22 March 2009

Back Noir

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I love the city of Buffalo. I have a soft spot for it because it's where I spent many summers, with my paternal grandparents, whom I loved. The city has a beauty and charm that, even in its darkest moments, helped keep it alive. (And I say that not just because I have a Buffalo client, but because from Frederick Law Olmsted to Louis Sullivan to Frank Lloyd Wright to Eliel and Eero Saarinen to a longer list of people and institutions than I can mention here, Buffalo has a lot to offer.)

Therefore, it was with pleasure that I discovered that part of the action in Richard Stark's 1963 novel The Outfit takes place in Buffalo, and that the location Stark gave—798 Delaware Avenue—is, as the story has it, one of the city's glorious old mansions. It turns out that it’s the house right across the street from Temple Beth Zion, my grandparents' synagogue. There’s some kind of serendipity in there.


Much has been written about Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake) and his "Parker" series of novels, and with good reason. Forty-six years after The Outfit was written, it still holds up as a tightly constructed and engaging novel of crime and vengeance, with a David and Goliath twist to it.

It was while reading The Outfit, and the earlier Parker story The Man with the Getaway Face, that I started to wonder about the timelessness of certain fiction, and how we, as readers, respond to a story. It strikes me as a challenging intellectual question: is it harder to read not-so-old fiction than very old stories? Are the anachronisms of more than a century ago easier to deal with than the missed technological opportunities of the last couple of decades?

In reading books from the pre-industrial age, the reader can make an easy mental leap to an environment in which characters are just different: bound by conventions of a period that we may or may not understand, but to which we can immediately relate as distant from our reality. On the other hand, reading a story from what we might loosely call the modern age raises a different kind of challenge: can you, the reader, make a very small mental leap backwards?

In these two Parker stories, the anti-hero protagonist maneuvers through a world that is much like ours—cars, electricity, airplanes, beer in a bottle—and yet drastically different. Parker, and his friends, can fly with fake ID with great ease, and even bring a gun on the airplane (given an absence of x-ray scanners at the airport). That’s hard to imagine these days. Conducting a stakeout, Parker has no cell phone with which to contact his friend, and the technology for breaking into the Delaware Avenue mansion is about as basic as possible: some brute force, a gun, and a small flashlight. Perhaps this is less difficult to imagine, given what movies show us about how cell phones and e-mail can be tapped and our general sense of privacy an illusion. But it is also hard to think of the situation as normal, given an absence of security cameras or other of the other electronic devices we take for granted.

In a sense, it becomes one marker of whether a book or a story can withstand the test of time: whether it is written in a way that captures our imaginations and overwhelms our sense of the present reality. Stark's “Parker” novels do just that. The author might never have imagined, back in 1963, that years later I could use my computer to zero in on the Delaware Avenue address he put in his book; perhaps he took it on faith that any reader would assume the detail to be true, and any Buffalo native would have easy confirmation if desired. But the fact that I can Google, and the fact that it exists, does not diminish the story one bit.

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25 January 2009

Chinese Democracy, Part II

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

It’s Sunday now, not Tuesday. Several days later, I am still sifting through the mental carnage wrought by President Barack Obama's inauguration and speech. That's carnage in a good way, a tableau of pleasant disbelief at how stunning—peaceful, engaging, inspiring—the inauguration was, and at the effective eloquence and intellectual honesty of Obama's speech.

The famous 1963 “March on Washington” has been a prominent discussion point around the inauguration, for obvious reasons. It has also been on my mind for purely personal ones: my grandmother traveled from Buffalo to Washington to be there for it. She was 57 at the time, and had been in the U.S. for 25 years, and I can only guess at her motivations—but it was an experience she spoke about with reverence, and she gave me the button she kept, proudly. Much as I can picture her shouting about the intifada, I can imagine her level of excitement had she lived to see Obama’s inauguration. It would surely have affirmed for her once again an unwavering belief in the strength of American democracy and society (and she would no doubt share in the collective relief that whatshisname has now left the White House).

BUT, I can also imagine that my grandmother would have seen in Obama's election and inauguration an opportunity to point to a vital lesson, one that Americans might have heeded more carefully in 2004, when we should already have detected that the presidency of George W. Bush was going terribly awry. She would have said: we must not, can not, should not take life and liberty for granted. And she would be right.
A few days ago, I posted a brief item about the “communist” Chinese government having censored part of President Obama's speech. This is sad if unsurprising, and at the same time it reminded me of how much I feel like our nation had a close call with a terrible, alternate destiny. When Obama said that “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,” the Chinese had not yet cut into the speech. The Russians seem to have taken a different approach, simply steering clear of emphasizing the event, according to the BBC.

Unsurprisingly, China and Russia are two examples that come to mind where both governments and citizens have, for decades now, contended with false choices of the kind Obama meant. (The citizens, it must be said, with rather less choice in the matter than the those in government.) In both cases, there is a kind of national, propagandized mythology that strong leaders are needed—and in both nations, “strong” generally means “too weak to risk being criticized by the citizenry,” and “too weak to risk having citizens hear opposing ideas.”

I reject the Philip Roth-ian notion that there is (or was) the likely potential in America for an apocalyptic shift towards fascism. Fascism is not the danger. Instead, we should fear the deadening nature of a government that had trouble acknowledging its failings and failures, that responded to criticism—internal and external—with bluster, and that sought to increase the power of the governmental-individual (the so-called “executive”) at the expense of any deliberative process. That would be the government resoundingly removed from office on November 4, 2008.

So when Obama said “We will restore science to its rightful place,” I took it to mean not only that science would be treated with respect, and that empirically derived data would no longer be abused for political purpose. I took Obama to mean that his administration will be one in which answers and actions will be derived from what we know, not merely what we believe to be true—or wish were so. That questions and basic premises will be tested, not just the likely success of a given solutions.

And when Obama said “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers,” that too was more than just an unprecedented presidential acknowledgement of those who do not believe in a god. It was a statement of the importance of our differences, not just of our similarities, and an assertion of intellectual principle from a self-professed believer who also believes he is strong enough, sure enough of himself and his nation, to engage those with other views.

And? These are all words, true. But words matter. If words did not matter, China would not have censored the speech, and Russia would have focused more attention on Obama's inauguration in general.

I think we Americans are—finally, again—off to a good start.

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18 January 2009

"Ancient History"

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I have two distinct early memories of reevaluating my understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both dating to the beginnings of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987-1988. One memory is of watching the news with my grandmother, who shook her fist when then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir came on the screen and started a sentence that began “This little asshole...” As we listened to and absorbed the news of more rock-throwing protests, and more Israeli repression of those protests, my grandmother’s evident sadness prompted much discussion about the nature of the Zionist enterprise to which my grandparents had dedicated so much of their lives.

The second memory is of a series of conversations with author and political scientist Amos Perlmutter, who (for reasons I no longer remember) was for a while an occasional dinner guest in our house. Perlmutter challenged me to think, to criticize and evaluate my perspective on the conflict, and while we approached the matter rather differently, I recall distinctly our finding agreement on the (myriad) ways in which Israel had done itself harm by its mishandling of both its Arab-Israeli minority and the Palestinians whose lands it continues to occupy.

My grandmother and Perlmutter are both dead, while the whole messy and idiotic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians remains.

This “ancient” history is top of mind as I read about the current fighting, and think about the evolution of my own views over the years—particularly as I have expressed them here, starting in October 2000. Actually, I think my perspective evolved during the period of the first intifada and has subsequently stayed much the same, bound tightly with a belief in the moral unacceptability of the Israeli occupation. The change since then has focused more on my own religious beliefs, and figuring out ways to personalize, humanize, and “own” a religion (Judaism) and a culture (American-Jewish) in spite of all the (often offensive) things being done in the name of Judaism and Jews, both American and not.


Last week, I said I’d provide a round-up of past columns on this subject. At the time, I was not focused on just how much material that might be. However, in looking through it there are some interesting items and perspectives (if I do say so myself). I have collected all the links together for the years 2000-2006, and they can be accessed easily here: Roundup.html.

Two items to which I want to draw particular attention—because they seem to resonate in the current moment—are my brief report on the Palestinian protest in New York from October 2000, and my comments about Ariel Sharon’s speech in New York in March 2001.

Will we humans ever learn?

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