Diary, June and August 2014

It's now summer (June 2014, almost 100 years since that fateful August). Last weekend - a long one owing to Memorial Day - I picked up the first of Alexander Herzen's four-volume memoirs. They make quite a contrast from my postage-stamp version, but that seems in proportion to my life and works compared to his, Yet we share the urge to write it down. 

My parents' centennials will be next year, August - their birthdays were nine or 10 days apart. Our family is given to recording things - letters and photos, primarily, although my mother wrote poems and my father started a memoir that I wish he'd finished. Perhaps one's children are the most natural audience for such a document, if only to see what light it sheds on them.

Spring and summer are my favorite seasons. I dislike late fall and winter, even here where it rains, usually, but rarely snows. The bare trees and the cold are unappealing, whereas the budding and blooming of nature, the warmth of the sun, are a great pleasure. I'm writing this in the renovated shed I use when the weather is good. It looks out at the garden, the sun behind me now. My wife fenced it off, so there are flowers in abundance. Every other year, the deer ate them. I'm grateful for these small favors.

Plowing through Isaiah Berlin's difficult introduction to Liberty, I asked myself if I'm a good person, a bad person, or some typical combination of the two. Swedenborg argued that people fool themselves into believing they're good when they're mostly not. I'm sure that's true. Elsewhere, I've noted the human tendency to live beyond the boundaries that life affords. (Good and bad arise in these parts. One rides the range, but eventually one grows tired of fence-mending. Friendships of a simpler kind become more desirable.)

An acquaintance noted that my politics were hard to fathom. Bourgeois, I would say, although to the left owing to something of a social conscience. I prefer social democracies and welfare-capitalist states to market-obsessed ones (and of course to autocracies and theocracies, which abound today and seem to be growing). Life is ameliorated by being in Northern California, a bastion of liberality. This is a place where people of all kinds marry for love and find happiness. It has many unresolved problems, but this mitigates against them and gives me hope. 

Is bourgeois more of a category than a political position? Or is the supposition that membership in that class carries politics of a certain kind along with it? I think that to place myself thus is to privilege private over public ownership in a number of instances, and to favor Isaiah Berlin, say, for his pluralism, his acknowledgement that life is filled with contradictions, not least our own. (I think the experience of living in Singapore and traveling much of the world as a child predisposed me for this.)

My politics have come some distance as the world around me has evolved. Born when I was, I'm necessarily a child of World War II, with its narrative of valiant defense of freedom, despite competing subtexts of colonialism that arose promptly in the 1950s (and which I experienced directly as a child). My parents' worldview, especially my father's, shaped mine. My father, a Democrat in a Republican enclave, wasn't afraid to assert his politics or take positions he felt were right, whatever others might think. If I am more conservative in some ways than them, this probably reflects living in Berkeley, where leftism often feels unreconstructed.

Into August
The sun finally - briefly - appears after a cloudy, cool day, prompting me to open up the barn. My wife shows me the tomatoes she's picked in the garden, and we discuss the pears, three of which are nearly ripe. While making lunch just now, I read part of a review by Frank Rich of a book on the 1970s - 1973 to 1976, the transition from Nixon to Reagan. It made me think of the Vietnam Memorial, how it was embraced by everyone, pro-war or against, acknowledging the dead, their essentially pointless deaths, caught up in a maelstrom the politicians and their advisors unleashed. Coverage of World War I - the retrospective histories its centennial has kicked up - also stresses the blundering way it began and the difficulties of ending it once started. My visit to York cathedral in May 2011 made the Vietnam Memorial's point: the dead warrant remembering, but why then do we forget the follies that set those deaths in train?

Wars flare in the Ukraine and also in Gaza and Israel, providing an undertone to daily life here. Many are opposed to Israel's one-sided conflict with Hamas, with so much collateral damage. Others say that Hamas sets it up that way, so Israel is justified. Still others retort that Israel made Hamas inevitable. I'm ambivalent - the whole situation feels like a failure of the imagination, especially given what Gaza could be if left alone to develop as a place and an economy. If rethought at a reasonable density, it could be home to a lot more Palestinians. 

The felling of a neutral aircraft by Russian-supported rebels in eastern Ukraine speaks to the folly of proxy wars, whether we or they sponsor them. I feel similarly about the Chinese (et al) throwing their weight around in the South China Sea: some lower-ranking hothead is bound to spark an incident. With China, it's never clear if anyone is actually in charge. Events unfold and the officialdom deals, after a fashion, usually leading with belligerence. Sometimes it's hard to tell the propaganda machinery apart from North Korea's, given the resort to hackneyed phrases from other eras. Someone should tell them that no one listens and everyone thinks it's stupid.


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