then are the politician's scylla and charybdis. for most, there's a "heads i win tails you lose" quality to their approach to the problem. agricultural subsidies for example, are not pandering; they're "preserving the family farm," true if the families involved are named archer, daniels or midland, while the REAL pork is that which exists in other members public works projects.

for some politicians though, predominantly those of the fevered brow on right and left alike, there's "courage" in tilting at windmills and statesmanship in 99-1 votes. that is proof of their burkean independence. what it is also proof of is their subconscious desire to avoid the responsibility of power. take extreme enough positions and you'll never be in a position to make a tough decision, call it what you will.

wellstone was a smart man and a professor of politics. he recognized the collegial if not deliberative nature of the senate early in his first term and toned down his personal criticisms of his political foes, like jesse helms. but coleman's campaign strategy still had traction as the polls say. the point is not that wellstone was right or wrong on all those lopsided votes but whether a senator so out of the maistream can be effective in representing his constituents interests.

how to resolve this conundrum? obviously it can't be resolved and the position advanced here is that there is no disquiet in that realization. everyone is confronted with important decisions in life, to marry, to procreate, to choose a career path. these are vexing moments but their cumulative effect is to sculpt out of an amorphous granite slab of potentiality the individual character of each of us. sometims we regret the decisions we have made but we come to realize that we are the sum of those choices. if we have put sincere effort into making the decisions that is enough. we learn that often there is no one right answer, no one person who is to be our soulmate, no one career. there are many. there are many truths.

most admirable are those who constantly reach higher even if their grasp is sometimes exceeded. politicians do that, as do police officers, judges, proecutors and fire-rescue personel. they put themselves in positions to extend the existential dilemmas that are thrust on them in their personal lives to decisions involving the lives of other people. not many of us have the courage to do that.

-benjamin harris

Friday, October 18, 2002


what if someone from, say, the 18th century could be transported to the 21st century and see all the technology we have? what if that person were someone like benjamin franklin who would have some understanding of the basic science behind it all? imagine his awe at radio, television, the internet. imagine walking with him down a new york city street and watching his amazement at the cars going by and the jets overhead.

now imagine that you turn a corner on that street and duck into a gold's gym for a quick workout...

what would he think? picture the scene from his perspective: muscular men strenuously lifting, pushing and pulling...something, but to no apparent purpose, not building anything, not moving objects from one place to another. also women running IN PLACE on moving surfaces and climbing contrived stairs. "are these people slaves?" "is it a penal colony?" "an insane asylum?" "is it the sisyphian nightmare come alive?" more importantly, how would we explain it to him?

anthropologically, deconstructing the gym's raison d'etre proves nettlesome. the usual rationales are health benefits and as counterweight to our otherwise sedentary lives.

however, weight-lifting is hardly the ideal form of exercise for either short-term or long-term fitness. it does little for the heart and has some not insignificant risk of injury. it certainly does not compare with, say, swimming in it's ability to make the body slimmer, sleeker and more supple. those of us who lift weights exclusively are likely to be humbled if we take a friend up on an invitation to run a 10k race, for example.

if it's a more aerobic workout we want, why pay the price to join a gym to use a treadmill when there's a street right outside? why use a stairmaster when you could bypass the elevator at home and work and climb, like, real stairs?

further, the muscles built in weight-lifting are utterly useless. they're rather like the shrinking, withering hindlegs of creatures who have evolved from land-dwelling to sea-dwelling beings. there is no plausible retirement scenario that we are preparing ouselves for by lifting weights. we are not going to be spending our golden years in the construction industry nor, hopefully, in slavery or prison.

the counterweight-to-the-desk-job rationale doesn't hold either. the sheer purposelessness of the activity that would confound an 18th century observer is not consistent with that explanation. we could get similar exercise in the above-mentioned construction industry or, more philanthropically, in habitat-for-humanity or similar public service activities. we could volunteer to do menial municipal improvement jobs like picking up trash along the streets or planting trees or painting buildings.

the gym gesellschaft is also predominantly an american phenomenon. there are comparatively very few home-grown gyms in europe, that is, those not affiliated with hotels and other tourist centers. to even call it a phenomenon, implying a fad, is not true. gyms became popular in the early '70's. that's over thirty years, making them more fixture than fad.

their popularity correlates with the entry of the first of the baby-boomers into their thirties. but it is not just a boomer obsession either. generation x'ers and y'ers have followed their elders to the point that working out is de riguer, and even those much older, those in their sixties and over, are a visible presence in any large gym.

none of these factors individually or together accounts for the prevalence of the gym in american life. the position advanced here is that it is a manifestation, perhaps a trite manifestation, of the american soul, one distinct from the european. comparatively, americans are a faster-paced, harder working, more ambitious people than are europeans. any visitor from one place to the other notices the difference. a slovakian yuppie remarked on how the american idea of morning coffee is as likely to be a cup in the car on the way to work while she was accustomed to the more leisurely, "civilized" cafe moment before starting her day.

americans work harder, play harder and more relentlessly pursue their goals which, rightly or wrongly, are wealth and beauty. europeans put a greater emphasis on "quality of life" factors. thus, europeans exercise to stay fit. americans exercise to become beautiful. europeans walk much more than americans do. walking will keep you fit but it will not make you beautiful. bulging biceps and pectorals may be as useful as fins on a cow but they are considered attractive so men strive for them. cellulite on a woman's thighs or buttocks has zero health implications but is considered unslightly so they strive to get rid of it.

plastic surgery is the first cousin of the gym. the vast majority of americans will have some sort of appearance-enhancement procedure done sometime in their lives. orthodontic work is so common now as to be a teenage rite of passage. crooked teeth are simply unacceptable. having perfect white teeth has become a european caricature of americans. a friend told of her flirtatious encounter with a couple of discolored/crooked-toothed european men in a bar. "i bet you brush your teeth every day," one said teasingly. "sometimes twice," replied my friend, in revulsion.

orthodontics, teeth bleaching, liposuction, breast enhancement, hair replacement, face lifts--all of these are part of the american landscape. they certainly make for an edgier, more unforgiving landscape. my wife, like i, firmly ensconsed in middle age, just returned from paris where she reported there was an obviously broader range of that which is considered beautiful. she saw men in their fifties and sixties, well-dressed, well-coiffed, slim, oh, maybe a little belly, but still handsome even to women in their twenties and thirties. it's a valid point. americans, men and women, often hit the panic button at passing one of the markers that indicate removal from that cohort identified as "young adult:" child-birth, the big four-0, balding, graying, the onset of the paunch. that's when you see the desperate lunging back for the accoutrements of youth: a new, sexier car in place of the old one; a new, sexier wife in place of the old one.

nonetheless, the crass behavior mentioned above is just the inevitable frayed edge of an otherwise strong fabric. there is an elan vital in america that is not as prevalent in europe. effort, whether in work or play, is prized more. the goal of beauty, like that of truth, may be a chimera but to strive to make oneself better is not a fool's chase but the best of the human spirit. maybe franklin, france's favorite american, would understand. as he put it in poor richard's almanack, "no gains without pain."

-benjamin harris

Sunday, October 06, 2002

"The Importance of Being Earnest"

"The Importance of Being Earnest"

last night i came upon a recording of the william tell overture on my car radio. the passion and energy of the piece were stirring but, my knowledge of classical music being limited, i didn't know that the composer was giacchino rossini. i remembered back to a lecture i had heard a few years ago by professor robert greenberg, himself a composer.

in his survey course of western music greenberg hardly had an uncharitable word to say about any composer. i know because i listened carefully, trying to get that little bit of discerning knowledge that would allow me to sound educated if the topic ever came up: "oh yes, the canon is delightful listening but pachabel really wrote much better stuff." things like that. greenberg actually said that too but the only other time i can recall him saying anything critical was in his comments on rossini.

rossini was a composer of preternatural talent, obvious to even a novice like myself upon hearing something like the william tell. he composed some of the most memorable operas of his or any other time and achieved fame and fortune in italian society. and then he stopped. just stopped composing altogether and for the rest of his life enjoyed la dolce vita.

greenberg said that most composers feel the need to compose as an essential form of self-expression, the abandonment of which being inconceivable. he said something like, one has to wonder about so talented an artist in so intense and expressive a field who can just give it up for a life of leisure.

this is the dialectic between talent and effort. we all know its manifestations. the person who loses interest in something as soon as he or she achieves a certain level of competence thereby abjuring any possibility of excellence; the student who has the term paper written "in my head" but who avoids putting pen to paper.

this conflict is actually rare in the arts, as far as i know. renoir turned his back on efforts to pursue the intellectual breakthroughs of impressionism for better-paying, pleasing, pastel, ultimately banal portraiture, reproductions of which today grace the offices and apartments of vacous young women desiring the patina of refinement, but the popular image of artists anyway is that of the obsessed, almost mad creative genius working until he can work no more. one thinks of van gogh, hemingway, and the deathbed scenes of beethoven shaking his fist at the thunder outside his window and mozart dictating composition.

perhaps equally rare but more publicized are the instances where the conflict occurs in the sports world. every college football yearbook contains the same coaches praise for the scrubs: "i wish everyone on this team practised as hard as larry lardass." nothing gets more praise than hard work, especially when it doesn't count. that's playing the game "the right way." that's the spirit of devotion to team. that's also the fate of those doomed to play the position of "left out."

talent is the athletic coin-of-the-realm. you're only going to get significant p.t. if you can "shoot the rock" or hit the ball or run a 4.39 40. coaches like to say that that stuff can't be taught, which suggests that those who have it don't have to go to class.

occasionally that's what happens. occassionally there's the star player who just can't make it to practice or practices in a desultory fashion when he does show. this frequenly leads to extreme coaching angst.

what did larry brown do to deserve allen iverson? was it the powder-blue polyester jumpsuit he used to wear while coaching in the '70's? c'mon. enough already. iverson is a punk-bitch, a narcissistic mamma's boy whose career options aside from basketball were the department of solid waste and selling crack. but he's a punk-bitch with jets, and therein lies brown's existential crisis.

on his induction into the basketball hall of fame brown extolled the virtues of playing the game "the right way." for brown, skipping practice or going through the motions is a blasphemy against the almighty, dean smith. brown's soul is torn, his basketball spirit haunted by the sybarite wearing #3. It may yet cause his resignation from the '76er's or the trading of iverson.

which would be a shame because playing the game of basketball "the right way" ultimately means scoring more points than the other team, nothing else. that's why brown was hired. that's why iverson was drafted. it's the game of life that iverson fails at and that is what brown should rue. but he needs to keep them seperate.

most coaches recognize this distinction, consciously or not. they paper over the personal shortcomings of their players which is why few situations approach the epic tragedy
of the brown-iverson dance of death. at the other extreme is, or was, jimmy johnson. he had disdain for the adage that coaches must treat all players the same, never showing favoritism. emmitt smith could practice or not and never would be heard a discouraging word from the jimmer as long as emmitt performed on sundays. but let larry lardass take a lap in practice and j.j. would see to it that the barcelona dragons had a new addition to their roster.

johnson's soul was not torn by the sometime conflict between talent and effort. if he ever had a soul he probably sold it long ago for one of his three rings. and that is one way of doing one's work in life. win. make the most money. and retire to la dolce vita, or the upper keys.

but for those, like brown, who work and still have souls the conflict is there. one can sympathize with his struggle while still seeing it as unnecessary. the two, the worldly and the spiritual, are seperate. larry brown rightly renders unto ceasar what is ceasar's when he plays allen iverson. he should celebrate iverson's performances and the fame and fortune that they bring him. but he is right also to feel that an athletic ethos and the human spirit are violated by such a man. brown should not disrespect either as johnson did with his indulgence of the talented but insolent. he should show his disdain for iverson the person. the most embarrasing photo of brown is not the one of him in the powder-blue jumpsuit. it's the one of iverson sitting on his lap when he was named mvp. brown should say something like, "allen is the best player in the game and i will play him as long as he performs but we are not soulmates. i hope allen grows but i doubt he will and when he leaves this game he will have his trophies but nothing else." arright, that's not very memorable but something like that.

we are all self-contained spiritual entities. we are fulfilled and honor our place in the grand scheme by effort. there is no god to please or displease, no heaven to strive for nor hell to avoid. the human spirit is about striving. why climb everest? because it is there, george mallory said. in the protestant ethic, work is it's own reward. for the hindus the state of grace is reached by the striving not the attainment. it is this spirit that is violated by rossini and iverson and johnson and renoir.

the western canon would be impoverished without rossini's operas as would basketball without iverson's play, but the human spirit is diminished by them both.

-benjamin harris.