Tag Archives: Lanny Morgnanesi

Thoughts about the “First People”

19 Aug
First People-hurdlers

This blog has been inactive for quite some time. I’m going to try and bring it back.

 

Here goes:

 

With high sensitivity all around us, I worry about something I hope to do soon – or rather say.

 

I plan to use the term “First People” in conversation. As far as I know, almost no one makes reference to the “First People.” They generally don’t get acknowledged as such, and in the rare case they do, there is almost no acclaim, credit, respect, distinction or awe given to them for being first.

 

The “First People,” of course, are those of African descent.  Human beings, according to a widely held theory, originated in African, migrated out and gradually but surely populated the entire globe. They are said to have gone east first, through what is now the Middle East, then into Asia, then they turned back west and went into Europe, displacing and eliminating the Neanderthals, who were human-like but were not homo sapiens.

 

This is the Out of Africa theory, and the average person doesn’t hear much of it or talk much about it. Worse, perhaps, I’ve never heard an African-American boast about it.

 

I got the idea for using the term “First People” from watching the TV show “Game of Thrones.” In that show the original inhabitants of the north are called the “First Men.” They are spoken of with great reverence. While the ancestors of the First Men seem to be gone from the “Game of Thrones,” the ancestors of our First People remain with us, but they are un-honored.

 

I thought about them during the Olympics, where they dominated over later-coming peoples in nearly all the running events. Could having the blood of the “First People” provide some advantage over other races, or do they just try harder? If it’s the latter, why is that? Is it a holdover quality from the “First People,” who had to try damn hard to do what they ended up doing?

 

In America, with race being such an inflammatory issue and with the ancestors of the “First People” historically being treated as if they were not even people, it would seem impossible for the majority to outwardly recognize a superior strain of any kind in them. That’s sad.

 

Would the majority even be willing to call them the “First People?” Probably not. But I hope the “First People” somehow start calling themselves that. It’s a distinction much worthy of note.

 

Lanny Morgnanesi

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Like Ben Stiller, he felt the pain of an unfortunate act. Unlike Ben, he couldn’t discuss it.

9 Jun

franks_and_beans

The Ben Stiller movie, “There’s Something About Mary,” was on the other night and it reminded me of Bill Foley.

 

Bill Foley was a reporter who always carried a notebook and pen. He needed them for work but also because he couldn’t talk. When you asked Bill a question, he’d pull out the notebook and write his answer. Often, it was only a word or two. Usually, it was funny.

 

Because of throat cancer, Bill had his voice box removed.

 

Everyone assumed he could not utter a sound. Through odd personal circumstance, however, I learned this was not true.

 

It happened while we both were in the men’s room at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. As we stood side-by-side at the urinals, I noticed Bill was in a hurry. Upon closing up, he – like Ben Stiller’s character in “There’s Something About Mary” — caught the frank-N-beans between the teeth of his zipper. And just like Ben, but not as loud, he let out a sound of agony and helpless distress.

 

The Stiller character, comically, was unable to free himself. Bill quickly fixed things and exited.

 

And there I was, with a secret to share: Bill Foley can’t talk but when it’s necessary he can moan! I tried being discreet and limited in my telling of the tale, but the worst got the best of me and the story spread. I never heard back from Bill and don’t know if my disclosure ever made it to his ears, which worked just fine.

 

Bill was a wonderful, witty columnist. Some knew him before the operation. I didn’t. I knew him only from his column, his actions and his laconic, handwritten retorts.

 

For a quiet guy, he brought lots of personality to the newsroom. I remember the time when lunches were being stolen from the office refrigerator. Members of the Refrigerator Users Group – RUG – went on a tear, sending out threatening memos and edicts to all possible suspects and devising multiple strategies of defense. Bill’s running commentary on the crisis was hilarious and ultimately silenced RUG.

 

It was pleasant to think of him again.

 

He died in 2001 at age 62 after working in newspapers for 40 years. I left the Times-Union in 1993 and never read his obit. I looked it up today.

 

Among other things, it said that, “Mr. Foley had written columns about generations of visionaries, bootleggers, politicos and hapless saps whose exploits helped shape the city.”

 

It said, “His wry humor and precise, staccato language attracted a following of readers that ranged from schoolchildren to corporate executives.”

 

It mentioned that he had played catch with Hank Aaron and spent time in Cuba with Che Guevara.

 

It didn’t mention Ben Stiller, frank-N-beans or “There’s Something About Mary.” For that I am grateful. I’m also grateful that Mr. Stiller, via his one-of-a-kind performance, was able to bring back some nearly forgotten memories of a man who could say a whole lot with so very little.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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Goldman Sachs: Altruism for a profit

27 May

goldman-sachs,jpg

Investment powerhouse Goldman Sachs has made money with schemes that were ingenious, inventive, complex, arcane, morally vacant and, some might say, criminal. Now it hopes to make money by exploiting the dysfunctions of government.

 

Goldman has long mastered the art of generating cash without actually producing a product. Its techniques include:

 

  • Using influence to rig a trading system in its favor.
  • Finding a market where it can buy low and then finding a second market where it can sell high.
  • Identifying gross inefficiencies that are costing someone or something money and offering to fix them.

 

Goldman’s new plan is along the lines of the third. The firm is financing crime reduction measures in Massachusetts in exchange for a percent of what is saved by not having to incarcerate thugs.

 

Ingenious, inventive, complex.

 

New profit center for investors

New profit center for investors

This type of investment carries an extra dividend: It makes Goldman Sachs – a villain in the eyes of the Occupy movement – look like a Good Guy. Indeed, the investment vehicle designed to reduce crime is called a social impact bond, or in Wall Street parlance, an SIB.

 

Some view these investments as a marriage between capitalism and charity, but capitalism is the strong, dominant partner.

 

Bloomberg Businessweek reported on Goldman and the SIBs in early May. Writer Esme E. Deprez cites a prediction by the Rockefeller Foundation that the market for SIBs is growing and by 2015 will reach $500 million.

 

That’s a lot of social impact, enough to give government the idea that it no longer is responsible for maintaining order and structure in society. Or has it already decided that?

 

According to the Businessweek article, Goldman is investing $9 million and betting that crime will go down – or more accurately that young men will spend fewer days in jail.

 

The bonds help fund a program called the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Pay for Success Initiative. In that program, a non-profit agency called Roca works with young adult males on probation. The agency provides outreach, therapy and training. After two years, participants are supposed to leave, take a steady job and lead a crime-free life.

 

If a graduate stays out of jail for a year, Massachusetts saves $12,400. If the state is able to reduce crime enough to close a 300-person prison, it saves $47,500 per inmate.

 

This is how the SIBs and Goldman get paid off.

 

In this particular case, Goldman has partnered with other investors who financed an additional $12 million in bonds, making the total $21 million.

 

The bonds earn 5 percent no matter what, but pay nothing else until the men in the program manage to spend 22 percent fewer days in jail. There’s a sliding scale for payment, with a maximum of $27 million being paid to bond holders if jail time is reduced by 70 percent.

 

It’s a risk, like a junk bond, but $27 million for a $21 million investment is pretty good money (28 percent profit) and worthy of the risk.

 

Roca had been working with 375 men. With the SIB money, it can handle 550.

 

A skeptic might look at all this and ask:

 

  • Why doesn’t Massachusetts put up the $21 million itself and forego the $6 million payout to investors?

 

  • Why doesn’t society as a whole recognize that employed people from stable families commit fewer crimes?

 

  • Why does the nation exclude million of people from an otherwise viable system of commerce, education and opportunity and allow the existence of acres and acres of urban decay that breed crime and insanity?

 

There are clear answers to these questions. I won’t go into them because our preference is to ignore them, deny them and maintain a monstrous blind spot in spite of religious teachings, well-intended laws and glorious, inclusive rhetoric.

 

But as a culture, we have reached an all-time low when we allow things to get so bad

that Goldman Sachs can make money off our failures. The promise of money, more so than altruism or mere brotherhood, does seem to get things done. Perhaps we can turn the VA hospitals over to Goldman. With all those returning vets, there’s got to be a profit in there somewhere.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

How long before the great income grab is reversed? Not long.

9 Mar

cbpp income inequality 2011

The first real understanding of my value as a worker came during a company Christmas party.

I was a young reporter for a family-owned media company. My fellow employees and I had already received the gift of a free turkey, and now there was this party, grand and lavish.

It was a time when newspaper margins were around 40 percent. Printing a newspaper was like printing money.

The party was held in a big banquet hall. Hundreds attended. There was a generous buffet, music, dancing and an open bar for the entire evening.

In general, the company did well by its employees. The founder was a tough, bull-headed union-buster, but when I worked there raises were given four times a year, the food in the cafeteria was subsidized and supervisors were honored at an annual dinner.

Upon the death of the old man, his four grown children took over. By chance, I was sitting with one at the Christmas party. She was somewhat shy but sincere when she said to our table, “All of you are responsible for making this company what it is. It would be nothing without you. My family owes everything to you. Our success is your success.”

Prior to that, I had seen myself as an expendable, replaceable cog.

But this co-owner, this daughter of an entrepreneurial risk-taker, was shifting my view. I hadn’t recognized it yet, but she knew that without workers a hundred printing presses could not produce a single paper.

Still, she was neither ready nor willing to change the rules and divide the profits among workers. That’s a different ideology, one totally alien to our system, one that threatens and offends.

Then I went to New York City and found out it wasn’t.

I was still learning the way of the world and on this visit to see friends I discovered how lawyers became partners.

My friends were a former reporter and her boyfriend lawyer. He didn’t go to dinner with us that Saturday night because he was working on an investment banking deal. He was trying to make partner.

When we met up later at a bar, he was in good spirits and had no complaints. As an explanation for missing dinner, he told me a joke: “Why do investment bankers love Friday? Because it is only two more work days until Monday.”

I envied his chance to become a partner. Now that I think of it, he probably was the first person I knew who was capable of using hard work to earn equity ownership in a company.

Why was law different from other professions? To begin with, there is no huge investment needed to start up, nothing like a printing press. Also, lawyers tend to see themselves as professional equals. And there probably is some precedent, a near-ancient tradition, of taking on partners rather than employees.

What’s more, it is easy for the good ones – those who bring in big clients — to leave and hang up their own shingles.

A factory worker doesn’t have that kind of leverage.

But if there exists a universal law of fairness, a standard morality for the value and worth of labor, then leverage shouldn’t be a factor.

Of course, there is no morality in the marketplace. If people will work for substandard wages, that is what you pay them. And so unions came to be.

Unions got their start in ancient Rome

Unions got their start in ancient Rome

We think of unions as a modern concept but the idea and practice go way back. The founders of Rome, in 753 B.C., may be partially to blame. As Rome grew and incorporated other provinces, the new citizens didn’t integrate. They stayed in their towns, kept their habits and traditions and failed to adopt a Roman identify. So an edict was issued requiring people to relocate to districts organized around trades. If you were a carpenter, you lived among all carpenters.

Ethnic differences faded.

Naturally, trade associations formed. It was a new unifier.

In time, these associations became quite powerful.

Even the kings of France had to contend with them. In an age when candles were the chief source of lighting and a significant expense in a large palace, money could be saved by letting them burn to the end.  Practical, but the guild in charge of candles wouldn’t allow it. It required that candles be replaced when half burned.

Unions in the modern era continue to be associated with self-serving, costly inefficiencies. Unlike the lawyers who must enrich their firms in order to become partners, unions too often weaken their companies, making workers liabilities rather than assets.

And companies today are quick to get rid of liabilities.

What unions are good at, however, is their ability to show management the true value of labor. By unifying the powerless, power is created. In speaking with one voice – “no we won’t work for poverty wages” – unions effectively alter the marketplace. They grant the common folk a degree of dignity and allow them to pursue happiness.

But with global competition so fierce, it has become impractical and unwise for unions to advocate uncompetitive practices. What they should advocate is efficiency, innovation, profit and partnership – true equity partnership. Unions gave us the weekend but if the incentive of partnership is applied (making Friday two work days until Monday) companies could get them back.

Would companies actually make their worker’s partners? Under the current climate, no. Even discussing the idea seems ridiculous and beyond farfetched.

But why?

In the golden age of unions – after resistance that included shooting strikers — companies decided there was enough growth and profit to meet the demands of organized labor. With profit in mind, there was a willingness to share. Henry Ford would benefit if he could keep cars rolling off the assembly line and meet the heavy demand.

And besides, workers with money buy things – like cars.

Walter Reuther knew the middle class fueled the economy.

Walter Reuther knew the middle class fueled the economy.

(There’s a great story about Walter Reuther, leader of the United Auto Workers, being shown an automated assembly line.  In a competitive dig, Henry Ford II asked him, “How are you going to get those robots to pay union dues?” Reuther retorted, “Henry, how are you going to get them to buy cars?”)

For the most part, the willingness to share is gone.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and many other sources, a significant income gap between classes existed from the 1940s into the 1970s, but it did not grow. But after the early 70s and up to today, income concentration at the top increased dramatically. The last time the disparity was this great was prior to the Depression.

Various sources, including University of California at Santa Cruz Professor G. William Domhoff, in his blog “Who Rules America?,” report that in 2010 about 1percent of the U.S. population possessed 35 percent of the wealth. The top 20 percent had 89 percent, leaving the bottom 80 percent with 11 percent.

Also reported in various places, including the Los Angeles Times, is that from 1993 to 2012, income of the 1 percent rose 86.1 percent while income of the other 99 percent rose 6.6 percent.

As wealth became concentrated at the upper tier, billions in cash was stockpiled by American corporations.

In March, Forbes set the total at $1.45 trillion and listed the top 10 holders of cash, including:

Apple: $137 billion.

Microsoft: $68.3 billion.

Google $48.1 billion.

Pfizer $46.9 billion.

What changed?

For one, the labor market.

When Apple is ready to roll out a new iPhone, poor farmers in Katmandu drop their plows and fly to factories in Malaysia. This is not a rhetorical sentence.

Journalist Cam Simpson documents Apple’s labor supply chain in an incredible piece of investigative reporting for Bloomberg Businessweek.  His story tells how labor brokers fan out to the poor countries of Asia when Apple launches a new product. The people they find pay them for jobs and keep paying as the process continues. Often, they pay with borrowed money and go deeply in debt.

One was Bibek Dhong from Nepal. He paid a single broker the equivalent of six-months wages. The fee secured him a job in Malaysia with Flextronics, one of Apple’s chief suppliers. Before he could pay off his loans, production shifted to another country (better performance) and he lost his position.

His passport was held and he could not get home. He feared he would be arrested. Before he received help from Flextronics, he ran out of money and nearly starved.

Not exactly a union shop.

But as China has realized, when companies get richer, when commerce thrives, when corrupt leaders and their families amass great, visible wealth, expectations rise and workers lose their complacency. They demand more and often get it, until the factories move to a more accommodating country.

Sooner or later, corporations are going to run out of countries.

Sooner or later, a floor will form under the global labor market.  From there, workers will stand.

That’s when corporations are going to need a new plan.

And that’s why I’m suggesting one now.

In the U.S., people are finally waking up to the subtle yet systematic dismantling of the middle class, which has been occurring for decades. With less spending power, average families find it difficult or impossible to send their children to college – once the gateway to upward mobility. Those who do make it to college find it hard to get jobs when they graduate.

The bleakness and lack of opportunity, the malaise of our times, is truly settling in.

Books are being written with titles such as, “The War on the Middle Class,” “Screwed: The Undeclared War on the Middle Class,” and “The Betrayal of the American Dream.”

Income equality has become a topic in columns, blogs and editorial cartoons. The issue, once ignored, is now discussed by the president of the United States and the Pope. Billionaire Warren Buffett said that if class warfare truly exists, his class in winning. Even so, there are defections. One is global billionaire David Sainsbury, who calls for fairer wealth distribution through something called “progressive capitalism.”

To see inside this looming class crisis, look toward Seattle, the home of Boeing.

Timothy Egan, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and winner of the National Book Award, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times Nov. 14 called, “Under My Thumb.” The title refers to Seattle’s position vis-a-vis Boeing.

Like many big corporations, Boeing hold jobs hostage as it demands and gets hefty tax breaks. As Egan points out, when anyone or anything shows resistance, companies like Boeing threaten to leave town.

Boeing is seeking concessions in exchange for keeping assembly of the new 777X jet in Washington State. For its part, the state of Washington provided a incentive package that included an $8.7 billion tax break, which Egan called the largest single state-tax giveaway in the nation’s history.

But Boeing also requires that workers accept cuts in pensions and health care benefits.

Unlike Washington, the workers said no.

Refusing to allow the “Walmartization of aerospace,” the machinists who would build the 777X turned down the offer by a 2-1 vote.

“I’m tired of being slapped in the face,” said John Gilman, who has worked at Boeing for nearly 40 years. “Building airplanes — it takes years of training and skill. The people who run this company used to understand that.”

In reaction to Egan’s piece, one reader commented, “This is just the beginning before Americans ‘storm’ any number of figurative ‘Bastilles.’ ”

Jump now, if you will, to the town of Richmond, California.

In Richmond, like most of the U.S., people were talked into taking home mortgages they couldn’t afford. When the housing bubble burst, they ended up owing more on their mortgages than their homes were worth.

Nothing unusual there.

What is unusual is the protective reaction, possibly unprecedented, taken by the town fathers on behalf of residents. Basically, they told the banks holding the bad mortgages to renegotiate the terms or Richmond would confiscate the properties through eminent domain.

Under this plan, the banks would receive 80 percent of each home’s current worth – much less than the original purchase price –and the town would reform the mortgages so owners can afford them.

Meanwhile, all across the country fast food workers are trying to nearly double their hourly wage to $15.

Not too long ago, the Occupy movement surprised everyone when it surfaced to protest almost everything. It stayed around much longer than anyone expected and started widespread discussion of the 1 percent and vast income disparities.

What else is out there waiting to bubble up? I sense there is a lot.

Nature and the human spirit, in time, tend to correct imbalances. I believe this correction has begun. When there is too much of one thing, the other thing comes.

And when the other thing comes, I hope we are ready for it. We might prepare by realizing that we all have a stake in each other’s well being, that each plays a role in the ultimate success of our society and that respect and dignity should be afforded to all. We are a tribe – we humans — and members of a tribe should look out for each other.

Right now we don’t.

I say, let’s act more like partners. Let’s all rise together.

That means valuing each other properly and recognizing that all roles are important, that we’d be in big trouble if one day no one wanted to pick up the trash.

Providing an equity interest to all workers – even a thin, thin sliver – is progressive and revolutionary. It may even be moral, wise and an effective business strategy. But for it to happen, something cataclysmic must occur, or the vision of something cataclysmic must appear.

In the meantime, it is likely that agendas will slowly change (perhaps preventing any cataclysm). This fall, for example, Bill de Blasio was elected mayor of New York after saying he would trim the gap between rich and poor.

Other politicians, in a discovering of new voting blocs, may decide to do the same and relieve the working poor of its distress, better balance wealth and create a more secure, just and – I think – more prosperous society.

A person with disposable income, after all, fuels the economy and is less of a burden on government.

Tax policy, a major cause of the wealth shift, also will have to change. An almost whimsical proposal comes from Robert Shiller, who on Dec. 8 received the Nobel prize in economics. To stop inequality from rising, he suggests raising taxes on the rich whenever their share of income starts to grow.

Should any of this actually happen, it won’t come solely out of true enlightenment. As always, it will come mostly as a way to preserve and protect – through concessions – the self-interests of the powerful. This is OK. It will come through changing market forces resulting from a shift in culture, attitudes, expectations and action. Those forces, nearly invisible now, seem to be coalescing. I don’t think they can be stopped.

When there is too much of one thing, the other thing comes. That’s the natural law.

Lanny Morgnanesi

A hideous Google pleads, “Don’t look at me!”

15 Jun

Google car

The world is filled with great ironies. Here is one of them.

Google, a company unrivaled at invading privacy, does not want to be watched while it works.

Here is the background.

This great innovator of search, which knows so much about what we do on the Internet, knows every word we write in our Gmails, provides the world with pictures of our homes and streets and shares everything it knows about us with the government and any marketer willing to pay, soon will visit the campus setting where I work.

In its desire to record everything there is to record, Google crews will photograph the thoroughfares within the campus and also enter buildings to map interior hallways.

The first they do with backpack-mounted multi-directional cameras; the second with GPS enabled smart phones.

Prior to the visit, an email was sent by my employer to all employees alerting them to the presence of Google crews and asking us to honor a request not to disturb them. That’s reasonable, but it went on to ask us not to photograph them, which is less reasonable, nor even to watch them, which is absurd.

Don’t watch, we were instructed.

Google may have a host of non-ironic reasons for this request, but they were not shared and I can’t think of even one.

It brought to mind those horror movies where monsters plead, “Look away! I’m hideous!”

With each passing day I realize that the Internet, with all its wonder and potential, with its ability to better lives, improve society and educate the masses, has degenerated into the world’s greatest con game. It provides us with the things we desire in exchange for our souls and the inner workings of our brains. Google does this so that it and many, many others can make money.

After receiving the email, I was at first tempted to protest the directive and watch.

But now I’ve decided to take the opposite approach. When this hideous thing enters campus, I’m going to – as requested — look away.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

Old Books Come Back to Life: Remember “Naked Lunch”?

1 Jun
Writer William Burroughs

Writer William Burroughs

 

The New York Review of Books sat on the table face up, showing the lead item about James Baldwin. This was odd, since Baldwin died a quarter century ago. No new books from him.

“As a writer of polemical essays on the Negro question, James Baldwin has no equals,” the review said.

The Negro question?

Oh. This was not new. This was old. It was a copy of the first edition of the New York Review of Books, reproduced on the 50th anniversary of the publication.  The Review was launched in 1963 as salve to a citywide newspaper strike. The most prominent authors of the day contributed. They did so on short notice and for no pay.

What a time that was!

Ideas and making a statement were more important than making money.

As a collective voice from the past now being read in the present, the Review of Books gives more than a few hints of intellectual unrest. The best minds of the day seemed to be laying the groundwork for a coming cultural break with convention and the status quo.

It’s right there, interwoven amidst the literature.

Those doing the writing were the avant-garde, and people listened to them. Looking over their names, it is difficult to recall writers today with reputations as large. Among the contributors were Norman Mailer, William Styron, Robert Penn Warren, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, Paul Goodman, Robert Lowell and Jules Feiffer.

If any group reflected the spirit of the times – or perhaps the coming spirit — this one did.

As did the books they reviewed.

Included was “Naked Lunch” by William Burroughs, the grandfather junkie to the Beat writers. “Naked Lunch” is perhaps one of the most unclassifiable novels in the English language. The story – often bizarre and fantastic — takes place inside the head of a man taking a drug cure from a quack. At one point in his career Burroughs would write his prose on paper, cut it up then randomly reassemble the pieces

“Naked Lunch” was reviewed by Mary McCarthy, whose books include “The Group” and “Birds of America.”

At the close of the review, she deals with the “pained question that keeps coming up like a refrain” – Why is this book being taken seriously?

Her answer is that for the first time in recent years, a really talented writer meant what he said.

This was the coming era.

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer

Some of the celebrity reviewers, those with the larger personalities, were overly tough on their colleagues. Normal Mailer, always pugnacious, said “That Summer in Paris” by Morley Callaghan was “dim” and mostly without merit. One passage, however, saved the book, Mailer said, because it exposed the true character of novelist Ernest Hemingway, who two years earlier committed suicide.

The tale has Callaghan, who boxed in college, getting into the ring with the much larger Hemingway. F. Scott Fitzgerald was the timekeeper. In a round that went long, Callaghan flattened Hemingway. Fitzgerald blamed his poor time keeping.

“Oh, my God,” he said. “I let the round go four minutes.”

Hemingway, perhaps from the canvas, answered, “All right, Scott. If you want to see me getting the shit knocked out of me, just say so. Only don’t say you made a mistake.”

To me, this shows meanness and poor sportsmanship.

Was Hemingway a coward?

Was Hemingway a coward?

To Mailer, who also boxed, it led him to concluded, “There are two kinds of brave men. Those who are brave by the grace of nature, and those who are brave by an act of will. It is the merit of Callaghan’s long anecdote that the second condition is suggested to be Hemingway’s own.”

In essence, Mailer was calling Papa a closet coward, and he cited his suicide as evidence of this cowardice.

Then there was Gore Vidal. He described John Hersey’s book, “Here to Stay,” as  “dull, dull, dull.” Hersey was trying to invent something called “New Journalism,” which later would boost the careers of people like Tom Wolf and Hunter S. Thompson, but Vidal criticized him for cramming too many facts into his sentences.

John Updike is one of America’s best writers but Sir Jonathan Miller, a Cambridge graduate who did books, plays, movies and TV, said Updike’s “The Centaur” was “a poor novel irritatingly marred by good features.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, poor at keeping time

F. Scott Fitzgerald, poor at keeping time

These reviews pretty much stuck to literature, but an unusual number referenced the Cold War and voiced the fear of imminent doom. It was hard to miss the Soviets. One reviewer discussed four books on the economy of our then-mortal enemy. Another reviewed Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s short gulag novel, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”

Robert Jay Lifton, in a review of a compilation called “Children of the A-Bomb,” said, “The thing we dread really happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the world resists full comprehension of this event, symbolizing massive death and annihilation.”

He and others suggested that faith in the future was fading, and that without change mankind’s time was limited.

Reviewer Lewis Coser said education and information no longer were the answer.

He called the well-informed person “a cheerful robot.”

“The increase of information may indeed have led, contrary to the belief of the Enlightenment, to a decrease in rationality,” he said.

A remarkably forward-looking book carried the harmless title, “The Exploration of Outer Space.” It written by A.C.B. Lovell and reviewed by James R. Newman. Both lauded the development of radio astronomy as a way to finally understand the composition of the universe.  They believed recent findings made it almost certain that other solar systems contained life and that future contact was possible.

Nuclear war: On everyone's mind in 1963

Nuclear war: On everyone’s mind in 1963

But there was darkness overlaying this optimism. The review expressed a grave fear that humans, if they don’t destroy themselves first, one day would destroy life on other plants, either deliberately or through contamination.

The review ends this way:

“”I myself do not find the prevailing space-race chauvinism and the threat to other planets as horrifying as the threat of global extermination. Nor do I derive consolation from the thought that if our managers turn the earth info a lifeless stone other forms of life will continue elsewhere in the universe. But I am impressed with Lovell’s deep sense of responsibility about life everywhere, and I wish there were many more scientists like him.”

And that’s the way it was in 1963.

Coming would be Dylan, hippies, communes, the counter-culture; Burn Baby Burn, Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30; a refusal to be bought and sold; hope I die before I get old.

 By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

 

Muhammad as Solomon: A better story

25 May

solomon1

Time gives and takes. It adds and subtracts. It creates things that didn’t exist and extinguishes things that did. So as a general rule I distrust history.

Take for example the story of King Solomon and the baby. Why would a respected wise man mediate a custody case by offering to executive the child? Who would recognize this as rational? And why would any woman – mother or not –agree to it?

The story doesn’t ring true. I sense something was lost in translation and time.

A better story of wisdom comes from the Muslim world. It could be an additive story, but it nevertheless makes more sense.

This is it:

The shrine at the Kaaba in Mecca existed in pre-Islamic days and even then was considered sacred. It is said to have been built by Abraham. Inside then and now is a rock that fell from heaven. Possibly a meteorite, it is considered a divine gift. A flash flood not uncommon in the Arabian desert destroyed the Kaaba in the seventh century. Leaders of Mecca’s tribes and clans work together and rebuilt it.

All went well until it came time to place the stone back in the temple. Each leader argued for the honor. When the discussion broke down and violence was threatened, someone said, “Let us then agree that the next person to come over that hill will be given the task of deciding.”

Along came young Muhammad, future prophet. Being an orphan who had been raised in poverty by Bedouins, he was of low standing among the tribes. But he was also considered neutral.

Muhammad was told the problem.

He thought about it, then secured a tarp of some sort or a large blanket. He put the stone in the middle and told each clan leader to grasp hold of an edge. Together, they carried the stone into the shrine.

True or not, this is a great story of wisdom and mediation. Perhaps more important from the standpoint of story telling, the stone foreshadows the Quran, which Muhammad used to bring divisive, violent, warring Arab tribes together.

Quran or no Quran, Bible or no Bible, prophet or no prophet, the absence of conflict doesn’t last long. Today, the Judeo-Christian world tends to think it is at war with the Muslim world. It doesn’t realize the larger war is actually within the Muslim world. As Abraham, Moses and Jesus failed to bring peace, so has Muhammad.

Human nature embraces the words of prophets then simultaneously rejects them. It has always been.

Author Leslie Hazelton

Author Leslie Hazelton

My interest in learning more about Muhammad and Islam was recently heightened by a well-written work entitled, “The First Muslim: the story of Muhammad.” Author Lesley Hazelton, a journalist and former psychologist, takes a unique and interesting approach to her narrative. Scholars might object, but the most fascinating thing about her book is the way she fills in the historic blanks with rational speculation based on a keen understanding of the human mind.

Another appealing feature is the way she has put together all the fascinating stories from Islamic history and culture, ones widely known in the Muslim world but mostly unknown to western Christians and Jews.

For the first time I learned that many Islamic rites pre-date Muhammad, including regular pilgrimages to Mecca.  I also learned that Arabs considered all scripture sacred and were respectful of all prophets. Furthermore, in a day when little was written down, Jews were honored as “the people of the book.”  Christians also had great influence, as the Byzantine Empire moved into the area.

Faith and beliefs all seemed to have melded together. That’s enviable.

Practices in Arabia had come close to the monotheism of Abraham. The idea of one powerful, all-knowing god was accepted. But in Arabia this god had secondary, sister deities that also were worshipped. Muhammad, in perhaps his most controversial move, wanted the sisters dethroned.

His truth, as revealed to him by the angel Gabriel, proclaimed that God was neither begotten nor a begetter; that there were no sister gods. In a way, this is purer than Christianity, with its trinity.

For me, the most remarkable aspect of Islam is the Quran, or Koran (Spelled accurately only in Arabic script). Let’s remember that Muhammad could neither read nor write. His revelations came at a time when memory, not books, held the history and literature of one’s culture. In fact, the literal meaning of the word “Quran” is “the recitations.”

Indeed, it was not written down in the prophet’s lifetime.

To allow memory to commit large amounts of information, it usually had to be in verse; poetic and alliterative, like a beautiful song. This is the Quran, passed onto the world by a former camel boy.

In the process of revelation, where does the human take over from the divine? How much wisdom, intellect and creativity is required of the human? How much did Muhammad have? Was it Gabriel’s truth but Muhammad’s poetry? Or did the angel do it all?

If Muhammad had a role, then he was more than a natural poet; he was a self-taught scholar with deep, strong knowledge of the Bible. It is said the Quran was meant to be a continuation or extension of the Bible; that a good portion is biblical tales or re-workings of the tales. Gabriel, of course, would know them. But how did Muhammad?

Like the carpenter’s son, he somehow overcame circumstances and acquired a wide and useful education. Maybe it was easier than we think. Without a system of schools and universities, maybe elders were required to pass along great stores of knowledge to the young. Throughout much of his life, Muhammad was an agent and mediator on long caravans up and down the Arabian peninsula. That’s a lot of time for doing nothing more than talking and absorbing. Learning.

Another interesting things about Muhammad and the Quranic revelations is they did not come all at once but over a period of more than two decades. When he needed something new, he fasted and mediated and went back up the mountain.

Sometimes he had to wait years. Other times inspiration came quickly.

It is said by some and disputed by others than on one occasion the verses he brought back were wrong and had to be recanted. It is alleged that he had been spoken to not by Gabriel but by the devil. These are the so-called Satanic Verses, which for a brief time are said to have re-legitimized the three sister gods.

After I finish with “The First Muslim,” I’m going to read a translation of the Quran. I’m certain to be surprised, and that what I read will be a departure from what I think I know or have heard.

Although purists believe Muhammad’s messages should not be read or spoken in any language other than Arabic, that seems to be changing. I received my English copy from two guys handing them out at the mall, a gift from whyislam.org.

My book was published in Istanbul and translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali.

The name Abdullah, according to Hazelton’s book, means “servant of God.”

If we can get by the hate, the misunderstanding and the ignorance, there is much worthy to be learned about this culture.

Please listen to Ms. Hazelton speak on the Quran.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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