Spinoza Knows


During George W. Bush’s first Presidential campaign, an interviewer asked him which great men he most admired. The reply was “Jesus Christ.”

I thought at the time… Here is a man who obviously does not read if he can only come up with such a limited answer. My diagnosis was intellectual penury.

Then I wondered… What if someone were to ask me the same question? I would choose Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza believed in “a universe ruled by the cause and effect of natural laws without purpose or design.” In his ethical system, reason is the supreme value. This is a truly down-to-earth philosophy without esoteric principles. Because he did not believe in the conventional God but equated God with Nature itself, he was expelled from the Jewish Community of Amsterdam by a “cherem” which translates into excommunication. It’s something like a Muslim fatwa.

Was Spinoza a deist, a pantheist or an atheist? I don’t think it matters what label you attach to him. He was just an early secular thinker, totally unencumbered by preconceived ideas. But unlike another 17th century thinker, Rene Descartes, he did not believe in the duality of body and soul or that “the soul” survived after death.

When Einstein was asked whether he believed in God he replied, “I believe in Spinoza’s God.” There are, of course other great thinkers who strike a responsive chord in me. They think what I think, only they express it so much better.

Second Acts In Famous Lives

FamousEditor’s note: This is a guest blog post from Dina Cramer, Simone’s daughter….we are proud to add this to the collection.


Usually when someone is famous, it is either for doing something good, and we consider them a hero, or it is for doing something bad, and we remember them as villains. But occasionally, there are famous individuals in history who have had a heroic career followed by a disgraceful one. Three such individuals come to mind.

The first is Marechal Philippe Petain. He was the famous hero of World War I in France, leading the army to victory against the Germans. Then twenty years later, he became a collaborator with the Germans when they occupied France in World War II. He accepted their offer to become the leader of his conquered country and did their bidding. After the war, he was tried and condemned to death for collaboration, but this sentence was commuted to life in prison by General Charles De Gaulle. He died in prison.

Then I think of the great, famous Charles Lindbergh. He was, of course, the first individual to fly solo, non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean and landed to a hero’s welcome in France. Americans were proud of this courageous pioneer of flight. But subsequently, in the 1930’s, Lindbergh supported and sympathized with the Nazis, among the most evil people who have been seen on this earth, spreading their propaganda in speeches across the United States.

My third and last example is Ralph Nader. Thanks to his work, all of us now ride in safer cars and untold lives have been saved in motor accidents. He battled the big three auto companies in Detroit in a David and Goliath struggle. They used their money and power to fight him every way they could. Yet through his persistence he prevailed and changed the laws of this country and the practices of the automotive industry.

Some years later his ego drove him to a quixotic run for the presidency of the United States. There was never any chance that he could win and his presence on the ballot would damage the very causes he had always fought for. Despite pleas from the Democrats that he stay out, he insisted on running, and took 2% of the vote, most of which would have gone to Al Gore, thus giving the victory to George W. Bush, with all the attendant consequences, including two senseless wars in the Middle East, from which we are still trying to extricate ourselves.

In contrast to these three individuals, I think of one person who had a poor first act followed by a spectacular second one. I refer to former President Jimmy Carter. He seemed to blunder in everything from his withdrawal of the American team from the Olympics to the failed attempt to rescue our hostages in Iran. He even managed to be remembered for a “malaise” speech in which he never actually uttered the word “malaise.” He was dispatched from the White House after one term.

Instead of going back home to sulk, write a defensive book, sit on boards, and make a lot of money as he could have done, he then began the most remarkable part of his career which continues to this day. He founded the Carter Center to promote democracy and peace in the world. He became a monitor for elections in many countries; he spent much time in Africa on effective projects such as eradicating the guinea worm; he engaged in diplomatic missions informally on behalf of the United States government, and he wrote 27 books on a variety of topics. He did indeed give a lot of well-paid speeches, but all of the money from the speeches and the books were donated to the Carter Center to continue their good works. Today at 90 years of age he is still at it. So there you have a second act that far outshines the first.

Women In Literature


When we think of women in literature it is usually in connection with adultery. Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina both leave dull older husbands to find love in younger men’s arms with accompanying social ostracism and eventually tragic deaths. Hester Prynne and Lady Chatterley are some other “adulteresses” in fiction.

It is much more difficult to find a novel that centers on male adultery. I can only think of Yuri Zhivago’s love for Lara. Besides, in men it is called infidelity, does not have tragic consequences and often does not necessitate leaving home.

But there are other kinds of women in literature, strong and loyal women. This story takes place in the early 1930s. Fanny is a young shellfish seller in the sunny Old Port of Marseille. In the background you can see the solid shape of Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica and the silhouette of the Chateau d’If, one time residence of the Count of Monte Cristo. Fanny is very much in love with Marius, son of cafe owner Cesar. They meet in secret in her room. But Marius only dreams of sea adventures. And so one fine morning he runs off to sea in a merchant ship leaving a pregnant Fanny behind. Enter Honore Panisse, a friend of Cesar. Panisse has always loved Fanny. He is quite a bit older. He offers to marry Fanny and raise her child as his own. His boating business is doing well and he dreams of adding “et fils” (and son) to the Panisse sign in his window. After a time, reenter Marius back from his nautical adventures. He has realized his mistake in leaving and wants Fanny to come back to him. Fanny now older and wiser says: No Marius, Panisse has been good to me and offered help when I needed it. I still love you. I always will but I shall never leave Panisse.

Fanny lives in a trilogy and a film in three parts by Marcel Pagnol. (Marius, Fanny, Cesar). As for Panisse he would be surprised to know that a restaurant in Berkeley is named after him.

This story takes place in the 1820s. Tatiana lives on a small estate in the Russian countryside. She is a shy, awkward young girl who spends her time reading sentimental novels and dreaming of love. Lensky lives on a neighboring estate and is engaged to Tatiana’s sister, a frivolous and shallow girl named Olga. One fine day Lensky comes a-courting, He is accompanied by his good friend Eugene Onegin.

It is summer. In the background the serfs are working in the fields and singing. Tatiana imagines herself falling in love with Onegin and writes him a passionate letter which she asks her nanny to deliver. Onegin is a vain and bored young dandy who is in love with himself. He casually dismisses her feelings and departs but not before he has managed to kill his best friend in a duel over a flirtation with Olga.

It is years later. Prince Gremin’s sumptuous palace is the scene of a ball. Prince Gremin is influential at court and an imposing figure. Reenter Onegin back from his aimless wanderings and still bored and listless. He notices Gremin’s elegant and beautiful young wife, recognizes a much changed Tatiana and realizes what a fool he had been in rejecting her love. He pleads with her, entreats her to leave the Prince and run away with him.

Tatiana is now much more worldly and wiser. She replies: No, Onegin. I once loved you. I still do. But the Prince is a good man. He has offered me his love and given me a place in society. I shall be faithful to him. I shall never leave him.

Tatiana lives in a novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin and in an opera by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Renee Fleming is a great Tatiana and sings it beautifully in Russian. She gives an outstanding performance in the final long scene of renunciation.

No Admittance! Authorized French Words Only


The French consider their language as a national heritage to be guarded and protected like a treasure. For several centuries, French was the lingua franca used by the international community for all cultural and commercial exchanges. The Russian nobility in particular spoke it in preference to their own language.

The zenith of French cultural dominance was during the 17th and 18th centuries. After the Revolution it started to decline. Nowadays, English is the universal language fueled by American innovations and the number of former British colonies who speak it. After World War II in the 1950’s American culture and words like fast food, take-away, low cost and jeans spread everywhere to the chagrin of the French people who felt threatened by this new invasion.

France now has a concept called francophony. It is a union of all French-speaking countries and includes Quebec and French-speaking former colonies (mostly African). They have meetings and congresses of French language, literature, cinema and other cultural events. There is no equivalent “Anglophony” as far as I know.

To counter the proliferation of “alien” words in its language France has entrusted the French Academy with uprooting and discarding Anglicisms and replacing them with French equivalents. It is not unlike getting rid of non-native species of plants which have started to grow on your soil and are endangering native plants. They also created a Terminology Commission whose job it is to approve terminology and publish its recommendations in the “Journal Officiel”. This publication lists equivalent French terms in preference to the English version. Still, some Anglicisms escape the Commission’s vigilance and sneak into use… (coach, challenger, week-end). In 1994, the law “Toubon” was passed, a sort of linguistic protectionism. The barbarians at the gates must not be allowed in. No odious American neologisms!

Most of this hostility is reserved for computer lingo. And so the word computer itself becomes “ordinateur.” Software is “logiciel.” La Toile is used for The Web. Couriel (Courier electronique) replaces email. A browser becomes “navigateur.” The list goes on and on.

The English language is much more hospitable. Some of the French words have lived here so long that they are indistinguishable from native words. Think of automobile, coupe, limousine, garage, parachute, camouflage, regime, détente and Art Nouveau. We are happy to welcome even hard to pronounce or to spell words like rendezvous, charge d’affaires, rapprochement, communique and so on. It even gives the user a certain “cachet”.

Vive la diversite!

The Sultan of Istanbul


Turkish tanks are massed on the border with Syria. They have been sitting there for days watching the Islamic State besiege the town of Kobani, defended by the Kurds. The Kurds are our “boots on the ground” in this fight. Not only is Turkey not helping, they are not even allowing Turkish Kurdish men or equipment to cross the border to join the fight. Instead they are bombing the Kurds.

Recep Erdogan, the Turkish President, is supposed to be our ally. Turkey is a member of NATO. Is that the behavior of an ally? Erdogan is so afraid of Kurdish Nationalism and obsessed with the “Kurdish problem” that he is willing to help their enemy (and ours).

Charles Krauthammer has compared his cynical maneuver with that of Stalin during World War II: “During the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, Stalin ordered the advancing Red Army to stop at the outskirts of the city while the Nazis annihilated the Non-communist Polish partisans. Only then did Stalin take Warsaw”
Recep Erdogan’s domestic record is nothing to boast about either. President Obama cites Turkey as a model of Islamic-enlightened democracy. Yet Erdogan has repressed demonstrations, imprisoned journalists, blocked access to Facebook, Twitter and You Tube and purged the army of secular officers. During the Arab Spring, Turkey was often cited as a model of the kind of Islamic society to achieve. That is because when Ataturk founded the modern Turkish state in 1923 he looked toward European democracies as a model. This model is slowly eroding under Erdogan and Turkey has become more anti-Western since its bid to join the European Union was rebuffed (mostly by France). It has also slowly moved toward a more fundamental Islamism.

Turkey used to have friendly relations with Israel . Since the Mavi Marmara incident during which a Turkish flotilla tried to breach the Gaza Blockade and suffered some losses in the process, Erdogan has shown total hostility toward Israel.

Just as Putin dreams of a greater Russia and yearns for a return to Catherine the Great’s Empire, Recep Erdogan is dreaming of his own new Caliphate. The last Caliphate was claimed by the Turkish Sultans of the Ottoman Empire. They were then the leaders of the Islamic World. Erdogan’s Putinesque dream is that of his own Caliphate.