On Words and Miscommunicating

Words“Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way”. (words and music by Mac Davis)

Our Oakland mayor who was just defeated for a second term has a most assiduous staff which used to bombard me with emails almost every day. After our recent election an email showed up to thank me for my vote. It said: “I am humbled by your support”. In the first place I voted for her opponent, and secondly what has “humbled” got to do with the situation? Why not say “grateful” or “appreciative”? Truly humble and modest people generally do not run for office, do not put themselves forward in any way and certainly do not advertise their humility.

Churchill famously characterized Clement Attlee as “a modest man who has much to be modest about.” Business letters used to contain the closing phrase: I am Sir (Madam) your most humble and obedient servant. We don’t use this Dickensian phraseology any more.

Here is another “miswordism” It is not a spoonerism or malapropism. (I checked). Newscaster: “We’ll see you again at 9.” Doesn’t she mean: You’ll see us again at 9? I sure hope she is not peeking into my living room.

New words added to the Merriam Webster dictionary. In 2013: selfie. It may be a new word but not a new concept. Painters who could not afford models sat in front of a mirror and painted themselves. It was called self-portraiture.

And for a finish here is a quiz question. If you are, like me, a Jeopardy watcher, you may have seen it recently as it was a “final Jeopardy” question: What three letter verb has the most entries in the Oxford English Dictionary? By the way I picked the wrong one. The answer next time!

The Monroe Doctrine…Russian Style

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It is time to rejoin our favorite villain: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and find out what he has been up to while we were otherwise preoccupied. Putin left the Brisbane G20 meeting hastily. Everyone was giving him the cold shoulder. It was explained to him that things would go better if his troops left the Ukrainian soil.

He replied that that was not possible since they were not there in the first place. Could he help it if some Russian citizens chose to spend their vacation there on a goodwill mission to help Russian speaking Ukrainians who were being persecuted by their own government? So he said, “So long guys, I have a long flight home and I need my sleep.” I hope he has a comfortable bed on his plane.

Before he left, Mr.Putin told Mr. Abbott of Australia that “Discussions with our partners had been frank and constructive.” In other words, they led nowhere. Has anyone ever described discussions as acrimonious and disingenuous?

Mr. Putin’s view is that the United States and its “satellites” have no business meddling in his sphere of influence. Borrowing from our Monroe Doctrine he has declared that the former Soviet Republics are his business and not subject to intervention by NATO or the US.

Well, our interference has been mostly symbolic since military intervention had been ruled out from the start. Vice-President Biden recently visited Kiev and the Maidan Square. Has he promised help or just uttered words of encouragement? Ukraine has obsolete weapons and technology. Its army is very poorly equipped and it relies heavily on volunteers. Ukraine is also financially in default. Winter is coming and conditions will only worsen. Are we prepared to send military advisors or are they fully occupied in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Meanwhile Russia seems to be riding out the sanctions. Yes, the ruble is very low. But, Putin’s popularity at home remains high.

Petro Poroshenko, the new Ukrainian President is not a military man and he is trying to gain time. He is talking to Vladimir Putin regularly and has recently negotiated a cease-fire. The trouble is that the fire has not ceased and since the agreement was signed, more than 4,000 people have been killed. Eastern Ukraine has effectively been separated from Kiev and the Russo-Ukrainian border is wide open. Once more we end on a question mark. Stay tuned and we will update you periodically.

Spinoza Knows

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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.

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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

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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.