Monthly Archives: February 2017

Who Are The Vandals?

ap-jewish-cemetery-vandalism-1-jt-170227_16x9_608

The recent vandalizing of Jewish cemeteries is a disturbing development. It is important to keep in mind that we do not know, as of yet, who committed these acts in Philadelphia and St. Louis. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were ordinary anti-semites, neo-Nazis, or as Mark Steyn once put it, three guys named Mo (Mohammed). Despite not knowing who the perpetrators are, many want to blame President Trump.

Those who blame Trump do have a point. Trump’s obsessive combativeness probably does unsettle many people, particularly those who are already excitable. He really needs to cool it. Most of Trump’s aggressiveness has been directed at two targets – federal judges and the media. Trump referred to the judge who stopped his travel ban as a “so-called judge.” But it is hardly unusual for presidents to attack the judiciary.  Andrew Jackson said about one of the Supreme Court’s decisions, [Supreme Court Chief Justice ] “John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it!” FDR tried to add six justices of his own to the court, called “packing the court,” to insure decisions favorable to him. And President Obama criticized the Court for its decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case while many of the justices sat before him at the State of the Union address.

Criticizing the media is not new either. Trump barred from the daily news briefing the White House reporters from the New York Times and CNN, but President Obama tried the same tactic on Fox News. The other reporters threatened to boycott unless the Fox reporter was permitted to attend the briefings, and the administration gave in. If the White House reporters were willing to boycott to support Fox News, surely they would do the same to support the Times and CNN.  Trump’s ban is highly unlikely to continue.

Trump’s “travel ban” for ninety days on people from seven Middle Eastern countries has upset many and is responsible for the proliferation of lawn signs saying “Hate Has No Home Here.” It is unlikely that the people with such signs on their lawns are responsible for the desecration of Jewish graves, but other people sympathetic to the group targeted by the travel ban may be. We will just have to wait and see.

In any case, President Trump needs to control himself and rein in the tweets. His aggression may very well be inspiring others to attack their supposed enemies. The Jews are always a prime target.

 

Is Trump Crazy?

images-2

According to one survey, nearly half of American households has someone who has had psychotherapy, and more would do so if it weren’t for the cost or lack of insurance coverage. People who have experienced psychotherapy often become familiar with the various diagnoses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Perhaps that is why so many people–from the ordinary man or woman, to journalists, to talk radio and television personalities–have engaged in amateur psychoanalysis of Donald Trump. I always thought that it was considered unethical for psychotherapists to diagnose people without having personally examined them, but I read somewhere that analysis of one’s mental health via television is now acceptable. My view is that almost all public personalities carefully cultivate a public image that may or may not be what they are really like. I have to ask, are all these real and amateur psychoanalysts diagnosing the public image of Trump or the real Trump?

The persona Trump presents to the public is that of a flamboyant New York billionaire who lives in a flashy apartment, has constructed lots of fancy buildings and resorts, and has acquired beautiful, sexy wives. He wants to be known not only as a fabulously wealthy entrepreneur, but also as a talented television personality, and a generous philanthropist.  He has been for years a celebrity with a capital c. He is The Donald.

During the campaign and since taking office when his profile has been at its highest, Trump often has been profane, untruthful, insulting, vulgar, obsessively combative, inconsistent and more. Yet, ninety percent of Trump voters are optimistic about the next four years with Trump as president, found an Economist/YouGov survey of American voters, conducted on the eve of his inauguration. Is Trump really that person described above or is his persona since he began campaigning for the presidency merely a facade? Some journalists and psychiatrists claim to know, the journalists from having covered him over the years and the psychiatrists and psychologists, as I said, from observing him on television. However, I think any fair person (if there are any left in today’s environment) would conclude that it is actually impossible, except for those close to him, to know the real Trump.

One example that Trump’s image may be fabricated has to do with his refusal to release his tax returns. Some believe that the tax returns would reveal illegal activity that might then be grounds for impeachment. Although I am sure the returns would reveal that he took advantage of every deduction and loophole the law allows (as most people do), I think it highly unlikely that he did anything illegal. Trump is just the sort of public figure the IRS  loves to go after, and Trump and his accountants certainly know it. I would guess (yes, it’s only a guess) that Trump refuses to release his tax returns because they would reveal that he is not really a billionaire, only a multi-millionaire. Being one of the relatively few billionaires in the country is perhaps, in Trump’s mind, an integral part of his image. However, (if it’s true) that doesn’t mean he’s crazy.

If Trump’s image has been a carefully constructed facade, he would certainly not be a unique figure among most other famous people, even among former presidents. When Harry Truman was in office, he had a public image as a profane former haberdasher. His supporters called it “plain speaking.” Much was made of his lack of a college education, which meant to many of the educated middle class that he was ignorant. I doubt that Truman’s image was one that he created; I think he was a president who didn’t care about such things. Years later we learned that Truman was an avid reader of serious books, despite his lack of a college degree. Author and professor Thomas Sowell speculated that, despite Democratic presidential candidate and former Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson’s (perhaps contrived) image as an intellectual, Truman probably read more widely than Stevenson.

As I wrote in a former post, President Eisenhower, wishing to return the country to normalcy after the cataclysmic events of the first half of the 20th Century, appeared to be a relaxed executive. In truth, he was deeply concerned about the Cold War and avoiding another hot war, a war that would probably result in a nuclear exchange.

John F. Kennedy has often been called the first president to skillfully use television to project an image that was painstakingly fabricated. Kennedy was supposedly the embodiment of good health, youth, and vigor, whereas in fact, in historian Robert Dallek’s words, he “suffered from colitis, prostatitis, and a disorder called Addison’s disease, which affects the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar and sodium. He also had osteoporosis of the lower back, causing pain so severe that he was unable to perform simple tasks such as reaching across his desk to pull papers forward, or pulling the shoe and sock onto his left foot.”

Dallek also reveals the drugs Kennedy took:

The medical records reveal that Kennedy variously took codeine, Demerol and methadone for pain; Ritalin, a stimulant; meprobamate and librium for anxiety; barbiturates for sleep; thyroid hormone; and injections of a blood derivative, gamma globulin, a medicine that combats infections.

During the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, and the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, Kennedy was taking steroids for his Addison’s disease, painkillers for his back, anti-spasmodics for his colitis, antibiotics for urinary tract infections, antihistamines for his allergies, and on at least one occasion, an anti-psychotic drug to treat a severe mood change that Jackie Kennedy believed was brought on by the antihistamines.

This deluge of drugs often had side effects, including grogginess or even depression. To treat this Kennedy took more still anti-anxiety medications.

Kennedy also cultivated the idea that he was a brilliant intellectual, but his Harvard grades were mediocre and his favorite author was Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond.

I believe the public images of Johnson, Nixon, and Ford pretty much corresponded to who they really were. Jimmy Carter cultivated the image of the common man by carrying his own luggage and wearing a sweater when addressing the public on television. Reagan played the cowboy who rode horses and cleared brush from his ranch.  Some historians consider Reagan’s real personality to be a puzzle, that it was impossible to know what he was really like. The public persona of the first Bush was genuine as, I think, was his son’s. I suspect Clinton’s image corresponds closely to the real man. He was known as a philanderer before he took office and being president didn’t change him. On the other hand, Obama, it has been said, is a brilliant thinker, writer, and speaker who is so intelligent and learned that, according to one presidential historian, he is the most intelligent president ever to have held the office. To me, that is utter nonsense.

And so we come to President Trump. As I have said in previous posts, Trump, I believe, created an image of a brash, plain-speaking, confrontational candidate who was nothing like the carefully coached politicians who never utter a word that hasn’t been vetted by focus groups and professional political advisers. Trump’s voters supported his proposals, his willingness to say what he really thinks, and his aggressive approach to the news media, which they consider biased as well.

I ask again, are the real and amateur psychoanalysts diagnosing the genuine Donald Trump or the fabricated, public Donald Trump?  The father of a relative of mine, an electrical engineer, actually worked for Trump on many of Trump’s buildings in New York. The other day, when I asked her what her father thought of Trump as an employer, she replied:

He liked him because he always paid him on time. He was very straightforward and could talk to anyone from the construction worker to the architect. He was the one who told my father he needed a hearing aid because my dad would ask him to repeat things in meetings all the time. The people who work in his office were very kind. A few of them came to the shivah for my Dad. They all had nice things to say about my Dad.

That doesn’t sound anything like the public Trump we have come to know. He comes across in my relative’s description as a responsible, personable, knowledgeable, and caring employer. He appears to be just the kind of employer one would like to work for.

Which Trump is the real Trump? My guess is that it’s not the Trump you see and hear on television.

Who You Calling Angry?

Saul Bellow Portrait Session

Saul Bellow – used his novels to attack his ex- wives.

Gore Vidal Portrait Session

Gore Vidal – attacked America, other writers, and just about everybody.

roth4

Philip Roth – attacked his ex -wife, Claire Bloom and her daughter, the GOP, Israel.

Angry Writers

The world is in a state of fury because of our last presidential election. In America, more than half of the adult population despises the winner as well as the yahoos who voted for him. The supporters of the losing candidate view those who voted for the winner as retarded (excuse me, mentally challenged), sort of like the hillbilly banjo boys in the movie Deliverance. Those who voted for the winner see the other half as elite, unpatriotic snobs who wanted to turn the country into a socialist state in which the government provides everything one may want for “free.” The fury is palpable; you can feel it at social events like weddings, funerals, and parties.You can also see it on the street where one side or the other wears their sometimes obscene views on their shirts or on the cardboard signs they brandish.

While the commotion raged outside, I had lunch recently with Dan Rottenberg, my editor when I submitted essays during the 80s and 90s to a Center City paper, then called The Welcomat. Most of my essays were about my experience as a Philadelphia public high school teacher. The Welcomat was fun to write for because Dan loved to publish articles on controversial subjects that were almost sure to provoke a usually angry response from readers who would then submit letters or articles themselves. He saw it as a kind of public forum where writers could engage in spirited arguments. Dan believed that conflict was at the heart of the best opinion writing.

I hadn’t seen Dan in years and I enjoyed talking with him about various subjects. I met him at his office and the first thing he brought up was a satirical article that he had written and published in the Welcomat many years ago lampooning me and my essays as angry and bitter. He wrote that I was winner of the “Nobel Prize for Bitterness.”

I don’t remember the details of Dan’s Welcomat piece back then, but years later in 2011 when he became the editor and then president of the on-line Broad Street Review, he wrote about me again. This time he compared my articles to the posts of a blogger named Natalie Munroe, an 11th grade English teacher who was then in the news . Munroe wrote, for example, “My students are out of control. They are rude, disengaged, lazy whiners.” She also described her students as “frightfully dim” and “utterly loathsome.” She added that if allowed, “Her report cards would include comments like, ‘Dresses like a streetwalker’ or ‘I hate your kid’…etc.”

As I said, most of my essays were about my experiences as a teacher and they were sometimes critical of my students, but I never used disrespectful language like that Dan attributed to Natalie Munroe.  Moreover, most of my “angry” criticism was aimed not at the students but rather at the many administrators in the system, from the principal on down to the assistant to the assistant to the vice principal in charge of whatever.  My essays sought to expose the large number of personnel in the schools who did not teach (or did not teach very much) and who typically were contemptuous of classroom teachers. A number of them were what Tom Wolfe called flak-catchers; that is, they saw their job as appeasing students, parents, and community activists. That their efforts to appease ended up in undercutting teachers was rarely considered. I can think only of one administrator in my years of teaching who considered the poisonous classroom environment such knee-jerk appeasement created.

One example concerns a friend (now unfortunately deceased) who taught Spanish. A student was unhappy about the “unsatisfactory” behavior grade she had received. She went directly to the principal who told her to discuss the grade with the teacher. The teacher explained why he had given her that grade, but that was not enough for her. She went back to the principal, this time with her father. The principal told them to return again to the teacher and discuss the grade with him. They did so, and the teacher explained again. They then went to the principal (this process played out over many days) and demanded a meeting with the principal and the teacher. The principal once again agreed to their demand. Before that however, the principal sent an official summons to the teacher ordering him to attend the meeting and advising him to bring union representation. At that point, the teacher wrote to the principal that he had decided to change the unsatisfactory behavior grade to “excellent” rather than merely satisfactory. He explained to the principal that he was very busy and thus was not able to attend the meeting.

The principal had achieved his goals. He happily cancelled the meeting and informed the student and her father of the “good news.” What the principal wanted was not only to pacify the girl and her father by indirectly forcing the teacher to change the grade, but  also to allow the girl and her father the opportunity to figuratively kick the teacher’s rear end a few times. Thus they, the principal hoped, would be satisfied and the principal would be shielded from criticism and reprimand from higher school system officials (whose job was also to appease) and the ever-present community activists to which the student and father would certainly have gone if their demands were not met. Although I remember being unsurprised by my friend’s ordeal, I was still angry.

Back to Dan’s comparison of my essays to the blog posts of Natalie Munroe. Dan asks, “…was Ron James a dedicated teacher venting his legitimate frustrations with a broken system? Or was he taking out his anger on his students and their parents, having ceased to think of them as his clients?” For one thing, public school students are not a teacher’s clients; the taxpayers who pay the salaries of the teachers and everyone else who works in the schools are the clients. Yes the parents are clients, but only to the extent that they actually pay taxes.

Dan said that I sounded “very much like Natalie Munroe” when I wrote that “Many of the students I teach behave as if they have no responsibility at all for their education.” I never saw Munroe’s blog, so I can only go by the examples Dan gives that I cite above. Thus I would conclude: To compare my analysis to Natalie Munroe’s name-calling is nothing short of ridiculous. The examples are not in the same ballpark; they are not even in the same universe!

As I said before, Dan likes to create conflict (and anger). He often does this by baiting people. He is certainly correct that conflict is at the heart of interesting writing, mostly because it provokes anger which produces response. In the Welcomat Dan allowed all sides of an issue to be aired (even responses that were incomprehensible or inane). In doing that, Dan provided a valuable public service which wasn’t and isn’t often provided by “mainstream” newspapers like the Inquirer and (the most powerful exponent of one-sided opinion) the New York Times.

Still, isn’t anger a prime motivation for writers? George Orwell, considered by many to be one of the greatest essayists, wrote:  “One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.” I wonder how today’s university students would react if Orwell were alive and invited to speak at their schools. That line might make even Dan Rottenberg hesitate to publish it. But, to his credit, I think he would.

Manchester by the Sea: A Masterful Portrait of Loss and Redemption

mv5bmjg5zjhhzwmtmwm3mc00ntflltgym2ytnmzknwyyyzzhyjzkl2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymdc2ntezmw-_v1_sy1000_sx1500_al_

Casey Affleck as Lee and Lucas Hedges as Patrick

Last night I left Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea feeling that I had just seen something moving and powerful, but I couldn’t figure out why I had such strong feelings.The movie is long and the many flashbacks often make it hard to follow (Did this event happen before or after that event?). After thinking about it, I think I know now what Lonergan is saying in his film: Life is often tragic, whether because of fate or because of human behavior, and finding redemption is a long and difficult process, but achievable.

Manchester is both a story and a character study. The main character Lee is a working class family man who makes a horrible mistake that results in devastating loss, perhaps the worst kind of loss that one can imagine. Afterwards, Lee is interviewed by two or three policemen who are obviously very sympathetic to him. When the interview is finished, Lee asks the policemen, “Are you going to let me go?” They respond,”A mistake is not a crime.” Lee is astonished and disappointed that the police do not wish to punish him for, in his mind, an act of enormous evil. A digression: Lonergan’s policemen are quite unlike police as they are usually portrayed in movies nowadays – as trigger happy, unsympathetic liars.

Since the police refuse to punish him, Lee punishes himself. He constantly starts fist fights that he knows he cannot win with groups of men who always pulverize him.   He lives alone in small, run down apartments and even an unfurnished basement, and he refuses offers of friendship.

He does have one close relationship – with his nephew Patrick. His brother who dies at an early age from heart disease (a tragedy caused by fate) appoints Lee to be his son’s guardian.

Patrick is also suffering, not only because of his father’s early death, but also because of his mother’s alcoholism and then abandonment. When the mother apparently reforms (although there are hints that she really hasn’t), she tries to find comfort in fundamentalist Christianity which is not for either Patrick or Lee.

Patrick, age 16, finds comfort and distraction in sex. He has two girlfriends at the same time. Lee is offered sex a number of times, but refuses it. Lee  understands that sex will not provide forgiveness for his mistake, and he denies himself pleasure or distraction; he wants pain and suffering.

In another moving and crucial scene (like the one with the policemen), Lee runs into his former wife Randi who has remarried and given birth to a child. Despite that, Randi is suffering and desperate to reconcile with Lee. She offers to meet him for lunch; he refuses. She says that she loves him, which has no effect on Lee. Randi wants to re-create the past which she, on some level, believes would relieve her pain. Lee understands that they cannot re-create the past; what is done is done.

As Patrick’s guardian, Lee develops a kind of father-son relationship with his nephew. In the last scene, Lee and Patrick are shown sitting on a fishing boat at the end of the deck. You see them from somewhat of a distance, but you can’t miss that Lee is smiling at Patrick. He hasn’t smiled for a long time.

Lonergan is making a simple point (it might even be considered  a cliche): Redemption and forgiveness come through escaping from your head and devoting yourself to helping others who have also lost their way.

The point may be simple, but most of what Faulkner called life’s “eternal truths” are simple. But Manchester by the Sea is not so simple. It is a masterful examination of people, who in different ways, endure and deal with life’s tragedies.

 

 

The Wisdom of Ike

images

In my last post about my experience in the 50s, I touched on the politics of that decade but focused mostly on how the people I knew in my hometown of Chester, PA reacted to them. Today I consider the politicians of the 50s very interesting, especially President Eisenhower. One reason I consider him more interesting than his successors is that much of what we thought of him and his presidency back then, in retrospect, turned out to be wrong.

As I said in my last post, many people considered him to be boring and not too bright; to many, he was a do-nothing president, although he was highly popular through all of his time in office. All he appeared to do is play golf, and he didn’t mind that the press gleefully published photo after photo of him on the links with his rich friends. The press photographers  particularly liked it when Eisenhower was wearing some silly looking hat.

Ike’s two time opponent Adlai Stevenson came across as highly intelligent, if not particularly attractive or exciting. He was an elegant extemporaneous speaker and his prepared speeches were as well, even if they contained no particularly memorable lines that I can recall. Eisenhower was, on the other hand, a poor extemporaneous speaker whose “fractured syntax” (as it was called back then) often left his listeners confused. Some blamed Ike’s often puzzling use of words on the heart attack and stroke he suffered while in office.

The best portrait of Eisenhower and that era that I’ve read is the book Nixon Agonistes by Garry Wills, published in 1970. Wills’s analysis of Eisenhower’s personality and his view of the presidency is fascinating and transforms the image that most people had of him.

As Wills sees it, Eisenhower understood that the American people were exhausted after having endured the Great Depression, World War II, the invention and use of the atomic bomb, and the Korean War. What the veterans and all Americans needed was a return to normal life which meant for the middle class: acquiring an education, pursuing a career, and raising a family. Thus, despite the continuing Cold War with its threat of nuclear annihilation, Eisenhower did everything he could to minimize their effect on American life. Ike was the role model of the 50’s – the relaxed, successful man who, when he wasn’t working, enjoyed playing golf.

There was some Cold War activity during Eisenhower’s tenure, but none of it led to the brink of war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. One event was the Suez Crisis in which Israel, France and Britain invaded Egypt to remove Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser from power after he “nationalized” the Suez Canal. Eisenhower took the lead in defusing the conflict by pressuring the invading countries to withdrawal. There were some CIA coups, for example, in Iran. That CIA operation came back to haunt us in the 70’s when Islamists overthrew the Shah and took American diplomats and other embassy employees hostage. But at the time, these events were barely noticed by most Americans.

Eisenhower is often criticized for his apparent passivity concerning two crucial domestic issues during his time in office: the Civil Rights Movement and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Eisenhower didn’t say or do anything about the plight of blacks until the Supreme Court’s Brown versus Board of Education ruling in 1954.  Before that, his inaction was partly due to his concern that the communists would use the movement for anti-American propaganda. But after the Brown decision, he was on firm legal ground in sending troops to integrate Little Rock, Arkansas’s Central High School. One thing he never wanted to do is have a personal fight with some segregationist governor. But the Brown decision made that unnecessary because he could defend his actions as enforcing the Supreme Court’s decision, without, as I recall, even mentioning segregationist Arkansas governor Orville Faubus’s name.

The same is true about the way he handled McCarthy. Eisenhower despised McCarthy, most especially when he claimed former army general and secretary of state George Marshall was a part of  “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” Eisenhower was also incensed when McCarthy accused the Army of being “soft on communism.” He toyed with the idea of attacking McCarthy directly; he even made a speech which contained such an attack in the text, but he left that part out when he delivered it. But as Garry Wills points out, Eisenhower refused to get down in the gutter with McCarthy. He believed that when President Truman spoke out against McCarthy, he “created a monster.” In other words when the President goes after an individual, he gives a demagogue like McCarthy presidential prestige which demeans the office and raises up the stature of the target. Eisenhower decided that the best way to fight McCarthy was to ignore him. Eventually McCarthy self-destructed.

Although Eisenhower was very popular throughout his two terms, Democrats and the press still thought of him as a boring, amiable dope. Newsman Walter Cronkite tells the story of the time CBS News president Fred Friendly came to him with the idea of doing a show commemorating a D-Day anniversary in which Cronkite and Eisenhower would go to Normandy, and Cronkite would interview Eisenhower about his recollections of D-Day and the war.

Cronkite’s reaction was that such a program had to be extremely dull because Eisenhower was extremely dull. Also the show was to be broadcast in 1964, and Cronkite believed that time would have taken its toll on the former president, especially because of the heart attack and stroke he had suffered. Cronkite was a military reporter during the war and shared the conventional wisdom most soldiers believed about Eisenhower and most of their superiors, that they didn’t know what they were doing; and that if they (the ordinary soldiers) were running the war, things would be a lot better. Although its origin is unknown, I believe the acronym Snafu came from the second World War (situation normal, all fucked up), and represented the view of many GIs. Jack Kennedy, who had been in the Navy, thought much the same about Eisenhower, whom he referred to as “the old man.”

Despite his misgivings, Cronkite did the interview and was amazed that Eisenhower had total recall of the D-Day battle and the war. The New York Times was also surprised at the depth of Ike’s memory of minute details of the war. As I said earlier Jack Kennedy viewed Ike much the same way as Cronkite; that is, until he met with the former president after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. He too was impressed by Eisenhower’s wise advice and knowledge which completely changed his view of “the old man.”

Which brings me to Donald Trump. I reluctantly voted for Trump, mostly because of what the Democratic Party has become, the party of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Joseph Epstein put it well in an op-ed piece yesterday in the Wall Street Journal,  “I… feared that the country was sinking slowly downhill under Democratic leadership – with its stagnant economy; its foreign policy failures; its sad identity politics; its poorly performing educational system, from central-city public schools to high price universities.” Although I am happy to see the back of the Clintons, I don’t think any Democratic candidate would be different; any one of them would try to further push us down the path that Obama set us on, which is to transform the country into a European style social democratic system with confiscatory tax rates and cradle to grave welfare for all.

So Trump was the only alternative. Since he has taken office, Trump has proven to me that he doesn’t know how or doesn’t want to act like a president should act. To be sure, I think a lot of the criticism of the “travel ban” is overstated since any program that involves the vetting of thousands of refugees is unlikely to run smoothly. I have read that the vetting of a refugee takes eighteen to twenty-four months; that alone is likely to draw much criticism. No, it is the what he said to Fox’s Bill O’Reilly that I find really disturbing.  His answer to O’Reilly’s observation that Putin is a killer was that we have killers here too. This is the worst kind of moral equivalence, a favorite argument of the far left. It was dangerous when Obama did it, but it is much more disturbing when a Republican president does it. Also I have read that Trump rejects the idea of American exceptionalism which I take to mean that America is the only country with the resources and military power to protect the Free World. Trump says that American exceptionalism is “an insult” to other countries which puts him in the same boat as Obama, Sanders and Warren.

Then there are the constant attacks on anyone who criticizes him via tweets. President Eisenhower understood that it is a fool’s errand to attack your opponents, a lesson that  Trump better learn. I consider Trump distasteful and vulgar, but I voted for him anyway because I feared the alternative more. But there is a limit. Spouting off the arguments of the far left and obsessively tweeting attacks on critics brings me close to supporting a President Pence.

My Fifties

t1663950-460

Rosa Parks -The Montgomery Bus Boycott

marlonbrando-1

Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront

8d4c76c605da50eacb1c456a0b6d70ba

Phil and Jim’s Hoagie and Steak Sandwich Shop, Parkside, PA.

With all the demonstrations and protests around the country, some observers see a return to the 1960s. In the latest edition of Commentary Magazine in an essay subtitled “The sixties, forever with us,” Joseph Epstein says about the era, “It’s a Rorschach Test: say what you think of the 1960s and you reveal a great deal about yourself.”  I thought I would apply a similar test to myself, but I grew up in the 1950s. What, if anything, do my thoughts about the 50s reveal about me?

Much has been written about the 50s. J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951, creates an America full of “phonies,” except for young people, like the main character Holden Caulfield, who was authentic and truthful. Salinger’s novel was prophetic: He predicted the culture of wise, honest young and clueless, phony adults–a world view that would become gospel in the succeeding decades. Journalist David Halberstam’s The Fifties saw the decade as another Dark Age in contrast to the colorful and bright decade that followed.

My 50s were not like the decade described by Salinger and Halberstam. Born in 1943, I grew up in Chester, Pennsylvania, and was a part of its small Jewish community.  Our house was in the relatively affluent part of town, which was then mostly working class. We lived in a small house with three bedrooms and one bathroom. We owned one car, so my mother had to drive my father to his business (a men’s clothing store) and then pick him up at the end of the day. As I remember, the multi-car family was a rarity in 1950s Chester.

One great thing about our house is that our backyard looked out on a large park . Running through the park was a long, fairly steep, brick road that was terrific for sledding in snowy weather; it was even better when ice was mixed in with the snow. The park was great for sports. Two kids on the block were the sons of the football and basketball coach at the Pennsylvania Military College (PMC), which is now Widener University. The older of the two organized sports for the block. When major league baseball teams began their spring training, we started ours. The same was true of football season. During the winter, we played basketball at a nearby church. I was a fairly good athlete, mostly as a result of what I learned in the park behind my back yard.

I attended Chester High School, which was then half black and half white. During those years, I never saw arguments or fist fights between any white and black students. I did witness (rarely) fights between members of the same race. Whites and blacks got along well; at least it appeared so. The only “segregation” I saw in high school was at the weekly Saturday dances, where I never saw a black student. There were certainly no rules barring blacks from attending; they simply chose not to for some reason. On the other hand, black and white both came to the proms.

My view of the decade is that it was one of peace, prosperity, and security.  Our politics were based on the Depression and World War II. Since our parents had lived through the Depression, they were very careful about money, so they were frugal, wary of investing in stocks, and they also expected the government to manage the economy responsibly. Unlike the generations of the 60s and later whose politics were shaped by the Vietnam War, our generation’s politics were shaped by the lessons learned from the Second World War: Have a strong military and be prepared to intervene in conflicts involving your enemy before they get out of control. Never seek to appease. It’s always better to have a short, small war than a large, long one. Hence, both political parties during the 50s were united when it came to foreign policy: They both believed in a strong defense and taking a hard line towards communist regimes around the world. It was later, during the 60s and the subsequent decades, that the Democratic Party became the party of pacifism and protest, in large part because of the Vietnam War. Thus began the political polarization we still have today.

Blacks were one group who certainly did not enjoy the 50s, for they still endured segregation and white violence, but even then there were signs of hope: the Montgomery Bus Boycott and President Eisenhower’s sending federal troops to enforce the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School. These events were the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement that resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Bill that officially ended segregation in the 60s. (Eventually, the Civil Rights Movement was influenced by the Black Power movement and that transformed many blacks I knew to be outwardly friendly and apolitical into angry militants. This, like the war, caused the Democrats to move leftward to the point that many appeared to be anti-American, pro-communist.)

My family, like most Jewish families in Chester in the 50s, registered Republican and voted Democratic. They did so because of the Republican machine that controlled Chester and the rest of Delaware County. It was obviously much better to be registered Republican if you wanted the city government to help you get a job or, if you were self-employed, to promote your economic interests.

As I said, in my view President Eisenhower presided over a peaceful, prosperous country. But my family, like most other Jewish families, didn’t think much of him. Why?  What they said was that he “doesn’t do anything.” There was the joke about Eisenhower being “the golf pro at the White House.” But part of the reason, I am sure, was that Eisenhower was a Republican. My family, again like most Jewish families, revered the Democrat Adlai Stevenson. They felt so strongly about Adlai because he was not only a liberal intellectual but also had, they believed, a sense of humor, though I don’t remember him saying anything memorably funny. When Jack Kennedy began to be discussed as a presidential candidate, the Jews in Chester were not happy for two reasons: He was a Catholic, which meant the pope would really be running the country, and Kennedy’s father was a pro-Nazi, anti-semite (unfortunately true). I also remember that my mother liked Barry Goldwater because he was half-Jewish, which had to mean that he was a liberal!

Yes, there were repugnant aspects of the 50s, like the drunken demagogue Joe McCarthy’s self-serving witch hunt for communists in the State Department and the Army. He never presented any evidence to support his accusations. But the Congressional investigations were based on evidence. What did the people I grew up with think of all that? Some far left-wing Jews in Chester objected to any investigation into communist attempts to subvert various American institutions. And they strongly believed that those convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, like Alger Hiss and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were innocent victims. But most of the Jews I knew in Chester either had no opinion about it or believed Hiss and the Rosenbergs were guilty and felt ashamed that the Rosenbergs were Jewish.

Although the 50s have been considered to be a cultural wasteland, I never thought so. We had the Philadelphia Orchestra directed by Eugene Ormandy, an orchestra that was considered one of the finest in the world. I wasn’t much of a jazz fan at the time, but many consider the 50s to be the golden age of jazz.  Miles Davis recorded his classic album Kind of Blue in the 50s. Some of the greatest movies were made during the 50s. I particularly liked those made by Elia Kazan: On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata, A Face in the Crowd, East of Eden, and America America. In the theater, Kazan directed Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

In the 50s I loved rock ‘n’roll and singers like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. The 50s saw some of the best and most influential rock musicians: Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Etta James, Ruth Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis. I was never an Elvis fan, though I could see why he appealed to girls. Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald were at their peak in the 50s and recorded their best albums then. Sinatra’s classic albums Songs For Swinging Lovers, A Swinging Affair, and Only The Lonely were recorded in the 50s as were Ella’s great Songbooks. Conventional wisdom is that the 60s produced the best rock music. Today I do listen to Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Randy Newman and Eric Clapton, but not much else from that decade. I also like the Blues, and most of the best blues musicians came up in the 50s.

The 50s were to me the best decade to be alive and growing up. The streets of Chester were for the most part safe. Nobody I knew took drugs.  After Korea, there were no wars in the 50s. Yes, there was the threat of nuclear war, but I don’t remember thinking about it much.

A few years ago, a friend’s father showed me a photo of a meeting of the Chester Businessmen’s Association taken in the 1950s.  I recognized most of the men, and I was shocked to realize that I was older than the men in the picture. Here were serious grownups in serious suits and ties with serious expressions on their faces. I thought, what goofballs we have become in the succeeding decades. The romanticization of youth created by Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye persists to this day. Just last night, at a local delicatessen I noticed that most of the men, from their 40s to their late 80s(!), were dressed like kids with the ubiquitous blue jeans and sneakers. To be fair, I was dressed like a kid as well. Some would point to this as a sign of progress because wearing the kind of clothes that only kids used to wear is more comfortable than wearing a suit and tie. Maybe it is, but I see it as evidence of a juvenilization of adulthood; if you look like an adolescent, you think like an adolescent. I think that the disappearance of real grownups is a major reason that our culture has been so trivialized and corrupted since the 50’s.

My best friend, with whom I had political differences, often said to me that my distaste for the 60s is a result of his belief that I didn’t (in his words) “get laid” during the age of drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll. That is not quite true: I had two close girlfriends during that time, and I met my wife during the horrible, legendary year of 1968 when both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were murdered and a large contingent of anti-war, pro-North Vietnamese protest marchers provoked what the press called “a police riot” around the site of the Democratic National Convention. I will admit that I probably thought that I wasn’t “getting enough,” but what ordinary male in his twenties doesn’t believe that?  Perhaps someone like Mick Jagger thought that he had had enough when he was in his twenties.

Even though I consider the 50s much superior to the 60s and the decades that followed, that doesn’t mean that I was a happy-go-lucky boy. I felt that I was neither good looking enough nor tall enough. I found it very difficult to talk to girls. My family life wasn’t often harmonious. All of that was very upsetting to me; perhaps much of it still is. Despite that, I still consider the 50s a wonderful decade.

So what does my Rorschach Test reveal about me?  Growing up in Chester in the 50s is probably the reason I tend to be conservative in my politics. I consider most of the changes that occurred in the 60s to have been destructive of traditional Western values like discipline, restraint, morality, and patriotism. It also says to me that it is a mistake to blame your problems on the particular time when you were young.