George Inness

George Inness was a mid Nineteenth Century landscape painter who is claimed to have been a member of the Hudson River School, but he in general avoids the craggy rocks and the majestic vistas that characterize that school from Durant through Bierstadt, and instead offers up paintings filled with color and expanses of field that make a viewer appreciate the beauty of being in the midst of a landscape, and so his paintings are a good way to enter into the question of whether what makes a landscape painting beautiful is the landscape itself or the balance of aesthetic forces as those are arranged by the painter.

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15/23- The Age of the Lachrymose

Religion is so powerful a force in social life because believers are united by the emotions they share in common as the inevitable or “natural” feelings that make up the human psyche, however much these may differ from the feelings people in other religions take as inevitable or “natural”.  Emotions are more important than the doctrines to which believers subscribe and we have known since Harnack that doctrines are themselves an unfolding of the emotional plausibility of an insight into the structure of things. The primacy of emotions accounts for the fact that even in our secular age the boundaries that divide up the world are those of religion rather than politics. North America and Europe are dominated by Protestant Christianity; the boundary between Europe and Asia is the border between Catholic Poland and the Catholic parts of Ukraine on the one side and Russian Orthodoxy on the other. The realm of Islam is engaged in a civil war of very long standing between Shiites and Sunnis. Africa and Latin America remain largely Catholic realms. And so on. So let us try to capture the distinctive emotions of Christianity, as those are exhibited by its core story of Jesus and His crucifixion and Resurrection, which make this particular religion stand out from what came before and which remain distinctive to the present day and which sustain this religion whatever the forces that buffet it about.

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Academics lament what is happening in universities and colleges. Promising young scholars cannot secure permanent, tenure bearing, lines so that they can move up the ladder and devote themselves to what brought them into the profession, which was to pursue the advancement of knowledge or, at the least, the preservation of cultural interest in the authors and genres which they care about. There may not be a need for a new biography of Napoleon, but it is a good idea to remind people of every new generation of what he was and how he altered the world for good and bad and that his times were thrilling. The same is true of Montaigne and Dickens. I have known scholars who devoted their careers to reading and rereading a particular author and publishing their reflections on the author. We all need those reference points so that we can think of ourselves as cultured, though there are those who think we need less culture and more STEM (which means “science, technology, engineering and medicine”) because those are the things that profit the world while books are the kinds of things you can buy after you have made money doing something useful. Never mind that literature and history help you understand politics and the human soul: from Jane Austen, how people flirt, and from Jane Austen and others, how people contemplate their economic circumstances. The view of STEM advocates is that the soul does not need to be cultivated, even though that is what “culture” means. But there is another explanation, a structural one rather than a cultural one, that can show why part timers and short contract assistant professors have for a generation or two now been replacing full time professors in the humanities, the part timers making their livings by covering a few sections at one college with a few sections at another and so carrying heavier class loads and making less total money than someone on a tenure track, and short contract people moving from one campus to another until they find some sort of full time employment, possibly outside of academia.  

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The Mueller Report, Finally

I have been chewing over the Mueller report for four days now and I still have trouble coming to terms with it. Journalists have been saying how pleased they are that it confirms so many of their findings. But that is part of the problem. It looks like it could have been written without the resources of a special prosecutor's office just by reviewing all the information that was available on the public record. But the Mueller report was supposed to link the dots not merely review them. To do so, it was supposed to use its subpoena powers to grab hold of Trump’s tax returns and the records of Deutsche Bank to see whether there had been a basis for blackmailing the man who would become president. The Report stays mum on whether it investigated those leads. If it had, it might have cleared the President of suspicion but instead it just leaves us with our suspicions intact: that there were too many contacts with the Russians for there not to have been something fishy going on. Not having resolved that leaves the public in limbo, not knowing more than it did before, however much the Report is declared either to exonerate or not exonerate the President. The Report was to develop the facts and leave conclusions to the Congress which could decide whether any of the offenses were impeachable, never mind whether they were criminal or not, which is a far less important question, even if the Special Prosecutor law makes that the aim of the inquiry. We want to know what the Russians were doing with and without Trump and the New York Times is a more lucid guide to that than is the Mueller Report which is boring reading, piling one fact on another but not having much narrative drive. Some commentators have taken comfort from the fact that the Report shows the White House to be a sleazy place under this President. He is out to aggrandize only himself and seems to be a woefully poor executive, unable to put his meaner or more malevolent schemes into operation. But we already knew that and those shortcomings do not constitute an impeachable offense. Moreover, Trump does do some of the things he cares about. He makes life miserable for people crossing the southern border looking for asylum and many of his supporters like him for doing that. So he did deliver on that promise even though he hasn’t been able to deport the eleven million undocumented aliens currently in the United States, something I feared he would try to do when he took office. He just can’t get a handle on his own bureaucracy.

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14/23:- Reading "Ecclesiastics": Criticism

 There is another level of analysis that can be applied to “Ecclesiastes”. That has to do with how an audience is to take a document, what it will make of it. That is not an empirical question of reader response. It is a question of what a reader who knows something about life as well as literature and criticism will say about a document that takes a particular slant on life, the reader providing the document with the context of life rather than just the context of other literature. A critic’s own sense of life stands in for the common understanding of mankind of its position in the universe. And that, of course, is what has been expected of criticism at least since Dr. Johnson: not just to look at the aesthetics of the work but to evaluate in the context of what a well schooled intellect and a well developed soul will say about whether or not it is humbug or wisdom or any of the stages in between that have been invented by humankind and characterized by critics in terms of ideologies propounded, emotions exposed, stances taken, and so on.

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Work Allegiance

Work allegiance is a concept that refers to the engagement of employees and employers in the activities they carry out while on the job so that they can go on with these activities. That is aside from the motivation to do the job that is created by its remuneration, which is the reason most people go to their jobs whether they like them or not. Work allegiance has to do with the features of the job that are satisfactory or pleasing and so lead people to be able to get through the day, however much they also count the minutes until they can line up in front of the time clock and punch out for the day. Even slaves need some measure of work allegiance so that they can work through the day and go home to their families rather than just sit down in the fields and die. Work allegiance is the concept that looks at work in the exact opposite way than does the concept of work alienation, which was so much in favor among a previous generation of sociologists,who were concerned with how workers were disengaged from their work, just measuring out the time they had to operate as if they were machines while enduring their task of servicing machines. That was the kind of work that dominated the industrial age.

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Childe Hassam

Childe Hassam was an American artist in the last part of the Nineteenth and the early part of the Twentieth Century who is best known for introducing Impressionism into this country and for a series of American flags done in an Impressionist style that was inspired by the entrance of the United States into the First World War. I would rather stake his reputation on three of his earlier paintings, all three of them realistic, rather than on the rather derivative paintings of his fully Impressionist years, when he seems to specialize in many colors of rather unremarkable flowers.

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13/23- Reading "Ecclesiastes": Genre and Translation

What does it mean for desacralization to be completed? One suggestion is that happens when all the little twinkles in the universe that betoken a god have been snuffed out. No more angels; no more miracles. In that case, the task was accomplished by Leibnitz. Another way to think about it is when the idea of cause with its attendant idea that everything needs a cause is also abolished. In that case, Spinoza can be said to have accomplished that. A third view is that desacralization is accomplished when the universe is rid of purpose because that spells the end of not only gods and causes but also of even a functional plan for the universe, a final cause for it. That situation is already described within the Bible. “Ecclesiastes” is the statement of that nihilistic situation which is to be distinguished from the usual renditions of atheism which are willing to accept that there is some wholeness to the universe, just that it does not contain a presiding deity. The difficulty of coming up or even expressing such an extreme position requires the deployment of a number of ways to read a text.

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Three Black Artists

Henry Ossawa Tanner was a late Nineteenth Century painter who trained with Thomas Eakins but moved to Paris so he could live more freely as a black man than he could in the United States. He is best known for “The Banjo Player” which critics say gives a more humane account of a black man teaching his grandchild to play the banjo than did William Sidney Mount’s painting of the same name from a half century earlier. But reading in moral messages about what a black painter might try to do with a painting that is different from what a white artist might do is beside the point, the point being what Tanner does do as an artist, how he composes and colors his painting and so gives it a distinctive life. The important thing about Tanner’s “The Banjo Player” is the white splotch of light in the right hand corner where various utilitarian objects, towels and crockery, are to be observed, and the contrast between that and the shadowy nature of the rest of the painting, it all suffused in a bluish glow. In fact, Tanner’s success as an artist is his use of blue tones, as those are set against white ones, in so many of his paintings. They are his distinctive signature as an artist.

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A profession provides expert knowledge and judgment in dealing with matters functionally important for the maintenance of society, the profession allowed by law to largely regulate itself in exchange for a probity that requires professionals to treat their customers as clients, which means professions are there to serve the best interests of those who seek their services rather than just make as much money as possible when they peddle their products and services, which is the case with non-professional enterprises. Doctors are supposed to only prescribe to you the drugs you need. According to this definition of profession, which was provided by Talcott Parsons, doctors, lawyers, professors and baseball players are all professionals rather than only workers plying a trade.

Moreover, and as a consequence, professionals are involved very deeply in the culture of their profession and regard themselves as engaging in a high calling and are also very passionate about their work. They are invested in the way of life of their professional communities, a medical student, for example, not leaving his hospital for months on end, and dating only nurses because the two lines of work share the sophistication of the health professions about how much suffering there is in human life, that patients can die, and that it may be necessary to make instantaneous decisions about medical interventions with possibly tragic consequences to follow. So a professional is suffused with the matter of his occupation, while ordinary occupations allow people to care primarily about other things, like family or culture. We do not expect butchers to have a love affair with meat even if they have a finer sense of the textures of various kinds of meat than do the rest of us, and even though, in my experience, many of those who own and operate hardware stores are infused with a great deal of knowledge about the stock they carry, from what size nail to use to what are the various kinds of tools you can use to remove paint, and so hardware people earn the title of “professional”, at least as a courtesy. Moreover, professionalism isn’t all about the money, either, even if doctors and lawyers do make out better than most butchers and hardware shop owners. A poet is also a professional, part of a community of poets, going over a phrase in the head time and time again to get it right, and earning some begrudging praise for that dedication to his calling however silly a cause it might seem to be.

There are also a set of occupations that can be called dishonorable because they earn the disdain of the general population however much they are professions in all other ways, including in that they perform functions that are essential to society. There are a number of currently admired professions, including the police and the military, that were generally regarded as dishonorable before the Nineteenth Century except for those who had risen to the higher ranks, because they drew their members from the more unsettled parts of the society. Sailors were unmarried and had girls in every port. Police were drawn from the social classes they were supposed to supervise. The establishment of orderly and professionally educated police and military helped give those professions prestige, as the growing scientific basis and professional education for doctors and lawyers in the Nineteenth Century also turned what might or might not be a useful employee into someone respected with an awe that had in previous generations been reserved for generals and high clergymen.

There is a different explanation, however, for why some professions remained and remain largely dishonorable even if the practitioners of them are wealthy and honored and famous. It has to do with the nature of the activity the profession performs rather than the social classes from which the professionals are drawn. Military people engage in killing people wholesale and that was once discrediting because once a killer always a killer, the coarseness of the calling compensated for by the fact that veterans of a largely civilian army go through a period of rehabilitation and are honored for having suffered PTSS. So professionalism compensates for the inherently gruesome nature of the tasks that a soldier undertakes. There is a lot of pomp and circumstance available to make military men think well of their calling and to supply emotional support for them when some of their number are lost in battle. These people are to be honored because they died for their country, however grueling and gruesome was the work they did on their way to death.

The same thing is true with actors and actresses, whose wealth and fame and claims to a bourgeois lifestyle does its best to make up for the fact that the kernel of an actor’s job is to feign emotions, which is a very transgressive thing to do and so makes actors a version of that equally old profession, prostitution, where practitioners feign sexual emotions, or indeed have desensitized sexual feelings, in order to provide commercially available services. Both professions engage in a dishonorable activity, the actor and actress earning the dishonorable repute in which their occupation had for long been held because they feign an even broader range of emotions in an even more public way.  So there is more to the sense that actors and actresses are prostitutes aside from the fact that they were once drawn from the same set of people. The craft of an actor or actress is not only to feign emotions but, according to one theory, the Stanislavski Method, actors use the feigning of emotions as an excuse and reason to conjure up and display emotions from their personal lives that would normally be a source of embarrassment if they were displayed to strangers. In an exact sense, play actors prostitute their emotions for cash and notoriety. It is a professional calling in the sense that play actors, for whatever reason, have a need to display themselves, whether this display earns derision or praise, as well as because they are members of a community devoted to doing so, and also because playacting has been considered a vital role in society for more than two thousand years.

The "bourgeois" sense of propriety about the display of private feelings is violated for the entertainment of strangers, and a craft is made of simulating feeling, as if the ways we appear to be honorable or sincere or loving were mechanisms to be mastered, rather than unalienable parts of ourselves.  Play actors are therefore simultaneously off putting and liberating, sacrificing themselves to provide a momentary mental liberation for the audience. This is costly to the play actor, who faces the professional hazard of the profligate use of acting skills in his or her own personal life. Emotions are schooled and so untrustworthy, the person becoming theatrical offstage as well as on.  The play actor is therefore dishonorable, even if he claims to be able to feign emotions only on the stage, without it affecting the rest of his life.  A likely story. Moreover, evidence to support this suspicion that feigning emotion is a rejection of bourgeois life comes from the supposed fact that on-screen or on-stage loves become "real" passions.  When does the feigning begin, and when does it end? Imitating immoral or licentious behavior gives not only expertise in feigning, which might be generalizable, but a kind of experience of licentious behavior that is not too far from the real thing and is difficult to segregate from it.  Play acting therefore presents an illusion of the liberation of licentious behavior, but also the illusion of being licentious in an only illusory way.

Bourgeois play actors defend the honor of their craft, whether for themselves or to win the affections of their audience, by both feigning and living otherwise bourgeois lives, though this is often stretched to mean that nude scenes made with a minimum crew or only as part of the job do not therefore violate rules of modesty.  The point is the play actors are always violating rules of modesty, of which sexual modesty is a small but significant part, because they show both respectable and unrespectable motives -- like greed or jealousy-- which are not regarded as fit emotions for public display.

Dickens, like Shakespeare before him, is acutely conscious of the way the theatre violates proprieties by its very existence --not by its message, or by its conveyance of illusions, but by what it does to its actors and directors.  Dickens associates the theatre with the circus. The travelling company in “Nicholas Nickleby” is like the travelling circus in “Hard Times”. Each is a band of wandering players, anachronistic to the commercial world, filled with peasant vices and virtues but more self-conscious about them, and so engaged in the pretense of being as noble as the nobility they mimic. They are melodramatic not because life is not melodramatic but because the melodrama of ordinary, non theatrical life arises from the circumstances of life and from the florid personalities that are the makeup of every person, while play-actors have a go at it, embellishing on melodrama when it needs no embellishing and so falsifying their own presentation of life by giving it an illusory grandeur.

And so it is sensible to think that actors and actresses are not to be trusted, so good are they at feigning feelings they do not have. They can manipulate lay people into thinking they love them or that they are to be trusted or that they are reflective people. As one actress once told me, “I am not beautiful, but I know how to act as if I am.” Most ordinary people are more given to hemming and hawing, not knowing if they expressing correctly what they want to say about themselves, or are more abrupt in their physical advances than they would be if they were schooled in how to appear to be loving. So ordinary people communicate themselves clumsily, and so can be relied upon to be authentic, to show the seams of their performances, while actors and actresses are inauthentic because, as Bert Lahr put it, “Once you learn to fake authenticity, you have it made.”

Erving Goffman claimed that everybody puts on performances so as to seem competent in the way they go about their lives. But few of us are as adroit as actors and actresses in seeming competent whether we are or not in any number of aspects of life. Teachers may have mastered their patter well enough so that they are articulate in front of groups of people other than their students, but that does not mean they can feign personal emotions or know how to be what they think a good patient would be like in front of their doctor, but actors and actresses have very generalizable skills at feigning, and that is why people are either taken in by them or don’t trust them. It isn’t easy for an actor or actress to overcome the innate dishonor of their profession, however famous the person may become.

12/23- The Ten Commandments

The giving of the law on Mount Sinai is as momentous as the parting of the Red Sea even though it might seem to be different because the people might not think they need the law while they certainly knew that they could get across the Red Sea only if there were some sort of miracle. God again solves a problem, but only in extremis and at the last minute. These people could all have perished in the desert or at least have ceased to be recognizable as a people. So some may think that the Ten Commandments are natural in the sense that they are the rules of the road that any people would come up with, the fundamentals of any legal code. But not according to “Exodus”.  They are a particular code not so much in their content as for their categorical nature that associates on a general level issues of torts (not to want someone else’s property) with matters that are criminal (such as the prohibition against murder). And they have been imposed on the Israelites rather than discovered by them, yet another indication that this god is the God of the unnatural, of what is contrary to nature. Law does not “naturally” arise out of its functionality or as a reflection of reason but, according to “Exodus”, has to be imposed on people because they will not otherwise accept it and because it will not otherwise occur to them as a necessary part of going about the business of life.

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The Joe Biden Issue

The Joe Biden issue doesn’t seem to go away, stoked by both Trump and cable news, which can’t deal with the serious issue of whether the current President is fit for office. Zelinka Maxwell says on MSNBC that she wants a nuanced discussion of changing views of what is unwelcome touching, which is the term now used for the most modest intrusion on the personal space of females. She says there is a difference between kissing babies and kissing the back of the head of an adult woman. But what seems so  obvious to her does not seem so obvious to me, and the men on her panel were not willing to engage the issue, to in fact engage in a nuanced discussion. Like kissing babies, planting a kiss on the head of a woman one is obviously trying to give emotional support, there being a lot of people around who can see that it is not a sexual overture, is innocuous, and hardly worthy of discussion, people in my generation doing it all the time as a way to create solidarity with colleagues. Why should one not think that most women would not regard this as non-threatening, only those in the media jumping on the bandwagon to score points for their side in the ever roiling sex wars of our times?

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Trust is confidence that a person will reciprocate in a favorable way to an overture on your part. The person will return a phone call, listen to your pain, bail you out with money when called upon to do so. Trust is what makes the social world go round. But to be clear: trust is not an expectation in that you can command it or presume it. Rather, trust is built up over time. If you are constantly late for appointments, a friend will not rely on you to be on time and so make plans accordingly, maybe to meet in a restaurant where he can catch a cup of coffee while waiting for your arrival rather than on a street corner and so left adrift in the middle of winter. The friend knows he is indulging you for your lateness. Only when you show up regularly on time will the friend trust you to do so and take it as a surprise rather than an offense when you are late, being late an offense in that you have not given the appointment sufficient attention or priority to plan ahead to be on time. Maybe the person who is regularly late is someone who over schedules, but all that means is that he or she is in a position to stiff people or that he or she is egotistical enough to think that other people have time on their hands. Trust, then, is akin to capital. It can be built up or squandered, and a person can hoard it or try to dispense with it, but your trust account is always measurable, by friends and intimates, and, through your reputation, by anyone else, just as if you had a trust score calculated by an agency to go along with your credit score.

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The Politically Correct

Let us treat being “politically correct” not just as a rhetorical term thrown out by Donald Trump as a way to malign those who object to his racism and misogyny, or as a term used to describe those on the political left or members of minority groups who wish people to be ashamed of their opinions and who take offense at the expression of opinions with which they do not agree. Rather, let us use it as a serious term of moral and political philosophy which refers to how people negotiate to get heard what they want to say. That way, the term has some perennial rather than purely faddish reference and explains something about political dynamics as those are and always have been.

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11/23- The Horseless Israelites

Only the Egyptians have horses in “Genesis” and “Exodus” though Canaanites do have horses in “Deuteronomy”. (No wonder the people of Israel were reluctant to embark upon an invasion of the Promised Land.)  Solomon had horses, but he is the possessor of what is supposedly a great kingdom. The domestication of horses is therefore the sign of great military power as well as of an advanced civilization. Wendy Doniger reminds us of this in her recent “The Hindus: An Alternative History”. She makes a big deal of the importance of horses, both for commerce and conquest and also as religious sacrifices. By that standard, the Israelites of the Five Books of Moses must be regarded as an inferior people even if they are possessed of what they think to be a superior God, one which is carried around by them, on foot, in an Ark. Remember, they walked rather than rode out of Egypt.

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Three Perennial Issues

Here are  three perennial political issues. They keep turning up when pundits can’t think of a topic for a new column and so revive old controversies in the hope of getting some mileage out of them. So here we go again.

There is some talk lately of doing away with the Electoral College because of what is taken to be its inherent inferiority to a straight out popular vote plurality as the basis for choosing a President. And, indeed, the Electoral College does not serve the purpose it was originally designed for, which was to have the President chosen by a body of wise men rather than the population as a whole so that the fractious and unenlightened spirits of the mass of the population could be held in check. It hasn’t worked that way since the election of 1824 when the lack of a majority for any candidate in the Electoral College sent the election into the House of Representatives, where the establishment forces were able to prevail and so allow John Quincy Adams to become President in preference to Andrew Jackson, the uncouth Westerner, though Jackson took the Electoral College the next time around and became what had been expected: a racist who disrupted the banking system however much he was loyal to the idea of the nation remaining united despite the slavery issue. And there was the election of 1876, when the Electoral College settled the Hayes-Tilden election in favor of the Republican candidate, presumably as a trade for the removal of Union troops from the South, although historians disagree about whether there was a trade off or whether removing Union troops was by that time inevitable, the North having come to understand that the South would continue to rule itself as its white population saw fit, never mind the results of the Civil War.

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Coalition Democracy

There is a lesson  that should be learned by American politics from what happened during the Arab Spring. It will be remembered that the people who went out into the Square to bring down the Mubarak government were what we would call liberals or modernizers. They were students and techies and women. They were backed by the Army, which got them the first and only fair election in Egyptian history. But look what happened then. They could not come together around a single candidate to represent their interests, neither one of the young people, like the IBM executive who got the international media spotlight for a few days, nor Barudi, the distinguished international civil servant who had lived outside the country for many years, nor some indigenous political figure. The result was that the Arab Brotherhood, not expecting to gain power, won the election and its head, much praised by the international community as a potential enlightened figure, and given credit for having put down some unrest among the Bedouin living in the Sinai, nonetheless proved too sympathetic to Islamist forces and so was dispatched by the army who got their own leader elected president without much resistance by the international community, which had given up much hope that the Arab Spring was a democratic reform movement. And now to America.

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10/23- The Rape of Dinah

There is another way of appreciating the stories of women in the patriarchal setting if one casts aside a preoccupation with the oppression of women. The stories are legend like tellings of the origins of civilized familial relations, or at least what would seem required to make family relations recognizably current in the court of an oriental despotism such as the Persia of the Exile. How, the redactoress might have imagined, could this primitive people have moved themselves beyond being primitive in those sphere of activities recognized as being under the influence of women?  The redactoress is remarkably insightful about what makes families workable as distinctive units caught up in the larger social structure.

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My Uncle Jack

My Uncle Jack was a ne’er do well, which meant, in his case, that it took him a long  time to settle into a career and into family life. He was drafted in the last days of World War II and never saw combat and reenlisted even though, as far as I could gather, he spent his time in the military losing his corporal’s stripes and residing in the stockade. When he left the Army, he used his G. I. Bill of Rights to study hairdressing, again for reasons I never understood, but he dropped that because, he said, it had too many fags in it, which even my early adolescent knowledge of the world told me he should have known going in. He took a job as a security guard at J. C. Penny and carried around with him a picture of the notorious bank robber Willie Sutton so that he might get a reward for identifying him if he ran across him in the street. Shortly afterwards, Sutton was indeed identified by Arnold Schuster, who was very proud of what he had accomplished and gave newspaper interviews about it, and Frank Costello, the mobster, thought Schuster was too proud of himself and had him murdered. Jack did not see the irony of this but my mother thought that it showed the wisdom of not wishing for something you might get.

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Border Cruelty

It is time for a screed about what is happening at America’s southern border.  There has been a long term decrease in illegal border crossings from Mexico, but there has been in the last year or two an increase in the number of families, mothers and children, who have made that crossing, presumably to avoid the violence and lack of income opportunities that plague their home countries, which are El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. So how are these refugees greeted? Children are separated from their parents and the mothers deported without their children even though they had surrendered at the American border to American Border Police so that they might apply for political asylum, which is their right under international and American law. But the President has said that he doesn’t think it right to allow them that loophole and, in fact, has made it harder for immigrants to ask for asylum and forced many of them to remain in Mexico without food and shelter until it is their turn to apply for asylum which, some reports say, means that one family a day will be processed.

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