Wednesday, December 5, 2018

THE REBUKE

The funeral of President George H. W. Bush, along with almost every one of the words spoken about him since his death last Friday, offers a powerful, if unspoken rebuke to the man who succeeds him in the Oval Office today. I hope he hears it. I hope he learns from it. But I fear he is by nature deaf to the lesson that it offers.


Tuesday, December 4, 2018

GENTLEMEN

It's not easy being a gentleman. I know this because I happen to be one. I say this without wanting to puff up my own ego (no gentleman would ever do such a thing!) but rather because it's in my blood and bones, as well as in my psyche. And truthfully I do not always live up to the expectations of others or myself. My behavior is all too often other than gentlemanly. But then, to compensate, I am subjected to pangs of guilt and shame!

This thought--confession?--occurs to me in the context of the death of former President George H. W. Bush, who I think was also a gentleman (we tend to recognize each other!), though of a different nationality and culture. I'm sure he also understood the predicament of being a gentleman. For one thing, it is easily mistaken for weakness. That impulse to defer, to give the appearance, at least, of humility even when one does not feel it, and to always put one's personal needs after those of others--those qualities can easily be abused by those who would treat you as a doormat.

The other, related difficulty is the ease with which this can actually happen, without vigilance and the kind of inner strength that does not need to be publicly asserted. The natural humility of the gentleman can all too easily degenerate into timidity and acquiescence--but then you're not a gentleman any more. You are a doormat.

It's a fine line to walk. Respect, decency, kindness, and compassion for those less fortunate are, in my view, the most admirable of human qualities, but also the most subject to abuse and scorn. They seem old-fashioned, rather quaint, in a world where cutthroat competitiveness and aggression have become the primary requisites of success.

I did not agree with George H. W. Bush on most matters of political philosophy and practice. But in retrospect I have no reason to doubt his integrity, his innate sense of duty and service, his unwavering desire to do the right thing for those he served--even when "the right thing" appeared to me to be the wrong one. It's a quality that is greatly missed in our world today. I fervently hope it is not lost to humanity forever.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

SCHOOL DAYS

I woke this morning thinking of my school days in England, many years ago. Tracing the line of my thoughts back, I conclude that they were prompted improbably by the death of that misguided Christian missionary, John Allen Chau, at the hands of the Sentinelese islanders a couple of weeks ago. He had rashly stepped uninvited into a culture fiercely isolated for centuries from the rest of the world and well-known for its peoples' aggressive desire to keep it that way. He was killed as surely by their "primitive"--and clearly very effective--weapons, bows and arrows, as those who are killed by technologically advanced firearms in our presumptively civilized society here in the United States of America. Alas, men have murder in their hearts, it seems, whether "civilized" or not.

This reminded me, though, of a school friend, Richard Mason, who was not really a school friend. He was the head prefect at the public (read "private") school that I attended, as perhaps a couple of years his junior. Mason--we only used surnames at boys' boarding schools in those days--was a senior in the same "house" as myself, a cross-country runner like myself, and the head prefect of the entire school. It was he who administered the brutal caning--"six of the best"--to which I was sentenced for having been caught in the act of smoking and drinking in a pool room half a mile from school. (The caning was a ritual involving a dozen of Mason's fellow prefects lined up to form a gauntlet of authority, through which he pounded at full tilt to administer each blow, made that much more painful by the speed of his approach...)

I was reminded of all this because Mason was attacked and killed just a few years later by the darts and arrows of Amazon tribesmen previously uncontacted by the outside world. He was leading an expedition to follow the length of the hitherto unexplored Iriri river when the attack occurred and, if memory serves, his body was cannibalized. With this vague memory in mind, I strolled back yesterday through cyberspace to remind myself of what I had learned some time ago: that Mason's small group of fellow adventurers included another former classmate from our boarding school, one Kit Lambert, who survived the expedition and later became the man who, with his partner, Chris Stamp (the brother of the actor Terrence Stamp), went on to discover, promote and manage the initially ragtag rock group of musicians that was to become The Who.

Adventuring further (the Internet is the closest I come to the Amazon!) I discovered that a film had been made about the pair long after Lambert's wild and self-destructive path had led to his absurdly mundane, untimely death from an alcohol- and drug-induced fall down the stairs at his mother's house in London. I rented Lambert & Stamp, as the film is titled; it proved to be a fascinating documentary that reconstructs the early years of The Who through interviews with the principals (Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Chris Stamp himself and his brother Terrence) and historical footage of film and television interviews with Lambert--amazingly fluent in both French and German--as well as of live performances, travels, recording sessions, and so on...

All of which led to my waking up, this morning, with thoughts of school days on my mind. Who were these school mates, Mason and Lambert, and how could I not have recognized them for who they were to become? The two could not have been more different, Mason straight-arrow, disciplined and--despite the seeming rashness of his last adventure--eminently responsible; and the brilliant but unstable Lambert descending through a long spiral into a crazed, if highly creative world of addiction, sexual excess and self-destructiveness. Watching him on screen, I could not help but think of Oscar Wilde--a genuine British eccentric whose rebellion against social norms ended up costing him dearly.

And what about me, who have led what I judge to be--by comparison, at least--an unadventurous, even bourgeois life? I thought about what I had learned through the experience of twelve years of boy's boarding school--not the brash, outgoing courage of a domineering Mason nor the boundless, unselfcensored creativity of Lambert. Their response to that oppressive environment was, for Mason, to master it; for Lambert, to rebel against it by breaking all the rules. Looking back on those days, I believe I learned a different lesson--the dubious art of self-protection. I learned that it was safer not to expose my vulnerable young self to boys who were stronger and more aggressive than myself, nor to the ever-present danger of mockery and ridicule. I learned the value of self-restraint, of holding back, of deference and civility, the safety of the low profile.

I have to admit there is still some part of me that harbors a certain envy for men like Mason and Lambert; a part that teases me with what "I coulda been" if unrestrained by those values that I learned too well at school. The wild man that I learned to keep so adamantly chained inside me, I tell myself, might have done great things if unshackled and let loose in the great, wide world. The doppleganger to the well-mannered, thoughtful, deferential Englishman I was brought up to be--and the one so many feel free to like and even admire today--is the inner beast that roams freely, if secretively, within my soul.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

LUNCH WITH JOHN

I had lunch yesterday with an old friend, John. I had not seen him in perhaps ten years, and it was good to reconnect. There are those--as I'm sure others have experienced--with whom I feel a special bond, even though I might not know them very well. I recognize in them the integrity I admire and myself aspire to--an authenticity that inspires the kind of trust that is hard to come by in the contemporary world.

Our conversation ranged over a variety of topics, from family to politics, from old stories recalled to new ones previously unknown. Over the course of our friendship, we worked together on staff at often intense men's training weekends, where participants are attracted precisely to find the kind of integrity that may be missing in their lives. We learn to hold each other to account, to not be seduced by the fraudulence of our own self-deception and denial. It's good work, of a kind that is much needed, in my judgment, by vast numbers of those un-grown little boys who pose as men in today's society.

I have written before about my own understanding of integrity--which in essence means nothing more and nothing less than being whole. It is expressed in the simple formula of saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Intention and action in the world are one. For me, there are four pillars that give it substance and structure: the intellect (the head, where most men spend most of their lives), the emotions, the physical body and--for want of a better word--the spirit. For full integrity, as I see it, these need to be in balance, none of them neglected, none so exclusive that it outweighs all or any of the others.

There are too often moments, as I'm sure for all of us, when I lack vigilance and mindfulness and slip out of integrity with myself and those around me; so it was useful to be reminded of these important understandings as I sat at lunch with my good friend. We men need to acknowledge our part in a history of misused power and privilege that manifests in the human crisis that dominates the national and international stage today. The men's organization in which my friend John and I were active for so many years spoke of "healing the world, one man at a time." That's still a worthy and an urgent cause.

Monday, November 12, 2018

HITLER & THE HABSBURGS: A Book Review

There's a knee-jerk reaction these days whenever someone compares Donald J. Trump to Hitler--a
shudder and a rejection of even the remotest  possibility. Unhappily, James Longo's Hitler and the Habsburgs might give you pause.

More of that in a moment. For now let me confess that I am no historian, and therefore not an objective judge of this fascinating book. The author makes no secret of his admiration, even affection for the Habsburg family, and for the Hohenbergs they became after the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the monarchy of the Emperor Franz Joseph, was coerced into a morganatic marriage with a Czech duchess despised by other royals as his social--and ethnic--inferior: neither he nor his offspring were entitled to inherit the throne--or to use the family name. Longo's sympathies are clear; he even dedicates his book to a Hohenberg family heiress.

It's still a compelling read, and one that also engages the reader's sympathy to his subjects. As the former subject of a European monarch (Elizabeth II--unfortunately misspelled in this book, one of a few typos and misspellings I noted along the way: the infamous Nazi thug was Ernst Kaltenbrunner, not Kalterbrunner!), I have mixed feelings about aristocratic privilege. On the one hand, I am more than a little skeptical of blood-line heritage; on the other, I have a sneaking sympathy for those called upon to inherit the burden of leadership they in no way earned. Born in the years before Hitler's effort to compel all of Europe into his personal fiefdom, I also have an abhorrence of the barbarities of Nazism and the cataclysm that Hitler and his obedient Nazis perpetrated on the world.

So as a reader of this story I share something of the author's bias. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination famously led to the outbreak of World War I--and eventually to that of World War II--is portrayed here as an enlightened man, dedicated to a mission of peace and the integration of the ethnically diverse peoples of Central Europe. His two sons, Maximilian and Ernst, inveighed against Hitler even in the early days, before his rise to autocratic power, and thereby earned his lasting enmity. Their pre--World War II efforts to restore the monarchy in Austria in order to forestall the eventual "Anschluss" earned them long-term imprisonment in the Dachau concentration camp. In Longo's telling they survived the most terrible of humiliations with dignity intact, and returned, after Hitler's defeat, to do what they could do in service to family, the Austrian people, and the peoples of central and eastern Europe.

Today's readers may well shudder, with me, when they read paragraphs like these:
Wealthy industrialists secretly financed Hitler's rise to power [...]. In return he quietly promised them to destroy the country's burgeoning Communist Party, smash the nation's labor unions, and provide his benefactors with unparalleled profits. The unemployed were assured full employment, and the forgotten man--respect. Hitler promised the military recruits, rearmament, and a restoration of power and prestige.
Just like the man in the Oval Office today. Quoting the journalist Dorothy Thompson, who interviewed Hitler before the war, Longo adds: "Throughout the root of Nazism is unabridged nationalism which elevates a nation into a god." Inspired by Hitler's nationalism, there were sadly many Americans in the mid- to late-1930s who were militant proponents of "America First", and it terrifies me to think that our current "president" follows in their footsteps--along with the rabble of angry supporters he riles up at his endless (yes!) Hitlerian rallies.

So this is a timely book. No matter what you think of aristocrats and monarchies, you will surely share my horror of the racist political oppression that Hitler exerted while in power. You will surely share my disgust with the kind of rhetoric that hypnotized so many Germans into submission to the Nazi regime. You will surely share my conviction that, yes, without vigilance and, when necessary, unwavering resistance, this can happen again--even in America. The book is at once a nightmare of historical fact and a warning of the ease with which "the people" can be manipulated and power abused.

I quibbled a bit earlier about misspellings. They shouldn't happen in a book like this because they serve to distract from the reader's attention and credulity. For myself, too, I would have appreciated the inclusion of a family tree to which I might have occasionally referred in order to catch up on a name or family relationship; and also, to assist me in my deplorable ignorance and given the often shifting national alliances and treaties, a map of the countries of pre-WWI and pre-WWII Europe.

Otherwise, Hitler and the Habsburgs proved an excellent and a provocative read. I enjoyed it immensely.