Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Clear Blue Skies In Toronto

Looking Blue: After weeks of grey leaden skies, the sun appears and my mood lightens, even if the temp is minus 9°C (16°F). This northern-view photo was taken from my second-floor balcony,. You will note the snow on the ground below, it also having a blue tone.
Photo: (c) Perry J. Greenbaum

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Day My Dad Died

Life-Changing Memories

My Father: This Polaroid photo from the early 1970s shows my father, on the left, with his best friend and neighbour, Mr, Pakman. Both came from Poland and worked as carpenters. (For an excellent article on Poland, see here.)
Photo Credit: (c) Perry J. Greenbaum, circa 1970s


I do remember the important details of November 6, 1980. It was Thursday; it was after sunset; it was a grey overcast day. It was the day after my 23rd birthday. It was the day my father died of colon cancer (the same disease that would three decades later assault me without mercy); he was 69, two months short of entering his seventh decade. But this time would not be granted to him for reasons that I have yet to comprehend.

My mother was at the hospital, which was where she always was these last few weeks; I was home frying some chicken and potatoes for supper for my twin brother (fraternal); my older brother was out visiting a friend. The phone rang at approximately 5:45 p.m. For some reason, it startled me and I burned my hand with oil, leaving a scar that remained for years. I walked the short distance to the hallway where the black rotary phone was set up on a small mahogany desk my father had made years before. After I said “hello,” the person on the other end said, “You better come to the hospital, now. Your mother needs you.”

I dropped the spatula I was still holding in my hand; I hung up the phone on to the receiver. I then turned to my brother, and said, “We have to go to the hospital; Dad is dead.” His was wordless but what he felt was written on his face.

I can still recall an image of my father at work, swinging a hammer, effortlessly and efficiently driving nails into pine boards. I often helped my father during my summers off from school, an idea that my two boys would today find odd, perhaps quaint, even unfair, denying them of their free time to pursue their own interests. My father, the carpenter, trained as a cabinet-maker in Europe, worked hard and enjoyed life, defeating death on many occasions during the Second World War. Not this time, however. How can it be that at one moment there is standing before you a strong living human being; and in another moment months and years later, there is not? Philip Roth writes in Patrimony: A True Story (1991) about reconciling the impossible:
To unite into a single image the robust solidity of the man in the picture with that strickenness on the sofa was and was not an impossibility. Trying with all my mental strength to join the two fathers and make them one was a bewildering, even hellish job. And yet I suddenly did feel (or made myself feel) that I could perfectly well remember (or make myself think I remembered) the very moment when that picture had been taken, over half a century before. I could even believe (or make myself believe) that our lives only seemed to have filtered through time, that everything was actually happening simultaneously, that I was as much back in Bradley with him towering over me as here in Elizabeth with him all but broken at my feet.   (231)
When a person we love dies, we are left with only memories of him or her. It is undoubtedly true that a part of us dies with the death of a loved one. Death erases, and never adds.

My Younger Father: In this undated photo is my father, on the left, showing some personality that I did not see much of while growing up. I am sure my children also wonder if their parents had “a life“ before they became so old.
Source: (c) Perry J. Greenbaum


I mechanically turned off the gas stove and took the frying pan full of food and placed it on the counter. I ignored the pain of my left hand. Both of us quickly and silently got dressed and hurried out the door. We made it to the hospital, which was about seven blocks away, in about ten minutes. We took the elevator up to the sixth floor, where we met our Mom, who was sitting on a chair outside my father’s room in the corridor; she was not her self. The nurse said she had been sedated; and she then showed us my father. My brother and I looked in and saw a man who resembled our father, but his body was cold to the touch and without life. And then while we were standing there, the nurse (an Asian) did something that I will never forget. She said, “Can you hurry up; we have to bring the body downstairs to the morgue.“ A heartless women had just spoken.

Not wanting to make waves, or insisting on our rights to be treated and viewed as human beings, we left soon after, my mother supported by us both. When we got home, it was around 7 p.m., and I first made arrangements with the funeral home to pick up my father's body from the hospital. I then started phoning family and friends. My older brother soon arrived, and we told him the news. Shortly, friends and neighbours came pouring into our modest three-bedroom home, bringing not only their sympathies but food. Lots of food. Particularly memorable was the many boxes of food brought in by the Workmen’s Circle or Arbeter Ring (אַרבעטער־רינג), the Jewish fraternal organization that my father had worked tirelessly for for decades. These men were part of the Chevra kadisha (חברא קדישא).

On Sunday November 9th the funeral took place. The funeral hall was packed with family, my Dad's friends, my mother's friends, my brother's friends, our neighbours and many others I did not personally know. There were hundreds present to pay respects to an unpretentious hard-working and caring man from Poland. Many spoke from the pulpit passionately about the man they knew, but whom I did not. My father had done many good things (mitzvot) for many people that he did not tell me about. In some ways I was not surprised; in many ways he was private, but had always told me “to be a mensch.” I say this without sentimentality or embellishment, but my father was “the mensch” he very much wanted us (me and my two brothers) to be.

I have met few like him, but this is understandable; after all is said and done, he is my father. Not everyone has the same relationship with his father that I did. Many move on easily and without any hint of regret. I miss him; I hang on to his memory. Confession: I am not sure what this says about me. But I do value life, more than anything else.

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My father’s died, passed from my presence, on 28 Cheshvan 5741 in accordance with the Jewish calendar; thus, his Yahrzeit (“anniversary of death”) is on 28 Cheshvan. This corresponds, this year, to Friday November 21 in the civil calendar; the evening before, in accordance to tradition, I will light a memorial candle.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Let's Reason Together

The Human Landscape

In an essay in The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier defends human reason against its opponents, which are many and varied. 
One of the most absurd charges against reason is that it is authoritarian. The postwar Marxist intellectuals who conflated reason with “instrumental reason” and “instrumental reason” with authoritarianism helped to perpetuate this canard. There is nothing rational about tyranny: it is stupid and it is mad. Its “rationality,” which is to say, its internal coherence and its capacity to function, is not the same as reason. Quite the contrary: it is reason that exposes this rationality for what it really is. More importantly, reason is essentially anti-authoritarian because a rational discussion is never closed. (Whereas nothing shuts down a conversation more brusquely than an emotion.) That is why modern thinkers still engage with ancient thinkers. That is why science never ends. New objections and new findings are always welcome. In the war against reason in much of contemporary philosophy, one of the cleverest tricks is to present reason’s rigor, its insistence upon the importance of the inquiry into truth and falsehood, as discouraging to thought. But the contrary is the case. What could be more encouraging to thought than the belief in the possibility of intellectual progress? This is a gathering to which all minds are invited. They have merely to agree to behave like minds. But then minds are not supposed to behave like hearts.
Reason frightens some people, but reason is never as frightening as its opposite.
 […]
The application of reason to public affairs is sometimes confused with technocracy. Yet there are no technocrats of first principles, no specialists in what to believe. Some people regard themselves as such experts, of course; but too much authority is conceded to them. Good judgment cannot be prescribed or outsourced. There are no blue-ribbon panels on truth and goodness. The responsibility for belief falls equally on all of us. The search for values, and for the grounds of values, is catch-as-catch-can: it may lead the thoughtful individual to books, to films, to travel, to participation, to conversation, to friendship and love, as the long work of mental clarification proceeds. A sense of the provisional about one’s view of the world is usually a sign of intellectual probity: most conviction exists in the vast cold space between perfect obscurity and perfect certainty. The thoughtful individual is condemned to an existence of corrections and amplifications, both analytical and empirical, in which Jamesian leaps are the selfish indulgences of impatient minds.
In a world that is both complicated and complex, and now seemingly more so than decades ago, there is a need to seek easy answers. Provisionality is the enemy of certainty, since one’s views, particularly on the larger matters of life, can change, based on finding new convincing evidence. Yes, to use my experience, “corrections and amplifications” has been my lot. It has not always been easy; it has at times been lonely, as old friends leave.

A reasonable mind resists this path of least resistance, to use an analogy found in one of the branches of fundamental physics. It seeks answers whenever and wherever these can be found; “truth,” or the search for values, is not something that one ought to leave only to the religious or philosophical leaders. Their thoughts are doubtless important, but these need be investigated and weighed in light of other equally valid thoughts and ideas found in the great pantheon of human thought, which includes both arts and science. Our values are deeply personal. They deserve our attention.

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You can read more at [NewRep]

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Excusing Karl Marx

Book Review

To read Karl Marx is to read a writer whose influence is felt today; this is not to say that what he wrote was greatly beneficial to humanity; the opposite case can be made, since Marx did not place human nature, human motivations and human desires in the best possible light. To a large degree, his views has led to the diminishment of the individual, and any writer excusing this is, by default, excusing and defending some of the greatest man-made tragedies in modern history. Prof. George Jochnowitz writes: “Conflict of interest is natural and universal. Politics is a way to reconcile, or at least, manage conflict of interest. When individual needs and individuality itself are rejected, individuals themselves will be considered worthless. Politics was outlawed in every country that worshiped Marx. It is no accident, comrade. Countries as different as Russia, Ethiopia and China all developed the same architecture, the same “neighborhood committees,” the same fear of thought. What is even worse, Communist countries pursued policies that led to starvation on a catastrophic scale. The worst famine in human history took place in China between 1959 and 1961. A famine has been devastating North Korea for years.” 

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by George Jochnowitz

Karl Marx: A Life
by Francis Wheen. New York and London: 
W. W. Norton and Co., 2000, 431 pp., $27.95.


The story of Karl Marx’s life is the story of his work. Marx devoted his life to his work: bringing about the revolution he knew would come and change the world. During certain periods, he was a political activist, but at every stage in his career he was a writer—even when he produced nothing but disorganized, unpublishable notes.

Francis Wheen has many harsh things to say about the way Marx led his life, but he is convinced that Marx‘s writings are both correct and benevolent. Wheen describes Marx the person as rude, extravagant, and intolerant. To his credit, Wheen cites Marx’s writing to show his hostility, his wastefulness, and his bigotry. Marx supports his views with sarcasm—rudeness—rather than examples or argument. He writes extravagantly, becoming ever more involved in his own verbal games. Furthermore, Marx made it very clear that he couldn't abide those who differed from him, politically or otherwise.

Any discussion of Marx‘s intolerance must begin with his pair of essays together known as “On the Jewish Question.” Wheen gives us the following excuse for Marx’s anti-Semitism: “Those who see this as a foretaste of Mein Kampf overlook one essential point: in spite of the clumsy phraseology and crude stereotyping, the essay was actually written as a defence of the Jews.” (56) Wheen has set up a straw man. Marx did not advocate genocide; moreover, he did not believe that there should be discriminatory laws on the books, as did Bruno Bauer, the writer whom Marx was answering in his essays. Legality is not the problem. Demonization is what “On the Jewish Question” is about.

What Marx hated was alienation: a society based on division of labor where people produced commodities in order to earn money. He later would call this system capitalism. He blamed the Jews. Since Jews did not rule Europe, he explained it as follows: “Christianity issued from Judaism. It has now been reabsorbed into Judaism. ... It was only then [after Christianity had been reabsorbed] that Judaism could attain universal domination and turn alienated man and alienated nature into alienable, saleable objects, in thrall to egoistic needs and huckstering. ... The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism.”
There is something nonsensical about saying that Christianity has been reabsorbed into Judaism, but Marx liked to make extravagant statements without backing them up. He could then claim that Judaism had achieved universal domination and was guilty of the ultimate sin: the creation of capitalism. If most capitalists were Christians, capitalism was nevertheless the fault of Judaism. This is not merely nonsense; it is poison. Wheen is only looking for excuses when he describes “Concerning the Jews” as an answer to Bruno Bauer's opposition to legal rights for Jews. Marx didn’t believe legal rights mattered.

Marx continued to love Christianity despite his atheism and despite the “reabsorbtion” of Christianity into Judaism. “We can forgive Christianity much because it taught us the worship of the child,” said Marx to his daughter Eleanor after “patiently elucidating the story of the carpenter whom the rich men killed.” (215) Curiously, Wheen doesn’t mention the fact that Marx’s father converted his eight children to Christianity when Karl was six, although there is an endnote on Page 394 referring to an article called “The Baptism of Karl Marx” by Eugene Kamenka. In the text of his book, Wheen simply informs us that “Marx was a bourgeois Jew. ... He died an atheist.” (8)

In his writings, Marx talked of Judaism as the source of alienation. In his personal life, his hostility was clearly toward Jewish people, although they certainly weren’t the only targets of his scorn. Here is what he wrote about the noted socialist Ferdinand Lasalle: “Now this blend of Jewishness and Germanness, on the one hand, and basic negroid stock, on the other, must invariably give rise to a peculiar product. The fellow's importunity is also niggerlike.” (cited on 55 and again on 248). There is no reason to believe that Lasalle had any African ancestors, but Marx’s comments would be offensive whether he did or not. A different Jew, Joseph Moses Levy, “was subject to many pages of heavy-handed and anti-Semitic taunts for changing the spelling of his surname from ‘Levi.’ ” (242) ”... Levy‘s nose provides conversation throughout the year in the City of London” (243).

And here is what Marx said about his son-in-law, described by Wheen as a Creole: “Lafargue has the blemish customarily found in the negro tribe—no sense of shame, by which I mean shame about making a fool of oneself.” (291) As for the English, Wheen explains, “For the rest of his life, Marx’s view of the English proletariat oscillated between reverence and scorn.” (205) Yet the scorn is dominated: “One thing is certain, these thick-headed John Bulls, whose brainpans seem to have been specially manufactured for the constables’ bludgeons, will never get anywhere without a really bloody encounter with the ruling powers.” (206) Nor did Marx have a high opinion of women. When his daughter Eleanor was born, he wrote to Engels saying, “Unfortunately of the ‘sex’ par excellence. If it had been a male child, well and good.” (215)

Marx was famous for being insulting. His rudeness overlapped with his intolerance. The theoretical in Marx's writing was always reflected by the particular in Marx's life. In the case of the Jews, the demonization of Judaism is part of a general attack against human variety. Marx hated self-interest and confused it with variety. Marx couldn't understand that self-interest logically and inevitably included interest in one’s family, friends, community, country, and world. Nor could he grasp the fact that people have different tastes, talents, and abilities. “In a communist society there are no painters but only people who engage in painting among other activities,” he said. (97) Genius, for Marx, was merely a by-product of the system of alienated labor.

Marx the activist sometimes showed a willingness to compromise, at least for a while: “In his speeches and editorials he insisted that Germany must have a democratic government ‘of the most heterogeneous elements’ rather than a dictatorship of brilliant communists like himself; but the vehemence with which he delivered these views—flinging insults and derision at anyone who dared to disagree—suggested that this was a man who wouldn’t recognise pluralism if it was presented to him on a silver salver with watercress garnish.” (135-36). Wheen is not quite right about recognizing pluralism. Marx recognized it only too well—and hated it. “Like most of its twentieth-century successors this communist cell asserted its authority by purging anyone suspected of deviation from official correctness.” (103) A theory that has no place for human differences is logically one that eliminates these differences.

The Communist Manifesto, Marx’s most widely read work, was a call for the day when we would see the end of disagreement as well as the cessation of conflict of interest. The Manifesto rejects politics: “Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.” Marx hated civil society. He described it in the most offensive way he could think of: “It is from its own entrails that civil society ceaselessly engenders the Jew” (“On the Jewish Question”). In other words, civil society is so ugly that it excretes Jews from its bowels.

Conflict of interest is natural and universal. Politics is a way to reconcile, or at least, manage conflict of interest. When individual needs and individuality itself are rejected, individuals themselves will be considered worthless. Politics was outlawed in every country that worshiped Marx. It is no accident, comrade. Countries as different as Russia, Ethiopia and China all developed the same architecture, the same “neighborhood committees,” the same fear of thought. What is even worse, Communist countries pursued policies that led to starvation on a catastrophic scale. The worst famine in human history took place in China between 1959 and 1961. A famine has been devastating North Korea for years.

Wheen excuses the Manifesto, needless to say: “Any text from the 1840s will include passages that now seem slightly quaint or outdated; the same could be said for many party election manifestos or newspaper editorials published only a year or two ago. It was never intended to serve as a timeless sacred text, though generations of disciples have sometimes treated it as such.” (124) It is certainly true that Karl Marx wrote so very much and so very badly that readers miss the point of what he is saying. Yet elsewhere in his book, Wheen praises the validity of Marx's thinking: “Marx’s work has often been dismissed as ‘crude dogma,’ usually by people who give no evidence of having read him. It would be a useful exercise to force these extempore critics—who include the present British prime minister, Tony Blair—to study the Paris manuscripts, which reveal the workings of a ceaselessly inquisitive, subtle and undogmatic mind.” (68)

Obviously, Wheen doesn’t really believe Marx is outdated. Yet the passages he cites from the Paris manuscripts are neither subtle nor undogmatic: “So, Marx concludes, even in the most propitious economic conditions, the only consequence for the workers is ‘overwork and early death, reduction to a machine, enslavement to capital.’ ” (69) Wheen doesn’t know about the power of organization, the ability to form unions, or the importance of acting politically. Neither did Engels, who said “I delight in the testimony of my opponents” (83) when British newspapers wrote about the harsh conditions that faced workers. Conditions have improved in Britain, but in China, where there are no unions and no free newspapers, there are more people killed in coal-mining accidents per ton of coal produced than anywhere else in the world. (“Dangerous Coal Mines Take Human Toll in China,” The New York Times, June 19)

Marx, who never supported himself, loved money and spent it immediately when he acquired it. His wife Jenny—a patient, loving woman whose life was filled with tragedy—came from a rich family. "He was ridiculously proud of having married a bit of posh," Wheen informs us. (183) When various relatives of Jenny's died, the Marxes inherited money. Marx looked forward to the death of his wife's relatives: “Yesterday we were informed of a VERY HAPPY event, the death of my wife's uncle, aged ninety,” he wrote. According to Wheen, “For the previous few years this indestructible uncle had been referred to in the Marx household as ’the inheritance-thwarter.’ ” (219)

Jenny’s mother sent the Marxes a maidservant, Helene Demuth, “on permanent loan.” (91) It is not clear from Wheen’s book how—or if—Ms. Demuth was paid by the Marxes, who were usually broke. She lived with the Marxes until Jenny and Karl had both died, after which she spent the rest of her life with Friedrich Engels. (385) Her son, Freddy Demuth, was probably Marx's illegitimate child. The child was given to foster parents. (171-76) Perhaps one day DNA testing will shed more light on the question of Freddy Demuth’s paternity. For all intents and purposes, Helene Demuth was property—owned by Karl and Jenny Marx.

Marx’s major book was Capital, about money, property, and value. One of the ideas running through Marx’s work is the labor theory of value, which is the idea that the value of a commodity is the value of the raw materials plus the cost of the labor. It would follow from Marx’s reasoning that a $5 bill and a $10 bill are equally valuable, since the materials and labor that produced them are exactly equal. There is no place in Marx’s theory for services, no recognition of the necessity of stores or other markets, no acknowledgement of supply and demand. What if I worked on a painting just as hard as Rembrandt did? Would Rembrandt's work and mine be of equal value?

Wheen is fully aware that Marx's writing on economics makes no sense. Here is his excuse for Marx’s nonsense: “The absurdities to be found in Capital, which have been seized on so readily by those who wish to expose Marx as a crackpot, reflect the madness of the subject, not of the author.” (306)

This excuse is not satisfactory, not even to Wheen. Sane writing on mad subjects is certainly possible; moreover, it is often necessary as a way to deal with the madness. If Marx thought capitalism mad, he was under an obligation to point out the way to sanity.

Wheen then comes up with a brilliant and original excuse. Marx is another Laurence Sterne, author of the mad and maddening novel Tristram Shandy. “Like Tristram Shandy, Capital is full of systems and syllogisms, paradoxes and metaphysics, theories and hypotheses, abstruse explanations and whimsical tomfoolery. ... To do justice to the deranged logic of capitalism, Marx’s text is saturated, sometimes even waterlogged, with irony—an irony which has yet escaped almost every reader for more than a century.” (308)

Wheen is giving us a hint. If he claims that Marx’s Capital is all a big joke, he must be telling us something about his own book. Wheen has written a tour de force, a satire of Marx’s theory. It's too bad that Wheen himself has not understood the joke.

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George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at george@jochnowitz.net.

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Copyright ©2014. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This review originally appeared in the July/August 2000 issue of Midstream.It is republished here with the author’s permission.