Tuesday, April 25, 2017

An Evening With Philip Kerr

Sometimes 15 bucks can buy a lot. Here in London we are staying at the Langham Hotel, which is close to Regent Street, Oxford, Piccadilly, and across the street from the BBC. But the real reason we stay here, I think, is that it is close to Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street, which might be my wife's favorite book store. We checked in on Monday and the very next day we found ourselves perusing the shelves at Daunt Books – that is, she was perusing the shelves. I was sitting in a chair reading the first chapter of a book that started with the sentence something like this: “When I was fifteen I decided what I wanted to be when I grew up: French.” It seemed like a good book but I wondered if I would really read it when there was so much else on my night table and thought about how fully packed we already were, so I let it be as we went for lunch next door. But then a poster caught my eye: on Wednesday night Philip Kerr was coming to Daunt Books!

Philip Kerr is a favorite author, one of those for whom I don't think, I just get the latest book that comes out and read it and follow his character, Bernie Gunther, ex-Berlin policeman and eternally semi-compromised, hopefully not totally so since he is trying to do good, Nazi collaborator-underminer. I just buy every book, as I do with John Le Carré and Alan Furst, and probably like David McCullough, although I think I've missed one or two of his – but not Furst, Le Carré, or Kerr. With them it's every single one. They do spy stories, but that seems insufficient a description to me. These are intelligent and extremely literate narratives of imaginary people among real situations in the WWII and the Cold War. One learns a lot and one doesn't put the book down. If that “one” is me, anyway.

Ann was tired so I went to the talk alone, only a 12 minutes walk. I didn't know what to expect – book, yes; talk, no idea. But it turned out that the man is a real mensch. He doesn't waste sentences, he's full of thought and information, but he is also warm, intimate, frank, and interesting. A smart guy. Maybe he was especially warm because he felt at home here in London, where he looked forward to going home to his own bed, instead of a book tour hotel bed and up at 4 to leave for the plane at 5 and another city. The only thing worse than an American book tour, he said, would be not being asked to do an American book tour. Funny thing, though; here he was on Marylebone High Street, waxing intimate among friends and neighbors, but three of the questions came from Americans. We're everywhere!

So, since he is such a favorite author and this was such a newsy, informative talk, I thought it was worth recapitulating. And, it will come as no surprise to readers, adding in my own question to him and comments to him afterwards.

Interesting how he got into this line of work. He qualified as a lawyer, but didn't look forward to being a barrister – you have to choose your course pretty early in the UK. So he got an advanced degree in German jurisprudence – I think he went to school in Germany for a while when he didn't mesh exactly with English education, imagine that – and then went into the advertising business. But while others were taking the three hour advertising business lunch, he was researching and writing. First it was the London library, and then when he worked for Saatchi, he'd go to the British Museum Library in the morning and order some books that would take a few hours to arrive. So then he'd go to work – “work,” he said, with air quotes, “looking out the window for a few hours, it was the advertising business and that's the way it was then,” and then go back to the library instead of going to lunch. What a wonderful experience for him! The high ceilings, the desks, the heritage! And of course, access to everything.

He had also tried painting at one point. He taught himself, by going to the masters – the modern masters, not the old ones, they were too hard – and copying them. He said that if anyone came to visit him now they would find a lot of Miro's and Picasso's on the wall and think, “This fellow's doing pretty well.” It made me think about his writing, and how it's inevitable that we read and copy, and I'm sure that entered into his growth as an author.

What he thought was that the British authors who bookended the century in Germany were Isherwood – he loved Cabaret, and the interesting fact that you couldn't do the Horst Wessel song because that was forbidden in Germany, but the guy who wrote the substitute for the film did such a good job that everyone who listened thought it was authentic, and he was Jewish. And then Le Carré. Why hasn't Le Carré gotten the Nobel Prize, he wondered. God, the plots! They click together like a fine watch. Bob Dylan getting it, surely Le Carré is more worthy (I differ with him here – I think the Dylan award was great.) I think Kerr's admiration of the Le Carré plots is a nod from a professional to the ultimate master, like Klay Thompson admiring Steph Curry – you know the field very well, what it takes, and you can understand better than non-practitioners what mastery means, in detail. High praise indeed.

So what Kerr wished for in his heart of hearts, was to be sandwiched in between Isherwood and Le Carré. And guess what, amazingly, a few years ago he was in France, I think, or maybe Germany, not sure, and right there on a table in a book display was Isherwood on the left, Le Carré on the right, and there he was in the middle, Phillip Kerr. Dream come true. He took a picture and sent it to his mother.

An inevitable question came from the audience, Why write about that time, the war years, and why about Germany? Kerr answered that this was a time when you could easily tell the good guys from the bad guys. Hell, the bad guys wore black and had a skull and crossbones on their caps – how hard can it be? Which led him to remember a cartoon of two Nazis standing together in their uniforms, and one says to the other, “Is it possible we're the bad guys?” He said that when he started there wasn't that much written about that time, but now it's exploded. The last clear war with goodies and baddies.

Afterwards, when I chatted with him as he signed my book – typically, I again forgot to ask for the “For Budd” inscription and just got his scrawl, I always forget – I offered my preferred explanation to that question. My view is that WWII is the modern equivalent of the Trojan War, and they were still writing and singing about that 500 and 800 years later. Total war – they don't say “world war” for nothing. So, I told him, it's possible that he will be even more famous than he imagines. Kind of took him aback, but I just left him with that and left – although I did manage to say that I thought his books were terrific, and that he was terrific, “Not to be over the top,” I added.

He reflected on book tours a lot. His itinerary calls for him often to be met at the plane by “an escort.” Hmmm, said his wife, “An escort?” “Not that kind of escort,” he had to reply, of course. These escorts are usually ladies of a certain age, he said, often retired with wealthy husbands and looking for things to do. They pick you up. Remember, he said, you have to sit in the front in the passenger seat, not the back. “Very democratic.”

One of the things he does is ask escorts who they have escorted before, and who was the worst one and why. The lady he had in mind said, “Mitt Romney.”

Really? Why is that?”

Well, first of all, he sat in the back. And then he said, “Do you have a dog?”

No, why?”

Well, I see the leather is all scratched up and I wondered if you had a dog.”

The lady took great offense, putting down her car. I thought, So Mitt! Awkward to the end. Gets in the back because he is a plutocrat. But quite probably was trying to show he was as astute as Sherlock, and also to find common cause with his hostess because we all remember that Mitt likes dogs, and took Seamus to Canada on the roof of his car, to the endless delight of Gail Collins in the NYT. And all he comes off as, is an asshole. Poor Mitt. I guess.

But the worst pick up was Oliver Sachs in Germany, who was very quiet in the car until they came to a complete stop on the autobahn because of traffic. All of a sudden he shrieked, opened the car door and ran out onto the autobahn. Traffic picked up and his hosts tried to chase him down so he wouldn't get killed in traffic and to lure him back into the car. Which they did. He explained that he suffered from claustrophobia and had had an attack. Then the hosts had to rearrange the doors to his hotel room so he didn't feel constricted. Well, he could write.

Kerr talked about the talks he gives. Don't prepare, that's his advice. It will come across as cold and boxed up; instead, just let it flow. I think he's exactly right. This talk was that way, things came to mind, he has a very active mind, free associates well, is very fluent, and the enthusiasm is there as he discovers himself where he's going next.

Sometimes it leads to surprises. When he was in Lyon, he was asked if he would pick a picture in the art museum and talk about it. Sure, he said – always say yes, that's another thing he's found out. He figured that he'd go to the museum and talk for 5 or 10 minutes into a recorder or something like that. On the way there, he asked how long they would like him to talk. “An hour would be good,” they said. And there would be about 200 people there to listen.

He had prepared exactly nothing. So what he included us in was his facing the abyss and having to talk is way out. Which he did. He gave us the particulars, how he built up a case in figuring out why this picture interested him, and the one right next to it for that matter, the details of which I pretty much forget now, but it was memorable.

There was a lot of talk about Brexit. Kerr averred that he had been a Remain voter, but observed that this was not the first time England divorced itself from the continent, the first being 400,000 years ago as it floated away. I forget what he cited as the second time, probably Napoleon's time. He observed that all the separation comes from the hinterlands, which typically hate the central capital. As Roger Cohen writes in the NYT, The fracture between globalized metropoles and depressed regions.” Berlin is very different from the rest of Germany, they have a mordant sense of humor similar to the Brits, and the rest of Germany hates them. Same in France, same in the US, although he cited Washington rather than New York. Brexit is on everyone's mind, and at the time it wasn't clear what was going to happen in France. Today as I write this, it seems pretty clear that Macron and continuity will reign in the near future. Near term crisis averted, long term crisis still very much in play.

He also talked about the Germany-Greece nexus. Was it just after WWI that Greece went in hock to the German bankers? So this isn't the first time. And he cited the horror of Salonica that exported 98% of its Jews to Germany for killing, when the concentration of the Jewish population there was second only to Poland. Another overlooked horror. He's almost done with his next book – that was fast! - and it's about that.

Germany tried several times to dominate Europe. The first was at the time of Martin Luther – who, Kerr said, was a terrible man, a terrible anti-Semite. The Reformation led to German domination of the continent, in Kerr's view. More directly, they used their military in 1870, 1914, and 1939. But they learned. What they learned is that it's much easier to do it with finance. Germany calls the tune in Europe. What is it about the Germans, we always wonder? Kerr didn't go into it, but I remember a letter to the editor from a psychiatrist who had lived in Germany, concerning reunification. His observation was he would only start to trust the Germans when they changed their child rearing practices – they are brutal and unfeeling, just watch any German playground, and we know what that leads to

He was also asked about which Nazis he found most interesting. “Who's my favorite Nazi?” he asked, observing that it was a common question. “Who would I like to have dinner with?”

The first name was Goering. People forget what a hero he was, dating from from WWI, and he was very popular and charismatic. He would walk around Berlin and people would give him beer and wurst and he'd eat it – all the others would be afraid of being poisoned, but not him. He had a way with people, which paid off when he convinced a guard to smuggle him some poison at Nuremburg.

The other had to be Goebbels. Joey, after all, was actually a novelist, unpublished at first, but when he became Reich Minister of Propaganda, he got published in a hurry. Kerr imagined what that particular interview with the publisher was like. I actually was surprised because Bernie Gunther's boss was Heydrich at one point, and there's a lot of him in all the books. But I admit it's hard to be fond of Heydrich, or any of them of course. Cute they were not.

It's not well known, but Hitler was lazy as hell, never even walked anywhere, got driven around the Eagle's Nest at Berchtesgadan, which Bormann had set up for him because he was too vulnerable and unpopular in Berlin, and he hated Berlin and Berliners. Confiscated all the property around, sometimes at gunpoint and tank point, making him locally unpopular.

And, there was this, which Kerr was so emphatic about. There was a paper in Munich, the Munich Post, which just prior to Hitler's taking power had a Deep Throat source to the top Nazis. They were constantly publishing scoops, although they only had about 60,000 readers, and in those days news didn't travel the way it does now. They got a real scoop in 1932 – they got wind of the Final Solution, and it was pretty much everything that came out of the Wannsee Conference 10 years later. The thought that Hitler was a Zionist and wanted to expatriate the Jews and only later came upon the Final Solution is completely wrong, and there is the document to prove it, says Kerr, convincingly. The editors debated whether or not to publish it, but since Hitler was on the verge of power, they figured this was their last shot to keep him out. Didn't work, and one of the first things the Hitler government did was to clean out the Munich Post, brutally.

It's true that Hitler met with Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a more than virulent anti-Semite. As I remember it, and this might be wrong, the leader said that if Hitler sent the Jews to Palestine he would want to kill them all, but then Hitler decided to do it himself. Al-Husseini was a fascist ally, and Hitler needed all he could get at that point. You could feel Kerr's choler rising as he recounted this. This is a guy who knows intimately what happened, and he's not letting it go. Good for him!!

It will come as no surprise to my readers to hear that I ventured an observation-question during question time. I said first how much I appreciated his work and that his books were more than enjoyable, that “enjoyable” might not be the right word, I guess. But then I said, look, Hitler's guys were a bunch of thugs, clearly. Do you remember Godfather II and Hyman Roth – Kerr nodded yes, he sure did – “Michael, we are going to get what we've always wanted, a partnership with a government. Now the observation-question: do you think this describes the Putin government as well? Lots of reaction from the crowd behind me – they didn't see this coming – kind of amazed chortle-bemusement.

Kerr also hadn't made the connection, and you could see he liked it. He said, of course that's right, and made the obvious points. Putin was KGB chief in Dresden and took over from Yeltsin in return for leaving the Yeltsin family alone, and they thought they could control him, which turned out to be a bad bet. Kerr said that he would be brave in saying this, hoping that it wouldn't lead to a rendezvous with thallium or radioactive rubidium. He remembered visiting with the Chief of Police in St. Petersburg in the early 90's and wanting to interview and get lots of data. The Chief was very cooperative, and Kerr paid about ₤200 to rent a car from the KGB! He said that he was probably the only Brit who paid the KBG for information instead of the other way round. He asked the Chief why he was doing this, and the Chief said, to get the truth out. He said glasnost, he said perestroika. Kerr said, you sure don't hear those words anymore. I wondered if this was the same Chief who was good friends with my friend Victor, who actually saved his life by exiling him as a penalty for his samizdats on the real health statistics of St. Petersburg, instead of having him sent to the gulag.

In other words, he took my point and supported it. Later, there was a guy in front of me in the audience who asked the first question, and we traded cards. He is a principal in the firm Grant & Gutsell – Customs, Tax and Border Control Consulting in the UK. He brought up Kaliningrad, né Konigsberg, an old Prussian City now a hotbed of Russian military and spy activity, an active and festering abscess on the Baltic between Poland and Lithuania. He referred me to Martin Cruz Smith recent book, Tanya. “It's all true,” he said, “It's not fiction!”

He was amazed when I said I had read it, and indeed Bill Smith was a friend of mine, and he had joined us at a baseball game a couple of years ago, and that he was from Reading, PA. Actually, the friend I have is Nelson Branco, his son-in-law, a fellow pediatrician. I overplayed it a little, but it seemed too sweet to pass up. My father would have said of me, “Bigshot!”

There were a few other points. Kerr said that Churchill had gotten it exactly right when he rallied the British and said they were looking into the abyss. “Absolutely right!” That was Churchill's genius. He said he was asked by Americans about “his process” of writing his books. He pooh-pooed the question, saying, “Well, I start working at 8 o'clock....” He was asked why Bernie moves to different areas for the books – “I thought it would be boring if he just stayed in one place.” I agree. Part of the reason we stayed at Cap Ferrat for four days during this trip is that this is Bernie's locale lately, at the Grand Hotel, which we walked around in since our new friends Marty and Ellen stayed there. He also alluded to Bernie's being a unreliable narrator, which as we know is a literary allusion. I don't think I ever thought about that, myself.

He finds it interesting and ironic that Hitler's bunker in Berlin is located where there is now a car park. Likewise, it is interesting and ironic that you can go to Berchtesgaden and have tea and biscuits as you you look out at the beautiful view.

So, that was my evening with Philip. Full of thought, full of action! Just like the books. What an exciting time! Came home and told Ann all about it. So, so sweet.

Budd Shenkin

Saturday, April 22, 2017

United Airlines and "The System"


I have long said, yes, it is I who have long said, at length, at long length, with bolding and italics, with passion and fervor, I have long said – yes, it can be “the system,” but it's also the people in the system who screw things up, who screw other people, who put themselves first, who are very stupid, who are useless and worse, and who just don't give a shit. It's the bureaucrats, not just the bureaucracy.

I saw this in my first real job in the US Public Health Service, in the bowels of the bureaucracy, in Arlington, Virginia, and then in Rockville, Maryland. I saw people, public officials, bureaucrats, who somehow got hired, couldn't be fired, and couldn't do anything useful. The ordinary and the subordinary have to go somewhere, and in the bowels of the bureaucracy I saw a lot of them.

So, “the system” is getting blamed for United Airlines. Yes, the system has something to do with it. The system apparently calls for United employees to be favored over paying customers. It was the boss, poor Oscar Munoz who had a heart transplant last year and unaccountably came back to work, I guess because he was dedicated to his work, who blamed the system for the brutal passenger removal by Chicago police. Really? They called the Chicago airport police – this must be a branch of the fabled Chicago police – for a police action in removing a passenger???? Can that be true?

And then Munoz blamed the system, and pledged that there would be no firings? Really? His first concern was his standing with the United personnel. This must bespeak the difficulty he has had in reforming the infamously poorly passenger serving United personnel.

I have a good friend, Paul Levy, who used to run the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, who stoutly adheres to the “blame the system and not the person” routine, and with whom I routinely disagree. He says a nurse makes an error, the head nurse calls the nurse into the office, asks if she meant to make the error, the miscreant nurse says no she didn't, the head nurse then says, it must have been the system then, and I will take the blame. As I say, I routinely disagree. Yes, systems can be bad and often are. The two vials of adrenaline with different concentrations of the drug can look almost identical and be stored side by side, placed in that error-prone position by some idiot who designed the stupid system, and the system not corrected by a bureaucracy of nurses and the order-takers who work there, so the error by the nurse in grabbing the wrong vial can be understandable. Amazon routinely stores similar items far apart so they will not be confused, but then they are a company ambitious to do things right. But, most often, the nurse makes a contributory error because after all, hundreds of times before the incident in question, nurses have navigated the system correctly. So I say, place responsibility where it is due, and the net can be wide, but blaming “the system” is just abrogating the duty of being responsible.

And lots of times, as in the Chicago Airport Police-United Airlines combined fiasco, the people in question are much more directly blamable. Chicago Police and unnecessary violence – doesn't that ring a bell? United Airlines and uncaring idiocy – another bell rung, no? Two immovable bureaucracies and cultures.

And more blame can go to the system – the monopolies that exist, allowed personally by bureaucrats and paid-off legislators and other officials, so that UAL persists no matter what happens – what are you going to do, take a bike to the next city?

So, here is an article who calls it like it is, and then an exceprt from the article, from the Fiscal Times.

It was the system! The “system” – rather than an employee – decided to give a higher priority to United staff rather than paying customers. The “system” didn’t think to offer a higher incentive for volunteers, either. The “system” called the police rather than a United employee, or maybe the “system” made the employee sic airport police on their customer. Munoz’ response seems to suggest that the “system” is so all-powerful that even the CEO bears no responsibility for it.

When those in responsible positions want to avoid accountability, they blame “the system” rather than the people who misuse and abuse their authority.”

Systems might be to blame, and those who set them up need to be held responsible, too, not just the boob who pulled the wrong switch, or worse, who filed a faked safety reports (PGE, our old friend.) Here at UAL, I figure firing is probably enough. Culture is carried by lots of bad apples, and in many bureaucracies the bad outnumber the good.

Personal responsibility is the key. Corporate officers need to face the possibility of fines and jail time, personally. Public officials, too, need to face personal consequences. Today, the paper says that Munoz will no longer be considered to rise to Chairman of the Board at UAL. Poor guy, he made a lot of missteps. But somewhere below him is a culture of rot, protected by monopoly and workers combined for their own welfare and not that of the public they should serve, but don't. United sucks.

End of rant. For a while, anyway.

Budd Shenkin

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Rethinking To Kill A Mockingbird

On a cruise ship it is common to have “enrichment lectures.” I have often found them good and interesting, but on this trip I found the best yet. Marty Aronson has been a Boston lawyer and a teacher at both Boston College and Harvard. Now in his early 80's but very young and lively, his on board presentations involve first, run a movie that involves the law, and then discuss it with the group the next day. The format is great for someone who likes movies and likes to think, and Marty is a really great teacher, asking questions, eliciting points of view, making points softly. That's him on our right in the picture, his wife Ellen Sax beside him, and then Ann and yours truly. We got to be friends and since both they and we were staying on Cap Ferrat for a few days after the cruise ended in Monte Carlo, we spent a couple of days touring together, and this picture is in front of their hotel.

I liked the movie Erin Brockovich and its discussion. One question was whether Erin was an opportunist or a sincere person with a cause. Clearly, she does well by doing good, but I was decisively in the sincerity camp, as were pretty much all of the other viewers (clearly, that's what we were supposed to think.) I made what I thought was an interesting connection between Erin, who lacked special training and had a checkered background, but was inherently very smart and had intuitive human skills and practicality that others lacked, and Virginia Johnson of Masters and Johnson fame, who could make the same claim. I also made the point that the film was about corporate evil, the embodiment being PGE in the film, and proved by PGE's subsequent history. Corporate culture is hard to shake.

But what really set off my analytical thinking was the discussion of To Kill A Mockingbird. As you all know, when you read or see something once when you were younger and again when you are older, it's a different experience, because even if it doesn't look like it, both are interactional experiences, and the older you is changed. So I kind of remembered TKAM as a movie, certainly remember Gregory Peck, but I don't think I actually ever read it. And even when viewing it this time, I didn't think all that much about it. But then when Marty led the discussion, it really set out a chain of thinking that led me onward and upward.

The obvious point is the viciousness of Southern prejudice, the counterpoint of patient and God-fearing blacks against scurrilous whites, the righteous whites caught in the middle (while still bowing to mores of segregation without a second thought, apparently) and how the righteous man Atticus Finch stands up against prejudice using the law, but how in the end evil wins as the Negro defendant, Tom Robinson, gets scared and runs away after being convicted and is shot down by the sheriff's men, but not completely, because while the heinous white accuser, Bob Ewell, tries to kill Atticus's children, they are miraculously rescued by the mute (autistic) neighbor they had feared, Arthur “Boo” Hadley, and Ewell dies. That was pretty much all I got the first time around, and had forgotten much of it, and I wasn't getting a lot more out of it while I watched it this time again. I did get this time that the point of the title is that Atticus said that the only thing a mockingbird does is sing for our pleasure, so it's not right to kill one. But I just took it fairly literally. Truthfully, when it comes to fiction, my skills are … marginal.

But what set me off thinking was in the discussion when Marty asked about the episode with the rabid dog. Seemingly out of nowhere (beware of things coming up from nowhere – symbols!), after Atticus has been assigned to defend “the negro” Tom Robinson who has been accused by Bob Ewell of raping his daughter Mayella, a rabid dog is spotted in the field next to Atticus's house while he is at work and his kids Jemmy and Scout are at home. While the rabid dog is dangerous if others get near it, the dog is mainly bothered by its own disease and is biting itself furiously. (Symbol!) Atticus is summoned and comes with the sheriff. The dog needs to be shot, but it is off about 100 yards it looks like, and the sheriff, whose official job it should be to shoot the dog, defers to Atticus. Atticus demurs, but the sheriff insists, Atticus takes the rifle, aims with his glasses on a few times than jettisons the glasses (symbol!) and hits the dog solid with one shot. We get a close-up shot of Jem being amazed, admiring, and somewhat befuddled, since he has been badgering Atticus for his first gun and Atticus has been resisting, and Jem imagines that Atticus must be some kind of a sissie. The sheriff observes, when he sees the amazement on the kids faces, that Atticus is well-known to be the best shot in the county. (Symbol!)

Then the movie just moves on. “What was that all about?” asked Marty.

There were some answers from the crowd, but my answer was, “Restraint.”

“Restraint?” asked Marty. “What do you mean?”

I said that so much of what Atticus did showed the value of restraint, that he tried to reach the better angels of everyone's nature by his restrained behavior, by reason, by appeal to fairness, and by reliance on the law and not on violence. That was illustrated by his not wanting to shoot the dog, but he clearly had the ability – not doing something only shows restraint if you could do it if you wanted to. I could have added that his difficulty in taking off his glasses to see clearly to shoot only emphasized more how he was casting off his usual restraint and perhaps bookishness, when the situation demanded it and his children were threatened, and he had to look at the situation clearly, without distortion. “Use your words,” that old pediatric standby, could be Atticus' message, but that can't be always.

The deference of the sheriff to Atticus is also notable for the distinction made between official and natural power and responsibility. Heck the sheriff is officially in charge, but natural nobility takes precedence, even though it's true that Atticus is an officer of the court. There's an awful lot in that little rabid dog episode.

But as I thought more about it in subsequent days, I realized there was even more than I realized. Mad dogs, unreasoned fury is the heart of the movie. And fear, fear for the innocents, fear of the other, fear of blowback from our own actions. The strong second theme of TKAM is the society of the kids, how they look at the adults from below, from sneaking around, how they accept a different-looking visitor from Mississippi for two weeks every summer to be their pal, and how they are afraid of everything around them, even as they tempt them, Boo Radley chief among the fears. It reminded me of The Sandlot or Stand By Me in exploration and fear, fear of what adults can do, but here there's more connection with the adult world that is protective.

Where the fear clearly is, akin to fear of a rapid dog, is fear in whites of unbridled fury of blacks, and perhaps of superior sexual attraction and prowess. The fear in blacks of the whites is certainly more grounded in reality and borne with more religious deference and dignity, but in the end Tom Robinson's running out of fear and being shot down by legal deputies is not dignified, nor morally justifiable. Everyone has a breaking point, and as Harold MacMillen said, “Events, dear boy, events!”

It was a legal discussion, so we turned to Atticus' decision to take the case at the direction of the court, risking social opprobrium and even the safety of his children. But faith in law and rejection of violence is the point, and risks must be taken, knowing at the end that one might have to give up on restraint as with a rapid dog. Taking the unpopular case was addressed by Marty in an earlier lecture, as he referred to his own career. He went to a first visit with a prisoner that his elder partner was going to represent. The man was obviously guilty and had stabbed the victim multiple, multiple times. Marty noticed that his partner never asked the prisoner if he had done it – that didn't surprise me, I've heard this before. But Marty asked his partner how he could take this case with such an execrable human being? His partner replied that Marty obviously could never be a criminal lawyer, because he was too humanly involved and that he didn't appreciate the larger point. The point, the partner explained, wasn't to defend the person, about whom he didn't care too much. The point was to defend the constitution. “I'm going to make damn sure the prosecution does everything they have to do!” was his defense of his defense.

What makes the Tom Robinson case different, of course, is that he is obviously innocent, so the dilemma Atticus has to confront is different from Marty's partner's. Atticus doesn't have to defend the odious, he can defend the righteous, which makes it a simpler case morally. It becomes a case of prejudice, and racial oppression by odious low-lifes. Atticus observes that the depression has hit everyone hard, that they are all poor, but that's pretty much all the complication we get from the poor white side.

The point of restraint, and appealing to the better angels of our nature, recurs when the town bullies rabidly want to lynch Tom Robinson at the local jail, when once again the sheriff defers to the socially higher-ranking Atticus, who sits unarmed in front of the jail to rebuff the would be lynchers. The force of his presence and his belief – and the naive interference of Scout who brings out the better angels of the crowd's nature by addressing one of them warmly and personally, making the crowd not a crowd but individuals – is beyond what the sheriff can offer. It recalls High Noon of ten years previously in standing up for justice against a crowd, but here with willful self-disarming. These rabid dogs will not be quelled by violence, because they are human and more capable of salvation.

And at the end? At the end, after Tom Robinson dies, the rapid dog Bob Ewell goes after the children. No one is safe from a rabid dog, because the law demands that people pay obeisance to it, that people think, that people cooperate, that people put away their weapons and adhere to the state's monopoly on violence. The law works when the great majority cohere around it, but there will always be rabid dogs who cannot be faced down by morality. But humans are just human, and tragedies will happen when it is left to them. Here, when Bob Ewell tries to kill the children – do we really need to ask why, of a rabid dog? – God intervenes in the person of Boo Radley (as Robert Duvall foreshadows his own illustrious career), whose autism and silence can be seen as a touch of godliness. And like God, he goes from fearsome (Old Testament) to savior (New Testament), enters ordinary life with and through the children, although Atticus obviously has known him before (“Children, meet Arthur Radley”), and then dwells with them quietly on their front porch. Wild nature has both its infections and its salvations.

And at the very end, when the question comes up between Heck and Atticus on what to do about the death of Bob Ewell and Atticus muses over accusing and defending Boo, the good common sense of Heck asserts itself. Atticus, Heck says in effect, let me handle this one. I'm practical, and I know what is right to do and what will hurt people the least and will do justice. The law is a great general guide, but that's all it is, in the end. We need people to administer it, lawyers to plead, and officers to make decisions. The law is a blunt instrument, and in the end it is good sense and goodwill and an approach to godliness among people that must be relied upon. And Heck is up to the job here. Atticus, you can keep your glasses on!

Well, over the next few days after the lecture, I bugged Marty and his wife Ellen with my further reflections on TKAM (the mockingbird being a singing angel, I'd say), probably with the fervor of someone to whom fiction does not come naturally and who then can't get away from it once it gets hold of him. And I intentionally didn't look up commentaries, all of which would probably have dampened my fervor even if it informed me superiorly. Hey, I'm retired, I can do that! Marty said I reminded him of students who pursued him always wanting to improve their grade, even after grades were in. But what the hell, he took it like a man, and we got on famously. Good friends are great when you find them.

Summary: good cruise!

Budd Shenkin

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Boy, That's Some Good Medicine!

So we really spend too much on health care? Do we, really? Of course we do – just ask anyone, just read anything anywhere, it's up to 18% or 19% of GDP, it's the main employer in lots of communities. If spending on health care dropped the unemployment rate would rise, so it must be wasteful, very wasteful. Our prices are higher by far than other OECD countries, our prescription prices are far higher and protected from competition, that is unassailably true.

And we get less for our money, don't we? All our measures of health and well being are below scores of those of other countries – infant mortality rates, and lots of other measures cooked up by the public health people. And much of what we do is needless, in the ICUs for dying patients, operating on backs that won't improve with the operations, and selling once a day vitamins for that matter – this is true, too. The health of communities is affected by nutrition, sanitation, levels of education and employment, health habits. Medical care hardly matters, by the telling of the public health numbers.

And yet, we keep spending, we keep sending money down that rat hole of delivering health care to people and wealth to hospitals and doctors (except pediatricians and other primary care doctors, of course – we make half of what the specialists make.) We keep spending because the system won't be reformed, because the “silos of greed” won't let us reform. One way to keep the costs down would be to make people more responsible, which in the opinion of some means that we need to keep more than we do off the rolls of the insured, or make them work if they qualify for Medicaid and want to keep that support. Anything to bring down the total cost.

It's true, of course, that nobody wants waste, and nobody wants profiteering. Yet it's also true that all systems have waste of one sort or another. And what else should we be spending our money on, in a prosperous (far too unequally distributed, but prosperous) economy? Football stadiums in Las Vegas?

The night before last Ann and I had dinner with friends on our ship the Silver Wind, headed from Fort Lauderdale to Madeira and thence to Monte Carlo, currently in mid-Atlantic just past the large swells of a northern storm. Ed and Elizabeth had recognized us from a trip three years ago on Seabourne from Barcelona to London, and I recognized them, too, so we made a dinner date which we kept after a few days of rough seas when we ate in our stateroom instead of the dining room. They looked great, fit, alert, active, happy. We had known each other only slightly on that past trip, so we got to know more now. It came as a surprise when Ed said he was 81 because he looked about 69, which happened to be Elizabeth's age. Now living near San Diego, they had gotten together in the 80's when they were both working on the LA Olympics and were married to other people. We agreed that things can get messy, especially with the kids, some of whom forgive and some of whom don't. We wondered how things had been going since we last saw each other, figuring that it had been pretty steady since they looked so good.

Well, not as good as they looked, is the answer. Ed said, “We've had cancer.” Elizabeth had come up with ovarian cancer and had been opened up and eviscerated stem to stern, taken back losing blood quickly a few weeks later when her transverse colon fell apart, and had a big metastatic brain tumor which was excised. And last June non-smoker Ed came up with lung cancer and has been on radiation and chemo and an experimental drug. He just gained back 10 of the pounds he lost during the process.

I told them about my own pituitary tumor. “Oh,” said Elizabeth, “That's a hard place to get to! Mine, they just had to saw off the bone and there it was.”

“His was benign, though,” said Ed. Big difference.

They still travel extensively – they have it down. Ed scouts out the cruises and negotiates for good economy, and Elizabeth deals with the details of the cruises and excursions after Ed sets them up. They live positively, supporting each other and getting closer to one another all the time, taking the time they have. They are frank with the world and very engaging, and look pretty much as I remembered them, but seem perhaps a bit deeper.

So naturally we talked about the care they had gotten. “Scripps?” I asked. “Nope,” they said, “UCSD.” That's the University of California San Diego. Scripps had turned down Elizabeth's surgery at tumor board, but not UCSD. It helped that her brother was an oncologist at Johns Hopkins before he turned to running a clinic, so he could make some calls and connections for both of them, but aside from this inside connection, they are essentially just regular people. Regular people, but they are dealt with like kings. Close teamwork and warm relationships with the doctors at UCSD. For instance, an MRI showed two little shadows in Elizabeth's brain about six or seven weeks ago. They knew that Ed and Elizabeth were coming on this cruise. So they said, let's wait about three weeks and see what's happening. They rescanned then and saw a little, not much, but a little growth. OK, they said, we'll zap them, we'll get our team together and do it a week before you go away, then we'll check you when you get back. Elizabeth remembered at her last operation there were about six doctors in the OR, cooperating. She said that with a little wonder in her voice and eyes.

Cancer has become a chronic disease that is managed. “Yup,” they said, “that's it. So far, anyway.” I told them about Andrea up at the end of our street, who had a bad knee that turned out to be cancerous with a lung primary and brain mets, and who is two years down the pike and looks great and is very active. Chronic disease management, who'd a thunk it.

So, I listen to this, and what dissipates is my concern about the percentage of GDP that health care consumes. I just don't give a shit. Too old to treat? I don't think so. Gotta line up our priorities and wait three years for a new knee? I don't think so. What a wonder! These ordinary people are getting just what they need by people and an institution that cares, cares for them, bends to them, treats them like family. Cut somewhere else, not this!

It reminds me of my friend Bob who almost died twice of heart attacks, had to be cooled down a few days in the ICU the last time a few years ago – quiet a few years now, come to think of it – and who is cared for personally by a young cardiologist whom he loves and who loves him, and who directed him away from the in-house arrogant cardiac surgeon who was going to do valve surgery “now,” but was deflected to another place and another time, just looking out for Bob. (And, by the way, to make a medical care organization wonkish point, she had the freedom to choose where he went, they weren't tied down to one system. Free choice really has a meaning, it's not just a luxury and a delusion.) What's more precious than his life? I can't think of anything.

Or of the less positive story of my brother-in-law Jim, another ordinary guy, who thought he was being treated like a king at Cedars-Sinai although he finally succumbed. My sister Kathy and Jim didn't think their first oncologist was very caring, so they switched and were very happy that they did. Yes, Jim died, but there's a big difference between being cared for and being YOYO – You're On Your Own. Not one of these people feels uncared for, not one has been treated too aggressively (I think), not one has been asked to give something up for the team.

This is what medicine should be doing. I don't want to hear about those goddamn statistics, which I distrust. It is so difficult to make a one to one connection between medical care and the health of a population. The statistics stink – they don't measure everything that takes place with patients like these. The public health people will always produce statistics that show that they should be getting more money, because public health is more important than medical care, no? Economists always want statistics and use what they get – ever hear of one saying that they can't make any judgements because the measurements aren't good? Not often. They'd be out of business. Or maybe I'm wrong and just swayed by the personal stories. I know, I know, the plural of anecdote is not data. But still, there is person after person being cared for, some over-treated, but mostly people working hard to deliver the best.

Is there waste? Yes, you bet. Look at the number of administrators and the salaries, look at excessive fees for equipment and drugs, look at some fat and happy orthopedists who own their own MRI and CAT scan machines. They make too much, and they should be cut down. Are surgeons paid to much and the thinking specialties too little? Yes, I think so, there is an imbalance.

But, we have to appreciate what we have. The system is not all bad, to be junked and rebuilt. “Baby and bathwater” applies here. Lots of what we have is good, and with research is getting better and better. If there's a weakness, it's in implementation and administration, and some profiteering, especially by pharma. That should be attacked aggressively. And we need lots more emphasis on primary care.

But I don't want to see Elizabeth, Ed, Bob, or Jim get anything less than the very best. We're a rich country. We have doctors and others who want to help, who get off on helping others, on doing their best for them, who kvell when something good happens to their patients. Repair, but don't replace. Just strengthen and rationalize some.

Why should they get anything but the best? Hey – these are friends of mine!

Budd Shenkin

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Insidious Trump Infection

One thing we know about organizations is that culture starts from the top. It is the values, demeanor, practice, outlook, personal characteristics, and worldview of leadership that comes to characterize an organization. And not only an organization: an industry, a country, a world.

As a doctor, I'm very conscious of the culture of medicine. We have to maintain the worldview of medicine, that yes, we get something out of it personally, often a lot, but that we are there to serve people, and that the patient comes first. And that everyone deserves respect and service regardless of position in society. That's what the profession of medicine means to me. We serve patients, and we don't cheat and steal from them, and we try our hardest. That's one reason that I've been reluctant to see there be a strict limit set on resident hours of service. I hated being on call and up all night. But I learned. I learned what it was to serve. I came to take pride in having survived, and having done well, and having had a hell of a night my final night on call and gave report at 10 AM after not having slept and having done one hell of a good job with my patients, and being able to give a full and very competent signout. I wasn't the greatest doctor, in my own opinion, but I came through fine. It worked.

There are other professions with other ethics, all somewhat different. One of the most important is the ethic of public service. Listen to the Kennedy's talk about “public service.” There's something holy about it when they say it. It's always italicized for them, for emphasis, for respect for the holy. “Public Service.” When you go into public service, you are in it to, well, serve the public. You are supposed to make a financial sacrifice; you aren't supposed to fill your own coffers – leave that for the Panamanian outlaw public servants, as my son Allie, married to a Panamanian, keeps pointing out with outrage. What a violation! The French seem to have some idea of the inevitability of corruption – the president is immune while serving, but after Chirac left office, off he went to the tribunal. Even now, Fallon is out of the race because of sinecures he assigned his wife. So, I guess it isn't just “accepted” after all. Public service is public service, not private looting.

Unless you're Putin, of course. The Commies came in and took power, and pretty soon they had all the luxury dachas. It wasn't in their names personally, but it didn't make a difference, they had it, it was theirs. Now that it's all privatized, boy is it privatized, it's in their names. Even “good guy” Medvedev has mansion after mansion. Kleptocracy doesn't have a good name in the West, but in Russia it seems to be different. Of course, not to paint with too broad a brush, that's because the thugs have won and the opposition is suppressed. But it would be a long row to hoe to change that long-established political culture.

And in China, I understand that Xi's anticorruption drive is really just a way to solidify his control and get Hu's and Bo's people out of the way. The private wealth amassed by Party officials is more than substantial. The princelings control, the princelings have lots of money, and Vancouver is close to a Chinese abroad province. So in Russia and China, we have major counter-examples to our ethic of public service.

I wrote a review some time ago of the book by Sarah Chayes, “Thieves of State.” In it, Chayes sets out her conviction that to build nations one has to make lack of corruption a first priority. To quote myself:

Chayes' thesis is that failed states are not really failed states, they are countries captured and run by criminal associations. Their modus operandi is the shakedown at all levels. Therefore, the strategy of the United States – first to establish stability and only afterwards to root out corruption – does not and cannot work. Oppression is not a good strategy for the long term.”

I think you probably see where I'm going with this now. Donald Trump seems to me to be a would-be gangster – he'd like to be one, he acts as though he is one, he's not, but he tries to steal like one. Not exactly steal, but to practice self-emolument. He, and everyone around him, are bringing a perverted modern business ethic to the government – do it if it's legal or close to legal, and if it's not legal, make it legal – and the effect could be like an infection in the body politic. I've made this point in a couple of my last posts, I know, but now I'm taking it further.

The problem is, nations act according to laws, yes, but those laws are really just the shadows of norms and customs. You can't legislate and you can't enforce everything people do. In some countries everybody cheats on their taxes. I heard that one year someone in France decided not to cheat on his taxes and he wound up on a list of the 10 richest persons in France. Part of Greece's problem is that no one pays his or her taxes – they just don't. And if everyone acts that way, you can't enforce it, you don't have the manpower, and you don't have the consensus of the country behind you. If the law of the state is somehow widely regarded as illegitimate in an area, it won't work. Yes, remarkably, our tax system works pretty well, but even though we do have an enforcement mechanism where everyone wants to avoid an audit, to some extent we are on the collective honor system.

To get back to where I started, organizations and industries and countries get their cues from their leaders. When you lead an organization, that's what you find out quickly, or your organization fails. You can get a bad leader who doesn't measure up to the traditional standards, and then getting rid of them clears the infection, if the new leader reapplies the old ethic. I think that's what we have to hope for with Trump. If it stays too long and becomes too pervasive, people start to think: why am I paying my taxes relatively honestly? Am I the only chump in the country? Resentment sets in, and becomes widespread, and then it becomes hard to root out.

And another thing: it's not good for business. Is this what the ethic of business is, Carl Icahn using government to cut himself a special EPA deal to net him millions? The Trump brand netting the Trump family millions while in office? It didn't used to be this way. In World War II, FDR recruited the best of business to employ the Dollar A Year men, the business leaders who left their companies to mobilize the country to be the Arsenal of Democracy, under the leadership of Bill Knudson. The good businessmen, not the enemies of the public good whose hate FDR welcomed. That, Donald, is what the ethic of public service is all about. They are not starry-eyed do-gooders. They are patriots.

And while I'm at it, that's part of what sank Hillary. Even if you have left public service, if you intend to go back, you don't bank tens of millions. You just don't. Sunk her, imho.

I'm less worried about fascism than I'm worried about a decay in the ethic of public service. They're too incompetent, and the country is too sophisticated to accept fascism. I don't think the country will even accept Right Wing Republicanism for long. But a decay in the ethic of public service, leading to cheating up and down the line, in addition to the perceived failure of what Obama talked about, working hard and playing by the rules and then not getting your just reward – that's what is at stake.

The violation of public trust of the Trump Administration will need to be stopped. It's usually up to Congress to do it, but the Right Wing Republicans are too compromised to do it. We'll probably have to wait for the next election. Meanwhile, it will have to be up to the courts and private groups bringing actions. And meanwhile, back in the states, that's where the positive action needs to grow and grow, associations of states who uphold the public trust, who believe in the action of people bound together by an ethic of public trust and public service and concern for others and not just themselves and their immediate friends.

And then, there is the ethic of business. Trump and friends do not represent the business ethic, or what the business ethic should be. To rescue their profession, businesspeople all over should be rising up and saying, “This does not represent us; posturing, blowing smoke, being incompetent, and stealing is not what our ethic calls for, and it's not what we do.” They have a profession to protect. They might not have a natural leadership structure to enable this statement to be made easily, but informal organizing could overcome that. They need to protect themselves from the scourge.

And you know what? I'm confident that this will occur for the country. I'm not so sure about the business community, but I'm pretty sure about the country. This isn't me exercising the moral imperative of optimism. I really believe it. I believe that the scum will be contained.

Color me optimistic, for real.

Budd Shenkin

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Russia May Be A Red Herring

What worries me: I think the Russia deal may be a huge red herring.

Yes, Russia has sought to influence elections and politics and public opinion everywhere for decades. They are a dirty country and have caused only bad shit in the world for centuries. Their cultural and scientific achievements are laudable, but their autocratic politics have been a burden for the uneducated people – to understand Russia, I read before I visited, one must understand that they never had an Enlightenment – and to the rest of the world. Communism simply substituted one ruling order for another, and increased the cruelty. Their politics have been a blight on humankind.

But, that's been there for a long time. What was new this time around was Trump's using their false news, their lies, their falsehoods, their prevarications, their inventions, their bots, their malevolence, instead of ignoring it as others have done. He simply spread the false news. What does he care for truth? Yes, some of his people were probably tipped off to the hacks that were about to be released, and stupidly bragged about it. But besides having no class, many of Trump's people are pretty stupid. They are lowlifes. They are rude and crude. They aspire to be gangsters.

But, here's the problem. All of that could simply be a diversion. All the Devin Nunes idiocy – talk about a dunce – will turn out to be idiocy and sycophancy. I hope he broke a law, I hope others broke laws, I hope they go to jail and rot for a while, they certainly deserve it. But, it is still all a diversion.

The real crimes being committed are crimes of policy and crimes of decency. And crimes of self-interest and emoluments, certainly. But the real policy and decency crimes are being committed by the Republican Party. They are trying to wrench health care from those who need it, out of a world view that sees those less well off than themselves as guilty of their producing their own need. These are craven and despicable narrow people, most of them fairly stupid and the smart ones are generally twisted, like Steve Bannon, who are doing whatever damage they can to the world.

But in resisting, the opposition needs not only to protect, but to persuade. Could this be a learning experience? Could the opposition persuade others that what they see happening is horrible, by their own standards? That it is wrong to treat people so unfairly, that it is wrong to disobey the precepts of our founders, and what we still call the “American Dream,” of working hard and not being stolen from? That's the challenge, seems to me.

This is a version of the urgent driving out the important. Yes, get the crimes and prosecute them. But what if they escape that prosecution? What if they don't go to jail, what if they can turn around and say, “See!? I told you we were fine!” The electorate is not really that smart, which is a weakness of democracy. They can be misled when a court or other tribunal finds no grounds to prosecute, or if the reprobates can cast the attacks as politically-based and partisan. The electorate then says to themselves, well, I guess they are all right after all.

To me, this is the danger of the concentration on Russia. Yes, it's a threat, and yes, casting a light on it is important. And who knows, maybe this is exactly the most important thing to highlight. After all, liberal democracy is under threat everywhere, and unmasking the Russian methods in such a public way might be exactly the best thing to do. The public absorbs only a limited amount of information – my friend Michael has a housekeeper and aide to his wife who is ill, and when he talks to her and her replacements, he says it is amazing how narrow her world is, how little she knows aside from the block where she lives and the few narrow people that she talks to. How to penetrate to her? Well, that's probably impossible, and she probably doesn't vote. But at a level above her, there must be a voting public that absorbs along a very narrow bandwidth. What's better to absorb: “Russia is evil” or “Republicans are evil,” or “Trump is evil?” All three would be nice, but Republicans are the real target, to me. They are the ones with the deepest set power.

Democracy certainly is hard – look at all the different perceptions one has to deal with! The stupid Hillary campaign thought that Trump would hang himself with his crassness and bad manners. Wrong! What they reacted against, rather, was the practiced and careful politician who seemed to be part of the problem. Now, what if Trump escapes capture, and proclaims, “See?! I'm innocent! They're just trying to hang me!” Will those same people who voted for him, and others, be caught up in the simplistic perception of a brave champion standing up to the biased and self-interested politicians? That's my worry. I guess I just stated it twice. Oh, well, maybe one way or the other was clearer, and this is a short piece.

So, if I were a Democratic leader, I would be downplaying the Russia thing. If it happens and there is a crime, fine, good, hang him, hang them, spit on them and kick them until they die. I'm all for it. Great.

But the odds are that won't happen. The odds are that yes, there was disinformation, and yes, there were conversations, but there was nothing really criminal. Despicable, yes, certainly. But the real crimes against the people are being committed every day by the Republicans, and this is where I would concentrate.

Could the Democrats turn the media's attention to the issues? Now, that's a harder sell. But if I were Schumer, I would certainly try.

On the other hand, there is some virue in the Russia story. There are some nice new faces emerging on the House side – Schiff and Himes on the Intelligence Committee, for instance. And this is what is needed, some new leaders, some good leaders, some substantive leaders. But what I would be urging them to do is to make the connection between attaining power, as the Republicans have, and then turning that power against the interests of the people. I'd be saying, the Republicans used whatever influence they could to attain power, and now we see why – look what they're doing to enrich themselves and their companies on the backs of the people. And then list the ways, in the same order every time: they are taking away health care, they are terrorizing immigrants and their children who are all generally good and hardworking people who just want a chance the way we all do, they are trying to increase the prices of goods by limiting trade, they are fouling our air and water so they can make mor money, etc. Why did they turn to the Russians? To enrich themselves, and to enforce their rules of conduct on you, the American people, to abolish a woman's right to choose, etc. Same list, every time.

Boring? Maybe. But you never get the nail in the wood with one stroke. You need to hit the nail on th head over and over and over. Maybe then enough of the electorate will get it, even in those parts of the country that are seemingly permanently retarded.

Oklahoma, Kansas, maybe ungettable. But North Carolina? I'm looking at you!

Budd Shenkin