Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Speaking Truth to Power by Anita Hill

Anita Hill changed everything. Harassment in the workplace, whether sexual or not, became instantly recognizable, and everyone could see instances of it in their own lives or in those of their colleagues. Hill’s testimony was a watershed from a moment in time when even senators did not know what sexual harassment was to a time when we all could recount instances of pressure in the workplace, even men. An easily imaginable scenario is one where a family man takes a job where he is supposed to spend considerable after-work time with colleagues who prefer drunken forays to strip clubs. Either get along or get sidelined. This is harassment. It is difficult to prove and damaging to one’s reputation, which is why no one wants to bring it up.

Sexual harassment, of course, involves power relationships and the suggestion of sexual favors in return for job security or advancement. I defy any woman ready to retire who has not seen or experienced instances of sexual harassment in their working lifetimes. Sexual harassment is not over, but it is recognized now for what it is. The thing is, Anita Hill never signed up for exposing a truth and educating the world. She never wanted to talk about it after she removed herself from the job she had working with Clarence Thomas and—this is the first place I feel her pain so keenly—talked herself into accepting a job away from the power positions on the East coast doing something she’d initially had no interest in doing: teaching commercial law in a religious-affiliated law school…in Oklahoma. Oh, I hear that.

This book was published in October 1997, six years after Hill testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the confirmation hearings of now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Despite being terribly impressed with what appeared to be Hill’s calm composure during the hearings, I was still unprepared for the knock-it-out-of-the-park clarity, coherence, and completeness of the entirety of Hill’s experience before, during and after that time.

Hill came from a very centered and closely-knit family with strong religious beliefs. She reminds us as she recounts her family’s history how close slavery is to us now. Her great-grandmother, Alice Elliott, died in 1939 just before the Second World War. She was the last of the family to have experienced slavery first-hand. The statements Anita Hill gave about Clarence Thomas threatened her closeness with her community because she was speaking out against the actions of a black man, something which threatened, in the minds of many, perceptions of the race as a whole. Hill’s religious beliefs were put to the test:
“Even religion turned against me, or I should say was turned against me…[some] purporting to speak for the church or God or both advised me to confess my sins, or worse, condemned me to “burn in hell” for my sin of testifying. Before long a few voices, speaking on behalf of a church or religion, would attempt to console me for the experience I had endured, but not before I had grown to distrust the church, if not religion itself.”


Hill completely and eloquently answers all attacks on her testimony and on her person, laying to rest accusations that she was a “lier” [sic]. She was at the center of a storm for many years following her testimony, and had to live through that as well as the turmoil of a Senate hearing. She worked at the University of Oklahoma Law School where some of the funding for her law school and for an endowed chair being set up in her name was being held back by detractors in the Oklahoma state government. The endowed chair was defunded in 1999, never having filled the seat. By that time, Ms. Hill had moved to New England to teach at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. She is there now, teaching Anti-Discrimination Law and Policy (Gender and Race).

This past month Anita Hill’s experience was brought again to my attention, first when Charles P. Pierce, the edgy political commentator for Esquire magazine, suggested that Republicans reluctant to vote on Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy might prefer Anita Hill to fill the vacancy. First I laughed, then I wondered... This month also the HBO made-for-TV movie on the Clarence Thomas hearings was announced. Not being able to view HBO, I wasn’t able to see it, but I did look for the 2013 documentary film called Anita, which goes through some of the withering un-lawyerly questioning by the senate committee and shows Ms. Hill’s steadfastness under pressure. There is also a section which gives some later context to her career, her marriage, and the work in which she is currently engaged. She has a new book on an important topic, called Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home (Beacon Press, 2011), which combines two areas of law which she has taught: the book looks at commercial and anti-discrimination law combined with an examination of culture and society to address the 2008 foreclosure crisis and its ongoing impact.

Anita Hill changed everything. Now even senators know what sexual harassment is.



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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Angela Merkel: The Authorized Biography by Stefan Kornelius

I like authorized biographies. We get spin and opinion from journalists all the time when analyzing a leader’s record, and often those journalists are judging from the outside what a leader is thinking. Here we have a writer who has a bit of access and can ask straightforward questions and get reasons for why a leader would choose one path over another. There may be some self-serving spin on the leader’s part, but many times the outcomes of decisions are not immediately known—it takes some time for them to play out in the European theatre—so we are looking at decision-making and rationale. Those are useful in judging the record of a leader.

Kornelius knew Merkel since she got her first political job as spokesperson for the East German Democratic Awakening Party in 1989, before it was eventually absorbed into the West German Christian Democratic Union (CDU). He reports on foreign policy for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. This authorized biography felt constrained and thin to this outsider at the start when we are unsure whether or not to trust the author’s perceptions. After Merkel’s election as Chancellor in 2005, however, Kornelius uses his experience watching events in Europe to sketch dynamic relationships as they unfolded, adding government rationale and commentary on public reactions. Many of the relationships and people discussed in this 2013 book are still in office, making it absolutely relevant.
It is commonly held opinion that years of crisis are good years for chancellors.
Merkel’s first term saw the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers the year before the general election, and from then on her main preoccupation would be the economy, the stability of the banks, the survival of a single currency, and a whole range of political issues that went with the euro crisis. Merkel’s approach to saving the banking system (tighten money supply) appeared to be opposite to what the Americans wanted to do (loosen money supply), and in fact there was a moment when Obama’s financial policy team led by then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Geithner almost derailed Merkel’s attempt to orchestrate a response to the Greek debt crisis.

Merkel believes in American exceptionalism, and firmly believes in the necessity for the U.S. to involve itself redressing imbalances in the world power structure: she finds the notion of Russian or Chinese overreach troubling because their autocratic systems are not as free. However, she did not go along with the intervention in Libya (Germany abstained from the U.N. vote) because she “viewed the rebel movement in Libya and the rest of the Arab world with skepticism…She thought the political currents in these countries gave no clear indication of their likely future character as states.” Kornelius calls this decision one of the worst foreign policy blunders in her career. I wonder what he would say now, when in America the decision to intervene in Libya, urged by Hillary Clinton, is now considered one of the most ill-considered decisions of Obama’s two terms.

Israel has a special place in Merkel’s list of countries important to Germany. She has felt their tied histories deeply, acknowledges a historical responsibility to the state of Israel and its “Jewish character,” and recognizes Israel’s place as a religious center for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. She has been a strong supporter of a two-state solution and when such an idea collapsed under Netanyahu’s decision to continue building new settlements on disputed land, she has distanced herself from that administration. “Relations cooled.”

A discussion of Merkel’s relationship with Putin reveals a refusal to be bullied, each by the other. It is a relationship of uneasy balance, and wary distrust. Merkel had hopes for a Medvedev government, only to have her hopes collapse at the handover back to Putin. Merkel opposed Ukraine and Georgia being a part of NATO early in her chancellorship, despite heavy lobbying by the George W. Bush administration. She could see weakness in the governments there, unresolved conflict, and a fiscally-tied closeness to the Russian regime that spelled future trouble. The decision to refuse NATO status to Georgia under Saakachvili turned out to be a good one since three months later Saakachvili was testing Russian mettle and being soundly beaten for it.
At the top of Merkel’s scale of values is freedom… “Freedom is the joy of achievement, the flourishing of the individual, the celebration of difference, the rejection of mediocrity, personal responsibility.” …Now, after over seven years as Chancellor, freedom is more than ever the leitmotiv if her foreign policy.

The debt crisis in Europe tested not only the financial structures but the political ones as well. It called into question the nature of the European union. One possibility was for the EU to become, in essence, a United States of Europe, or a European superstate where power is transferred to Brussels. Another possibility was a union that worked in parallel with the EU, where states keep existing treaties and conclude new ones with each other and solve problems (labor laws, tax laws, budgets, social security) though intergovernmental solutions. Merkel believed it better for individual states to retain their sovereignty and coordinate with others. The social models and national sensitivities in member states were too different to allow for a single solution in these areas.

But Merkel still firmly believes that globalization will sweep away individual states unless there is a new European economic order that allows Europe is to get “big” enough as a bloc to be able to compete with other huge economies. Her suggestion that there be more unity and control within the EU involved a new system of economic supervision, a Council, which would be a chamber to advise on and structure a program of individual state economic reform with heads of government. It is an ambitious suggestion that perhaps only someone like Merkel would make, with her step-by-step solution to problems.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TIIP) with the United States currently under scrutiny once again is another thing Merkel has been keen to finalize, despite hot debate in Germany. “Globalization” is a concept that was begun in the 1990’s and its efficacies have been called into question during the 2016 election in the United States. Merkel's solutions for addressing weaknesses in Europe's position vis-à-vis a program of globalization may be enough to keep the system from being swept away wholesale, but it is clear she needs the stabilization of powerful economies like Britain to keep the system stable, to say nothing of her firm belief that cooperation will be more beneficial than each country trying to stand alone.

Merkel’s low key style does not highlight the important place Germany has assumed in the years since she became Chancellor. The turmoil surrounding the Syrian migrant crisis was not addressed in this book but is sure to be part of Merkel’s legacy. Merkel has said that she does not want another term, though there are no term limits on chancellorships and her predecessors often stayed for up to 16 years. It is always hard to imagine who could follow a figure who has assumed such stature.

Kornelius did a good job covering a lot of ground. His book is just one of many needed to get a grip on the wide range of topics covered in this book. A lot happens in ten years and Kornelius wisely limited his scope to the crises in Europe which were in the forefront. I expect we will have many more detailed portraits of Merkel's time in office to come. Translated by Anthea Bell and Christopher Moncrieff under aegis of the Goethe Institute, this work was originally published in German by Hoffman and Campe Verlag in 2013. This translation, based on a revised German text including the additional chapter "The British Problem," was first published by Alma Books Limited in 2013. The book is also available as an eBook.


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Monday, April 25, 2016

The Thicket by Joe R. Lansdale

Joe Lansdale has published at least 45 novels and 30 short story collections, sometimes two or three books a year (!), as he did in 2012, according to Wikipedia. Some of these may be reprints of old favorites because it is difficult to imagine someone publishing quality fiction at that rate. But quality fiction is what I would call this 2013 novel. A young boy, his sister, and his grandad traveling north to Kansas from East Texas in the early part of the twentieth century find themselves at the mercy of a band of marauding cut-throats.

In what may be a signature trait of this author, a reader enjoys the company of what we call “unusual characters” who at the same time represent the kind of resilience, humor, and abiding sense of humanity that once was assigned to heroes in Greek mythology. Race is an persistent subject of discussion in Lansdale’s novels and nearly every novel has at least one vital character who speaks out eloquently on race relations in America. Eustace is a principled black man of nearly unequaled trustworthiness and equanimity—except when he drinks: then he cannot be trusted by man nor beast. This novel also ruminates on whoredom (Jimmie Sue) and the inequities of perception that result from other physical differences, like dwarfism (Shorty). There is a wild hog, too, who is accepted for what he is and how he is. Hog is a valued member of a select community.

“To some extent I find sin like coffee. When I was young and had my first taste of it I found it bitter and nasty, but later on I learned to like it by putting a little milk in it, and then I learned to like it black. Sin is like that. You sweeten it a little with lies and then you get so you can take it straight.”


Despite the graphic sense of brutality that reigned in the West during the period depicted in this novel, the most enduring sentiment in Lansdale’s novel is that of humor: the author counters each act of senseless brutality by heaping abuse on the perpetrator, either through description or through the mouths of his more restrained characters, even to the point of characters musing on the nature of man and the “why” of extreme violence. There is no answer to the “why,” Lansdale concludes. It makes no sense no how. Good may triumph over evil, but it ain’t always a sure thing. One has to puzzle out for oneself a sense of what is good and hold onto one’s own values to make the world into what we wish to see.

"…Fatty was, in his own way, as dangerous as any Comanche. He was just mean as a snake for no other reason than it pleased him; all those men who had been with were like that, and I wondered then what made a man that way. I didn’t come up with any answers."


I listened to the Hachette Audio production of this novel, beautifully narrated by Will Collier, and highly recommend this method of consumption. Collier makes each individual unique, and Shorty’s accent and manner of speaking elevates his thinking to philosophy. One becomes so attached to the characters in this book we forgive them most of their more egregious transgressions and miss them when we do not see them for a couple of pages. I was terrified Eustace “bought the farm” in the last shoot-out, and waited anxiously for word of him, that drunken cuss.
He did get the farm, after all, where he struck oil just as autos were becoming the norm.


There are few folks who can pull off a western these days, and the beauty of Lansdale’s writing is that he doesn’t idealize the turn-of-the-twentieth-century life in the west. It was a lawless, racist, sexist place where one was often at the mercy of men stronger and crueler. But when good people band together, they can often accomplish much, and create the kind of environment in which they want to live. It means a great deal to me that Lansdale reflects us back at ourselves, and shows us possible paths out of the thicket.

Lansdale’s books have spawned an industry: several movies and TV series, as well as graphic novels, have come out of his stories. A new publishing company, Pandi Press, is involved in republishing earlier Lansdale work now out of print. Among the books Lansdale is best known for are the Hap and Leonard series of nine books, featuring a white blue collar war protestor and a gay black Vietnam vet. The Sundance Channel has apparently recently premiered a series based on these books. The stand-alone novel called The Bottoms has received the most critical praise to date, and is currently in film production. Lansdale also writes horror and has a cult following in this genre with a new movie available now from Amazon, Christmas with the Dead. Enjoy this author in any of your favorite genres, but don’t miss him.


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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Mothering Sunday: A Romance by Graham Swift

Hardcover, 208 pages Expected publication: April 26th 2016 by Alfred A. Knopf

This delicious short novel is in many ways a Mother’s Day dream. It is a novel short enough to be read in a long, lazy afternoon; it is a novel for mature audiences, weathered in relationships and outcomes, who bring a kind of life knowledge to one remarkable spring day in 1924 when sunlight poured over yellow and green fields and not a smudge marred the bright blue of the sky. In March a day like June, warm and golden, pregnant with potential and possibility. The strange undercurrent of foreboding that springs unbidden feels like something we bring as we recall in some remembered way the lovemaking in the big house empty in the afternoon with the windows opened wide to streaming sunlight and perhaps a breeze: “the sunlight applauded their nakedness.” A young scion and the maid…

He says they were “friends.” He did treat her as a friend—exactly as a friend. Their lovemaking was like a sport. He did not talk of the future…there was no need. He needn’t say goodbye, since it wasn’t goodbye was it? He would marry, but perhaps they would continue their “friendship” long after. One doesn’t lose one’s friends when one gets married. Not necessarily. Our judgement makes us uncomfortable, but we’d be wrong. The foreboding won’t point to that at all. The lovemaking was the maid’s liberation, not her downfall. She learned to be comfortable in herself there.

Swift shows his mastery of the form in this novel, telling us pieces of backstory interspersed with conversation and movement…a phone call bidding the maid, fragrant air filled with light and birdsong, a bike ride past still-leafless trees casting skeleton shade on new green and buds ready to open. We will never forget the day, so rare and so precious. Mothering Day. The staff are off to visit their own parents and the scion is preparing for his wedding in a fortnight to the daughter of a wealthy family. His own parents lost two sons in the last war and he is the last of the brood. This is usually a day of remembrance, but it is such an unusual day, coming as it does a fortnight before a wedding…

The beauty of the day suffuses the story and works its magic on us, despite our reservations. We are unprepared, then, for the foreboding to manifest when it does, finally. And we are unprepared also for the “long course of history” that plays out from the maid’s point of view—how this day will remain in her memory forever and what it meant to her life’s work. It raises questions about the nature and role of fiction and how one gets to the place where fiction can be truth. True things can be imagined, just as fiction can spring from truth. Sometimes fiction might even get closer to truth than real life, getting as it does “to the quick, the heart, the nub, the pith.” That is the trade of fiction, the “trade of truth-telling…It was about being true to the very stuff of life, it was about trying to capture, though you never could, the very feel of being alive.” And that is what what this book does. It feels lived.

I hope it is not too late for everyone to buy this gem of a novel before Mother’s Day. It is a real gift. And if anyone knows what body part is pictured on the dust jacket of the American edition, please let me know. I have meditated on it for days, and am still unable to make a guess.


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Monday, April 11, 2016

From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia by Pankaj Mishra

Hardcover, First American Edition, 356 pages Published September 4th 2012 by Farrar Straus & Giroux

A little history is a dangerous thing. One of the reasons I have never liked reading history is that I discovered written history often has pieces that are missing that can change one’s understanding of an event or time. One has to dig down into the details and the truth may never reveal itself. But thank goodness for Pankaj Mishra, who gives us history like nothing Americans are likely to encounter in school: history from the point of view of majority non-white nations around the time of the first global upheaval at the turn of the last century and the First World War.

Mishra focuses on Asia as it was defined at the time, anything east of Turkey and west of Japan, and uses the words of individuals to define a zeitgeist that inspired and motivated political upheavals taking place in Asia at the time. Though Europe’s most influential thinkers deemed most of the non-white non-European societies unfit for self-rule, the men that drove revolutionary change in those very societies were motivated by notions of equality and human dignity spoken and written of in Western Europe, and later, by Woodrow Wilson.

One of those men was Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, revered now as the intellectual god-father of the Islamic Revolution. Educated in Tehran in the mid-ninetieth century, al-Afghani passed himself off as a member of different sects and nationalities in order to most effectively educate and reform with an eye to anti-imperialist strategy.
The English people believe me a Russian
The Muslims think me a Zoroastrian
The Sunnis think me a Shiite
And the Shiite think me an enemy of Ali
Some of the friends of the four companions have believe me a Wahhabi
Some of the virtuous Imamites have imagined me a Babi…
And yet al-Afghani was able to keep his focus on power to the subjugated people of Asia and exhort them to greater resistance to the imperialist power being brought to bear upon them by the West. Al-Afghani turns up wherever societal turmoil was in progress (Afghanistan, India, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Iran) and by his writings and speeches was able to urge a “protective modernization” upon fellow Muslims: “self-strengthening without blind imitation of the West, and who insisted that the Koran itself sanctioned many of the values—individual freedom and dignity, justice, the use of reason, even patriotism—touted by Turkish high officials as ‘Western.’” “Fanaticism and political tyranny” were the basic evils of unreformed Muslim society, he argued, the means by which the West had come to dominate the East.

Eventually al-Afghani came to believe that modernization alone as not sufficient, as it was making countries in the East subservient client states of the West. Pan-Islamism and nationalism was then considered to be the only way to beat back the encroaching West. He has a long history, traveling to Paris, Moscow and back, eventually, to Persia, agitating until his death in 1897. His grave, long unmarked, was moved to Kabul in 1944, and was visited by the American ambassador in 2002, who paid for restoration of the site. One group of al-Afghani’s followers became proponents of Salafism, the puritanical movement which is the basis for ISIS, surely a perversion of what al-Afghani believed.

I spend so much time on al-Afghani because I don’t think I have ever heard of him before, or if I have, I never knew anything about what he was thinking. Mishra just begins with al-Afghani, however, and delves into China’s (and Vietnam’s) pre-revolutionaries, Liang Qichao, Kang Youwei, and Tan Sitong (Phan Boi Chau). Tan died, tragically for China’s interests one might argue, by allowing himself to be captured and executed in his twenties by forces loyal to the dowager empress. He was one who was clever enough to have negotiated the moral shoals of republicanism by combining it with the Confucian notion of social ethics.

Liang Qichao was the one of his contemporaries to travel in the United States, writing “70 percent of the entire national wealth of America is in the hands of 200,000 rich people…How strange, how bizarre!” Liang was later part of a delegation to the peace conference held in Paris following the First World War. Interests of the non-white majority countries were ignored, despite the notions of freedom from oppression and human dignity embodied in Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’ and lodged in the hearts of many nationalists.

The final figure upon whom Mishra focuses is Rabindranath Tagore, who was likewise awakened to new ideas through contact with the West, but who also saw the spiritual vacuity in the West’s worldview. When he visited China in the 1920’s he was disparaged by crowds shouting “We don’t want philosophy, we want materialism!” Such a thing could be said to be heard today in Beijing. Let’s hope the Chinese don’t come to regret their single-minded choice, or are turned back once they see the desert ahead.

It is hard to avoid Mishra’s conclusion that racism was the reason Eastern countries were exploited and ignored by the West at the turn of the twentieth century. It is also true that the West had made advances in science, logic, and humanistic theories that struck thinkers in Asia as entirely worthwhile and modern. The Asians, however, could see something perverted in the West’s materialistic rapacity and sought to preserve some of their rich spiritual heritage while modernizing their political systems. If the West had only appreciated and taken on board what the East had to offer, rather than using muscle to subdue the insistence on autonomy from imperialism, probably none of us would be in the position in which we find ourselves today.

Mishra’s work of history is enormously important and entirely welcome, covering as he does vast parts of the non-white Asiatic world during a time of turmoil. He does not avoid the omissions, and imputations common to writers of history: in the one sentence assigned to Armenia he writes, “However, harassed by Armenian nationalists in the east of Anatolia, the Turks ruthlessly deported hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915, an act that later invited accusations of genocide.” Also, it appears Mishra used English-language secondary sources in his work, where one might have wished original sources. Nonetheless, this work and its bibliography is a giant step towards redressing our ignorance of the histories, needs, and desires of peoples in their search for rights.


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Friday, April 8, 2016

What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel

Hardcover, 256 pages Published April 24th 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Michael Sandel is a storyteller. His stories are amusing ones like those in Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, but Sandel’s stories urge us to look deeper: to look meaning rather than just personal gain. Perhaps not everything should be for sale. Sandel’s stories make us wonder what our responsibilities are in the marketplace economists have made for us. He prods us to ask ourselves if the world we have is the one we want. Judging from the reaction of the populace to the presidential election in 2016, I would guess most of us have are not satisfied with what we have wrought.

The good news is that we can make different choices. We just have to think about it. Do we want advertising for McDonald’s on public buildings, schools, or police cars? Do we want someone betting how soon we will die so as to take advantage of our life insurance policies? Do we want a cash payment to store nuclear waste near our homes? Sandel presents these real, documented offerings to us and shows us what the outcomes have been.

This is an easy, non-taxing read. There are no references to philosophers and only the barest rudiments of what is called economic theory, and yet the work is permeated with “the stuff” of these two disciplines. It is the raw materials, the everyday dilemmas with which we need to work. I have seen some of Sandel’s examples from newspapers in recent years, but there were still several I never encountered before. Like the one about the school in Israel where the parents kept showing up late to pick up their children. The teachers levied a fine for parents late for pick-up, and transgressions actually increased. The parents began to regard the fine as a fee. When school officials removed the fine a couple of months later, transgressions increased again. It became the norm to disregard the pick-up time, and more parents became aware that others were transgressing. They began to think it was okay to make the teacher work overtime. In this case, I guess I would suggest making the fine really punitive, not merely suggestive, to see if that made a difference, though exceptions for real excuses would have to be considered.

Sandel had me laughing and cringing: what about hunting Atlantic walrus in Canada? Atlantic walrus had become so rare in the 20th Century that Inuits were the only ones allowed to hunt them. Inuit leaders asked the Canadian government if they could sell some of their walrus quota to big-game hunters for $6,500.
”[Big game hunters] for not come for the thrill of the chase or the challenge of stalking an elusive prey. Walruses are unthreatening creatures that move slowly and are no match for hunters with guns…C.J. Chivers compared walrus hunting under Inuit supervision to ‘a long boat ride to shoot a very large beanbag chair.’ The guides maneuver the boat to within fifteen yards of the walrus and tell the hunter when to shoot…The appeal of such a hunt is difficult to fathom…[but] markets don’t pass judgement on the desires they satisfy.”

Another desire Sandel discusses is prostitution, something that has been in the news just this week when France decided to fine buyers paying for sex. Apparently legalization of prostitution in the Netherlands has led to gang control of the business, and in Germany human trafficking has continued unabated. Sandel asks whether we can really still bare-facedly argue that sex between “consenting” adults when one is paid is without moral ramifications. “Certain moral and civic goods are diminished or corrupted if bought and sold:” prostitution could be regarded as a form of corruption that demeans women and promotes bad attitudes toward sex. This is the argument used in Scandinavian countries, and now France.

Towards the end of the book, Sandel quotes two economists who believe that virtue and love are scarce resources. (Among some of us, I am sure that is true.) He points out that some philosophers have taken another view: that civic virtue dies if it is not nourished, practiced, and that it grows, not depletes, with every instance of it. Love similarly. Love is not something we should preserve, but spend at every opportunity, for its return is exponential.

Sandel wades into many hot-button issues and calmly explains alternate ways of looking at a problem. He is clear enough for first year college students, even high school students. His moral and ethical ways of thinking allow us to challenge current thinking about issues facing us today. I preferred Sandel’s book on Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? but hope he will keep writing. One day, perhaps, the thinkers among us will conclude “free-market” economists really have no clothes and that money is not our only currency.


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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Justice: What's the Right Thing To Do? by Michael Sandel

Hardcover, 308 pages Published September 15th 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Michael Sandel is something of a “moral rock star” according to the Financial Times, with hordes of acolytes the world over. It is easy for me to see why. This book, published in 2009, discusses theories of fairness and freedom that have been the basis of political discourse and civic structure in the U.S. for some fifty years, bringing us to the state of affairs we currently observe in our market-(un)regulated society. Sandel suggests that we may get twinges now and again that something is amiss in our transactional economy, with the mad rush to acquire more, and our knowing the cost of everything does not reflect the value of anything…of anything that really matters.

Sandel has a very smooth, well-practiced style filled with amusing or absorbing ethical and moral choices that have been presented to us over the years, some of which we (or the Supreme Court) may have responded to but not resolved to our satisfaction. Sandel waits for the end of his book to wade into the abortion issue, when we have been well-steeped in philosophical theory for hours. I was hoping for that. I have never bought into any of the increasingly shrill and limited arguments on either side of that debate, and felt we were missing something essential in our thinking. Sandel gently points to why the arguments of neither side satisfy our craving for justice and suggests there may be another way to look at the issue. You will need to go there to see what he suggests.

If we look at the theories of justice that have been incorporated into our thinking and political constructions since Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and John Rawls (1921-2002), we have first the principle of respect for an individual because they are human with the capacity to reason (Kant) and the notion of social and economic equality and basic liberties for all (Rawls). Sandel gives lots of examples how these actually play out in a society based on the rule of law. We get tied up with some people questioning equality, and some questioning fairness. Sandel thinks we might want to look again at what Aristotle said about political philosophy. Defining rights requires us to figure out the purpose or end of the social practice in question. And justice is honorific, that is, we need to reason out what it is we are trying to achieve, what virtues we want to promote by reward through justice.

It does seem to be a step we have skipped. We need to question and define again, together, the “good life.” We need to look at the ends, the virtues we hope to achieve by rewards of wealth or position. I would be surprised if many people did not share my sense that there is something seriously amiss in the way we are valuing both the productive capacity of the populace and our physical “plant,” that is to say, our land and resources.

Sandel writes of the importance of language, how we fulfill our natures when we deliberate with others about right and wrong, good and evil, justice and injustice:
"Language, a distinctly human capacity, isn't just for registering pleasure and pain. It's about declaring what is just and what is unjust, and distinguishing right from wrong. We don't grasp these things silently, and then put words to them; language is the medium through which we discern and deliberate about the good."
He writes that we are not merely individuals, which has been America's cri de coeur, but products of our history. We have narrative lives as part of a clan, tribe or nation; we have a past, We can be held responsible for the wrongs of our tribe. From this, Sandel does not dismiss the idea of reparations for slavery. This is another subject for which I sought some kind of basis; now I have the words to explain it.

Sandel remarks on the need to restore community. Wealth disparities allow us to live apart from one another when we need to interact more; we need to see what is true and what is only imagined. We need to influence one another. In the prevailing philosophies espoused by the political parties, either the one in power or the one challenging it, something is missing, something important, like meaningful debate about who we are as people, as Americans. In this book, Sandel talks about some of those things I could sense were missing but couldn’t articulate. It has to do with values—the real ones, not the price of a Birkin bag. The lack of recognition about what is important has led us to unconscionable wealth disparities and trite but vicious debate on the political stage. Unless we address what is really important, it ultimately does not matter who wins the election. That way hell lies.

Sandel is much feted around the world for his discussions of justice, but in the Financial Times interview linked above he tells us that his ideas achieve less resonance in two countries: the United States and China. As a result of his celebrity, he has several TED talks posted on YouTube (links below) which cover some of the material in his books, and the course he teaches at Harvard is posted online as well. Sandel is very clear in expressing difficult concepts, so I recommend you go straight to him rather than take my word for it.


TED Talk on The Lost Art of Democratic Debate

TED talk on The Moral Limits of Markets


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