Archive for the month “December, 2012”

New laws no magic bullet for gun violence

I used to smoke. I loved nicotine’s seductive power to make me feel more focused and relaxed at the same time. It made my morning coffee taste good and late night beers even better.

One day, I realized I was killing myself. Years later, I quit for good. I wish I could attribute my triumph to heroic willpower. But I was a statistic, just one of millions of Americans who’ve stopped puffing during the last 30 years as society rebranded smokers as dumb instead of cool.

I have been thinking about the Marlboro Man while reading calls for new gun control laws in response to the massacre in Newtown, Conn. Easy access to guns is a curse on our land. This year, more than 31,000 Americans will die from firearms (about half by suicide). But the quick passage of new laws alone will not solve this problem. The history of transformative social movements – including efforts to discourage smoking, desegregate our schools and legitimize the rights of gays and lesbians – shows that lasting change cannot be forced on citizens in our democracy. Instead, we must help them understand the necessity of reforms, seeing them as a reflection of their views rather than an attack on their freedom.

This is essential if we want to do more than nibble around the edges by banning a few types of weapons and ammunition and address the larger problem posed by the roughly 310 million firearms owned by Americans, including 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns.

Start with the heroic effort to dismantle Jim Crow. Those laws were enforced because they reflected the views of most white Americans. Then, in 1954, the Supreme Court overturned the charade of “separate but equal” schools in Brown v. Board of Ed. This decision, however, did not fix the problem. Real desegregation did not take hold for another 10 to 20 years. America was not transformed as much by the passage of new civil rights laws as by the growing recognition of the immorality of the status quo.

The history of same sex marriage tells a similar story, but with a twist. During the last two decades, many states and the federal government passed laws prohibiting it. But this legislation barely slowed the larger cultural shift toward embracing this right. In November, Maryland and Maine became the first states to approve gay marriage through the ballot box. In the coming years, others will follow. Rep. Tom Tillis, an architect of the anti-gay marriage amendment passed in North Carolina last year, admitted this when he said, “Even though the marriage amendment is likely to pass next month, the numbers indicate that this is probably not going to still be in our state constitution 20 or so years from now. People see that voters are sort of headed in a different direction.”

Now consider anti-smoking laws. In a 1983 Gallup poll, 38 percent of Americans reported having smoked a cigarette in the past week. By 1990 that number had dropped to 27 percent as the health consequences of smoking finally sunk in. Over the next decade, governments at all levels began passing laws, including huge tax hikes and sweeping restrictions on where people can smoke. Today, only about 20 percent of Americans identify themselves as smokers.

None of these reforms just happened. Civil rights workers put their lives on the line to reveal the evils of American apartheid; gays and lesbians courageously came out of the closet so that others could see them as friends and neighbors; the Surgeon General’s office, the American Lung Association and countless others educated the public about the dangers of smoking.

This history shows that true reform is only achieved when we change hearts and minds.

I am not arguing for legislative inaction. After Newtown, Americans seem eager to accept new restrictions on firearms, including closing the gun show loophole and limiting access to the most ridiculous weapons. But that will not solve the larger problem.

Given the second amendment, guns are not going away. So, we must work to convince people that they don’t need them, launching a multi-pronged effort addressing not only firearms per se but movies, television shows, and video games that celebrate gun violence. It will require everyone who says they care about this issue to act, to make choices that stigmatize and marginalize guns.

Not too long ago, everyone smoked, white people freely used the “N” word and gays and lesbians were viciously mocked in polite society. These once normal forms of behavior are now considered beyond the pale. This transformation did not occur because a handful of leaders told us how to think but because we, the people, changed our attitudes.

This will not be easy, especially for law abiding gun owners who enjoy their firearms. Unfortunately, their seemingly harmless hobby is inextricably linked to deadly tragedy.This may not be fair, but it is true.

I know that they cannot imagine life without their guns just I couldn’t imagine my days without the Marlboro Man. But, in time, prodded by all around me, I changed. Today, I feel better than ever and can’t understand what I was thinking back then.


We, the people, own the debt

Venomous, virulent and vituperative – these are just some of the adjectives the letter V provides to describe the partisanship widely blamed for our political paralysis.

Conventional wisdom holds that if our leaders could just put aside their differences and strike a meaningful compromise, we could fix our broken system.

It’s a nice thought. It is also wrong. The single biggest obstacle to real and necessary change in America is not poisonous partisanship but crippling consensus.

For all the searing attack ads and biting barbs traded by Obama and Romney, no one dared touch the great third rail of American politics, the one thing that almost all Democrats and Republicans hold dear: our right to a free lunch.

America probably went broke sometime during the Reagan administration so we need to come up with another word to describe our debt, which is $16 trillion and growing. Both candidates pretended to address this, the most pressing issue of our times. They even claimed to offer different visions for tackling it. In fact, they spoke in a single voice, doubling down on the free lunch.

Obama’s most concrete proposal was to raise taxes on “millionaires and billionaires.” That the President considers people who make $250,000 a year millionaires is beside the point. His message was clear to 99% of Americans: I will not ask you for a dime to dig us out of this hole and furthermore, you and your children will receive all the benefits now provided by the government.

Romney promised even more. His tax plan suggested that the best way to clear our books was to give every working American a 20 percent tax cut! Taking a page from Obama’s playbook, he said he would pay for that largesse by closing loopholes on … the wealthy. Though pushed repeatedly by Obama and the press, he refused to identify which loopholes he would close in the sure knowledge that his opponents would bludgeon him with those specifics. Candidates can win by promising to make tough choices but not by telling us what they are.

In addition, neither candidate put forward a serious plan to reform entitlements. Obama pledged to protect the programs that are bankrupting us – Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. Romney made a weak pledge to pursue reforms while pounding home the message that benefits would not be reduced for people currently enrolled in those programs.

We Americans like to blame our leaders, giving low marks to the President and even lower ones to Congress on most fiscal issues. But the fault lies not with them, but with us. For years we have sent them an unmistakable message: If you want my vote, do not raise my taxes and do not cut my programs. Those parameters set, we are now making a third demand: get our fiscal house in order.

It would be easier to square the circle.

In his keynote address at the Republican National Convention. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie appeared to deliver tough truths: “Our leaders today have decided it is more important to be popular,” he declared, “to do what is easy and say ‘yes,’ rather than to say ‘no’ when ‘no’ is what’s required. It’s been easy for our leaders to say not us, and not now, in taking on the tough issues. And we’ve stood silently by, and let them get away with it.”

Unfortunately, his truth-telling was just another dose of people pleasing pabulum. Politicians say “yes” when they should say “no” because we will crucify them if they don’t. We, the people, have not stood silently by as we hurtled toward the fiscal cliff. We have egged them on, threatened them with ouster if they refused to do our will.

The CNN exit poll found that only 13 percent voters believed that everyone’s taxes should be raised; only 47 percent agreed that they should be raised on the wealthy. When asked specifically if taxes should be raised to reduce the deficit, only 33% of exit poll voters said yes.

Our representatives are reconvening in Washington to confront what has been called the fiscal cliff – the economic challenges posed by the scheduled expiration of the “Bush tax cuts” and the sequestration deal struck last year. The cliff is a poor metaphor. We are, more accurately, standing under a fiscal windmill. Let’s hope we avoid the blade coming toward us. If we do, there’s no time to relax because another blade is on the way, and then another and another.

Yes, we need real leadership in Washington. But it will not enough for our elected officials to strike a deal. They must also speak honestly to us about why we must sacrifice the government we want for the government we need.  

We need them to convince us of a simple truth: there is no such thing as a free lunch.


The Best Christmas Movie

Oh sure, it would be great to see real-life dinosaurs, to watch the very first performance of “Hamlet” or hear Lincoln deliver the Gettysburg Address. But if a time machine could take me back just once, I’d go to Jerusalem at the time of Jesus to see him — and maybe to know.  

Until somebody builds a way-back machine, I will content myself with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s mesmerizingly realistic “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1966). A faithful account of Jesus’ life — from the Annunciation to the Resurrection — the Italian writer/director shot the film in black and white as an almost cinema-verite documentary that could have been titled “Jesus: You Are There.” 

The camera is in constant motion, following Jesus (Enrique Irazoqui) as he recruits his band of disciples, performs miracles and preaches to increasingly large crowds. The brilliantly conceived lack of formal staging convinces viewers that they are watching raw footage of Jesus healing the sick, delivering the Sermon on the Mount and carrying the cross. 

Pasolini was a Marxist, and he depicts Jesus as a revolutionary who was crucified because he was stirring the peasantry — the director uses an almost entirely amateur cast, including his mother as the aged Virgin Mary, and the camera often rests on the craggy faces of Jesus’ meek followers. Pasolini’s Jesus can be loving, but he is usually angry and aloof. He spits out warnings of damnation and furiously topples the moneychangers’ tables. Irazoqui becomes Jesus, allowing us to feel his divine power.

Watch it:

“Cloud Atlas”: Derring-do from a dynamic mind

Most novelists are journeymen. The majority of even our most acclaimed authors are highly skilled but hardly talented. They lack the ambition and the imagination required to make books that matter. They can spin absorbing tales — usually ones we’ve heard all too often. If they put down their pens, who would notice but their mothers and their bankers?

David Mitchell is a rarity. The 47-year-old Brit is staggeringly imaginative, brazenly ambitious. His first two novels, “Ghostwritten” and “Number9Dream,” showcased a writer pushing his talent to far reaches. IIn 2004, he produced his breakout book, “Cloud Atlas.” It is superb, though far from perfect. Indeed, its flaws are as apparent as its strengths. Yet overwhelming all considerations is the feeling the book imparts — of being in the company of a dynamic mind trying to rise above its considerable self.

Mitchell’s first bold choice is his novel’s structure. It is composed of six linked novellas, each about 80 pages long. Mitchell chops all but the final novella in half and presents them in a circular chronology; number the stories and the pattern reads 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1, and we end with the storyline we started with.

Each novella involves separate characters and circumstances, and each section riffs off the styles of Mitchell’s great predecessors. There are echoes of Herman Melville and Anthony Burgess, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon and Aldous Huxley, to name a few. Mitchell creates intricate and unique voices for each of his six first-person narrators. And he has them speak through different formats — we meet one narrator through his journal entries, another through his letters, yet another through her interrogation by government authorities.

The stories themselves span about 500 years. Story 1 is set in the South Sea islands in 1850; story 2 in Belgium in 1931. Story 3 takes places in California in 1975, story 4 in contemporary England, story 5 in Korea some years hence and the final story in Hawaii even farther in the future.

The individual stories hold our interest not only because of Mitchell’s verbal pyrotechnics — his slangy language explodes off the page — but also because each revolves around a fast-paced mystery. “Cloud Atlas” is riveting. In the first story we wonder if our narrator’s doctor is really a poisoner. In story 3 we hope that the reporter we follow will bring her expose of a crooked nuclear power company to light. In story 5 we are not sure whether the genetically modified humanoid being interviewed will lead a revolution against the oppressive state.

Despite the fact that so much is going on, “Cloud Atlas” is not difficult to puzzle out. The novellas cohere into a novel because they all revolve around a single theme: how powerful entities, especially corporations, rob individuals of freedom. Each section shows individuals fighting the forces trying to subsume their liberty. As time goes on, the advantage swings ineluctably to the privileged few — conniving wretches without a hint of conscience. One malefactor says: “Power. What do we mean? ‘The ability to determine another man’s luck.’ … The will to power. This is the enigma at the core of the various destinies of men.”

By Story 6, these Nietzchean supermen have left the world a shattered and primitive mess.

This is chilling, apocalyptic material. Unfortunately, Mitchell is too much of a postmodernist to deliver it with full force. When Pynchon suggested in “Gravity’s Rainbow” (1973) that history was a hall of mirrors, a farce, his perspective seemed liberating because it was fresh. Three decades later, this perspective seems moldy. We know that history is deadly serious and Mitchell’s game-playing undercuts his book’s moral argument.

For instance, Mitchell tirelessly casts doubt on his material. We’re told that there is “something shifty” about “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” which story 1 comprises. It seems “too structured for a genuine diary.” The material about the crusading journalist of story 3 comes from a mystery novel while another narrator’s story is actually a film. At the end of the long first-person narration of story 6 we’re informed, by the by, that someone else has been narrating the tale. What to believe?

Nabokov engaged in such game-playing, but always as a way of drawing us into his story. Mitchell lacks the Russian’s supreme sophistication and purpose; too often he is clever for clever’s sake.

“Cloud Atlas” also suffers from Mitchell’s inability to imagine the workings of different minds. He displays a verbal genius in the voices he creates for his narrators, yet they think alike. All tell their stories in the same linear fashion with the same eye for details that move the story along. Ultimately, the voice we hear is Mitchell’s, translated into various dialects.

This same problem infects the literary genres Mitchell employs. The journal entries and private letters are not true to form. They always do what the novel needs them to, always on point, conveying information to advance the plot, shorn of the quirky observations inherent in such writing.

Nevertheless, “Cloud Atlas” is one of the best books of the year. David Mitchell is an immensely talented writer who knows how to spin absorbing tales. Where most writers attempt too little, his greatest weakness is that he risks all; when you take every hairpin curve at full speed, you’re bound to crash.

But oh, the rush. He is a writer to watch, in awe.

Three Holiday Spirits of Giving

Holiday shopping would be a snap if it were just a matter of time and plastic. Ring it up, wrap it up, and pour yourself some eggnog.

But this generous act can become an anxious affair, given the Goldilocks Syndrome: We don’t just want to give a gift, but The Gift, one that’s just right for each of our special someones.

Matching present to person requires a strategy. Just as Christmas has three ghosts, there are three spirits of holiday gift giving: the Spirit of You, the Spirit of Me and the Spirit of Let’s Just Get It Over With. Figuring out which spirit should guide you for each person on your list save time and anguish.

The Spirit of Let’s Just Get It Over With: On first blush this approach seems like a bad attitude. But it’s the safe choice for people you don’t know too well or people you added to your list out of a sense of obligation such as co-workers or distant relatives. Instead of guessing what they might like, a mail-order gift basket or department store gift certificate is just right.

The Spirit of You: The traditional gift-giving strategy hinges on your knowledge of the recipient’s taste. Does she love classical music or nature? Is he into foreign films or punk rock? Ask for a list. See what the person wants and riff, choosing something close yet surprising. (This works for most people over 15. For the younger set, get them exactly what they want or they might shoot you that mournful look I gave my parents when I was 10.)

The Spirit of Me: Dicey yet satisfying, this approach should be used only for close family members and friends. It is gift-giving as a personal statement, whereby your present says something about your values and your taste: the book that changed your life, the record that turned you on to jazz, the film that made you love the movies. Enclose a short note explaining why this gift meant so much to you and you can deepen your lifelong bond.

Follow these steps and your holiday gift giving will be easy leaving you more time to shop for yourself.


Rediscovering Georges Simenon

Inspired by John Banville and Iain Pears, who listed works by Georges Simenon on their Top Ten Lists, I picked up some works by the Belgian writer in 2006.

By J. Peder Zane

The New York Review of Books is more than a leading journal of ideas. It is also a literary miracle worker. Since 1999 it has brought dead books back to life through its Classic series.

Its latest Lazarus is the work of Belgian writer Georges Simenon (1903-89). It is a sign of fame’s fleeting nature that he would need the New York Review’s magic. Simenon, a phenomenon of 20th-century letters, published almost 400 books under at least 18 different pen names — including 40 books in 1929. His works have sold more than 500 million copies worldwide. He claimed to have used half a million pencils while at work, and to have slept with 10,000 women when he wasn’t.

Best known for his series of Parisian mysteries featuring Inspector Maigret, Simenon produced superb prose at a torrential pace. “He reckoned to complete a novel in five, or six, or at most eleven days,” the novelist Anita Brookner has observed, “and to this end would labor in an almost fetishistic trance: his sweat-soaked lumberjack’s shirt would be laundered every night, ready for him to wear the following morning, and so on until the brief spasm was over.”

It was during such literary fevers that Simenon crafted the seven accomplished novels that the New York Review has returned to print. Like all of the nearly 200 titles in Classic series, the Simenon volumes include appreciations by distinguished writers. Indeed, this commercial writer’s skill can be measured by the roster of authors who gush about it: Brookner, Joyce Carol Oates, Larry McMurtry, P.D. James, William T. Vollmann, Luc Sante and Norman Rush.

As with P.G. Wodehouse, another prolific 20th-century genius, there is a satisfying sameness to Simenon’s oeuvre — his novels were known across Europe as “simenons.” Where Wodehouse was the master of gentle comedy, Simenon excelled at brisk tales of existential angst and hard-boiled fatalism.

Oates notes: “A ‘simenon’ may or may not be a crime/suspense novella, but it will always move swiftly and with seeming inevitability from its opening scene to its final, often startling and ironic conclusion. … [T]he quintessential ‘simenon’ … is a sequence of cinematic confrontations in which an individual — male, middle-aged, unwittingly trapped in his life — is catapulted into an extraordinary adventure that will leave him transformed, unless destroyed.”

If two quotes could capture a life’s work, it would be these. In “The Man Who Watched Trains Go By” (1938, translated from the French by Marc Romano), Simenon defines the predicament into which he dropped his characters: “For all these years it had been a strain playing [his] part, and watching himself incessantly to make sure that he didn’t say or do the wrong thing. Now all that was ended.”

In “Red Lights” (1953, translated from the French by Norman Denny) he gives a glimpse of the tenuous peace they might achieve: “He had the feeling that, for the first time since they had known one another, there was no deception between them any longer, nothing more than, nothing as thick even as a veil, to prevent them from being themselves face-to-face.”

Simenon’s books fall into three general categories: mysteries, what he called “roman romans” (or novel novels) and the series the New York Review is focusing on, his “romans durs,” or hard novels. Hard here does not mean complicated — Simenon prided himself on writing smart books that anyone could understand. Instead, they revolve around characters facing trials of the soul as they try to connect with their authentic selves.

“Red Lights,” for example, depicts the simmering rage of a frustrated man as he and his wife drive to Maine to pick up their children from summer camp.

“Three Bedrooms in Manhattan” (1946, translated from the French by Romano and Lawrence G. Blochman) focuses on a wounded couple who come together in the bars of New York. Simenon displays his gift for compression in describing their budding relationship thusly: “And gradually, this silent nighttime walk took on the solemn aspect of a wedding march. Both knew that from now on they’d cling to each other even harder, not as lovers, but as two creatures who’d been alone and at last, after a long time, had found someone to walk with.”

His masterpiece, “Dirty Snow” (1948, translated from the French by Romano and Louise Varese), features one of the most despicable characters in all of literature: a young man who murders, rapes and steals just to feel something. But like all Simenon characters, he yearns for something more.

“Dirty Snow” was so raw that I had to put it down momentarily to escape its nihilistic landscape. Yet like Simenon’s other books, it was thoroughly absorbing.

These novels are dated — in ways that illuminate our contemporary world. For much of the 20th century, Simenon and other artists focused on the individual’s relationship to society. They saw our greatest challenge as finding ways to realize our true selves despite the iron grip of culture and the state.

That theme has all but disappeared from literature, film and the other arts, which now cast problems in largely personal terms. As our ties to the larger community have frayed, our relationship to ourselves, our family, friends and co-workers has taken center stage.

Of course, society is still potent; it still twists and shapes us. As Simenon grabs us with his compelling stories, he also shakes us to recognize and confront its force.



Post Navigation