Monday, September 29, 2014

OBAMA


Reading Matt Bai’s recent article about Gary Hart in the New York Times Magazine (Sunday, September 21, 2014) brought to mind how the rash, naughty-boy action of a mindless moment could alter the course of history.  Back in April, 1987, Hart had a commanding, quite possibly insuperable lead in that year’s presidential race.  An otherwise thoughtful man of steady purpose and subtle, complex ideas, he had the makings of an excellent president, and one who might have led the country in a very different direction from the one that we have taken.  Instead, we elected George H. W. Bush, who in turn enabled the election of his wayward son, George W.—incidentally, no less a little boy than Gary Hart. 

To revert to the old cliché, Hart simply couldn’t keep his penis in his pants.  In this, he followed in the footsteps of great American Presidents—Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Fitzgerald Kennedy come to mind—along with vast numbers of prominent and less prominent politicians.   Even popularly sainted figures like Dr. Martin Luther King were not immune from this masculine propensity.  Hart was merely the first of many to be publically outed by the press, and he must have been surprised as well as chagrined by the outcome.  After all, it was not that the media were in ignorance of the philandering of those precedents; it was just that it had always before been regarded as personal, something between a man and his conscience—and quite possibly his wife; but certainly none of the voting public’s business.

We are all the worse for Hart’s alleged bad behavior (he has never, apparently, copped to any unseemly act).  Worse than its questionable morality, it was frankly stupid.  The fact that his taunting remark to the press in that challenge to “follow me around” was entirely disconnected, according to Bai’s article, from the investigation that exposed him, is basically irrelevant.  In retrospect, the man staked a historical shot at the presidency on a casual flirtation.  And lost.  We all lost, because since that time the important issues in presidential (indeed, in all other political) campaigns have been sacrificed to “gotcha” moments—whether a slip of the tongue at an incautious moment or a weakness of the flesh.  And not least because his defection did much to enable to country’s subsequent--and apparently persistent--slippage from rational political centrism to the fanatical and demented extreme right. 

We would do well to reflect on our attraction for what Carl Jung called the puer aeternus, the ungrown boy—a man whose grandiose self-image and belief that he can do no wrong blind him to the realities of the world and lead him into the kind of ill-considered and reckless action that crippled the Hart campaign.  It is a character flaw that crosses party lines.  We suffered through George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and its disastrous consequences, but also through Bill Clinton’s (Hart-like) inability to keep his libido in check and the consequent costs to both his presidency and the country.  We may reflect further upon the fact that the narcissism--and, alas, the charisma--of too many grown-up little boys lands them in leadership positions everywhere, where they squabble like schoolyard brats for dominance and territory rather than address with any seriousness of purpose the urgent problems that confront us in the world today.  The damage they do ranges from the trivial to the potentially catastrophic.

As for our president, Barack Obama, others may disagree with me, but I persist in seeing him as a man amongst these boys.  I watched last night as he answered his interviewer’s questions on CBS’ Sixty Minutes.  He listened—occasionally interrupting, certainly, but answering the questions that were put to him without prevarication.  He copped to his own mistakes.  He allowed of others’ views.  He admitted to contradictions.  He did not attempt to disguise his willingness to change his mind in changing circumstances.  He spoke clearly.  He refused to be bullied.  He showed no trace of squirming, even when faced with questions that seemed antagonistic or accusatory.  His body language suggested that he remained calm and comfortable within himself. 

Those who have read Obama’s books will know that he has worked in considerable depth on the defection of a father that too often prevents boys from growing into men.  They will know that his relationship with his mother was, by compensation, strong, and that he experienced that period of adolescent rebellion through which he learned his independence.  I believe that a man’s strength is defined in part by a healthy balance between the yin and the yang, the masculine and feminine principles.  True strength lies not in intolerance, inflexibility, and macho posturing, but rather in the ability to listen, and hear, and understand; and to incorporate the needs and feelings of others with one’s own; to reflect and weigh the results of actions before taking them.  Compassion is a healthy part of strength, as is the ability to change one’s mind, to admit failure, to learn from experience, and to try another course.


I count myself a leftist.  There are many things in Obama’s presidency I wish he had not been constrained to do.  There are many things I wish he had had not been obstructed from doing by implacable opposition.  But I do not stand with those on the left who allow their own passions to blind them to his real achievements and who—child-like, in my view—chafe with impatience and anger at his failure to implement their own ideal agenda.  I admire the apparent ease to deflect, perhaps even to absorb the hatred and the adamant obstructionism that has been directed against him since his first day in office, and to get on with the job with which he was entrusted.  These, as I see it, are the qualities of a man of integrity.  I am glad to have such a man at the helm in a time of global crisis.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

THE MAKING OF THEM: TV Documentary Review (belated)

I revisited my childhood yesterday.  I have been reading Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion, a recent book by Nick Duffel, (I'll have more to say about the book in a later post) and came across a reference to a video made in 1994 for the BBC, The Making of Them.  I had an exchange of correspondence with Nick Duffell some fifteen years ago, at the time of the publication of my own memoir, While I Am Not Afraid: Secrets of a Man's Heart.  I'm no longer sure how it came about, but I heard about the organization he had founded, Boarding School Survivors, and the title immediately struck a chord.  I am, myself, a "survivor" of the British boarding school system, and was pleased to learn that someone was seriously addressing the issues I had been struggling with for my entire adult life.

"The Making of Them" is about the earliest stage of the private boarding school system, the "prep" school.  Boys--and girls, but I was obviously at an all-boys school; my sister has a similar story--are sent there by their parents at the age of seven or eight, and spend their early education there until about age twelve, when they move on to "public". i.e. private boarding school.  What I remember most from that time in my life is the intense loneliness, the homesickness, the sense of alienation and difference from all the other boys.  In retrospect, much later, I learned to acknowledge that I was suffering, but would have been unable to formulate such a recognition at the time.  As an act of self-preservation, if nothing else, it was necessary to conceal it.  Vulnerability was not an option.  I created for myself a fine, extremely effective coat of armor--and wore it for another four decades.  I still find myself, today, shielding myself from the unkind world out there!  I am still uncomfortable with my body.  I still "hold myself in."

The BBC documentary brought these memories and feelings back with force.  At several points, I found myself holding back (see?!) the tears.  Granted, things had changed much between 1994 and when I first went to boarding school, in 1943.  I was seven years old.  Funny, I often hear myself saying I was six, but I must have been seven by then.  These days, to judge from the documentary, the teachers and staff make a far greater effort to be kind and compassionate.  I watched with interest, for example, how a small group of the boys themselves gathered protectively around a little lad who was suffering from homesickness.  In my day, that kind of vulnerability would have been met with jeers and teasing.  Even the school environment seemed friendlier, more open to individuality and expressive freedom.  The periods of separation from the parents seemed much shorter: three weeks was mentioned.  My own terms lasted an three interminable months, three times a year.  With luck, your parents might come down at mid-term to take you out to lunch.

I watched those parents in the video, thinking of my own.  How they felt, said, persuaded themselves that this was "the best thing" for their children.  But their facial expressions and body language  betrayed quite different feelings than their words.  I noticed how a mother, picking her son up to bring him home, asked the leading question, "Was it wonderful?"  To which the boy could only answer, yes. The discordance between words and body language on the part of both the parents and their sons is, at times, painful to watch.  Like these young boys, I was unable to be truthful with my parents: at huge sacrifice, they were buying me the best education they could think of; it was my job to be grateful, not to whine.  But at what cost, to live so great a lie?

So it's a slightly more enlightened time, I think.  At one moment, I watched with envy how a mother hugged her little boy in a genuine effusion of affection, and told him--in parting!--that she loved him. How, he must have been thinking, if she loved him, could she drive off and leave him?  My own mother could never have hugged me in that way at Victoria Station, where they left me off.  My father would shake my hand to say goodbye.  So, yes, things have changed in many ways for the better.  But still... the impact of the documentary is unmistakable: the institution of the boarding school is no substitute for what young children need most at this time in their lives, the love of their parents and the security of home.  (I'm tempted to add that it's not only boarding schools that cause the childhood wounds which, unless we work to heal them, we carry around with us for life.  But that's another story...)

I note with curiosity that there are two ways of hearing that title phrase.  Until I watched this documentary I had heard only one of them--"The Making of Them"--the one with the emphasis on the last word: Them.  The boarding school system is geared to creating a specific class of people, them, a peculiarly British elite, the ones who go on to Oxford or Cambridge and who generally end up running the country.  O lucky me!  I am one of them, and I have traveled many miles on my nice educated English accent, my charm, my finely educated mind.  I "should be grateful," and in so many ways I am.  I account myself one of Them.

But then I heard one of the mothers say the words in a quite different way: "It's the making of them," she said.  I registered the difference with a shock.  It was like one of those optical illusions, where you can't see one aspect of the image until you blink your eyes, and then can't see the other.  Of course.  I had never heard it, in my mind, with this particular emphasis.  This way, it gets to be the justification, a positive rather than a negative.  This way, the mother could allow herself to believe that the experience was a fine way for her son to build the character he'd need to be successful in his future life.

In this context, I'll confess to a part of myself that listened to the grown men in this powerful and moving documentary, products of the boarding school system, with the knee-jerk response: they're "wet," to resort to the boys'  school terminology; they're "pathetic."  These extraordinarily privileged men actually feel sorry for themselves.  Such was my conditioned reaction; and in this way was my conditioning so powerful, it triggered that judgment over decades of sometimes deep inner work and reflection.  Because I recognized myself in them, these men who had come to understand the depth of the wound they had sustained, and the lasting effects it can have on a man's life--including, but not limited to the ability to form trusting relationships and engage in simple expressions of love.  Like the hugs my wife reminds me again this morning, as I write, I am too reticent to share...

Please note: you don't have to be a "boarding school survivor" to find deep resonance in this documentary.  You just need to have survived your childhood.  Which, likely, if you are reading this, you have done.


Friday, September 26, 2014

BUSY

It's a busy time.  It always seems to be a busy time.  Have you noticed?  If it's not a busy time for you, then you're a lot wiser than I am.  These past few days I have been busy working on the final--well, semi-final--preparations for the publication of The Pilgrim's Staff.  Yesterday, I read through the entire text again, nearly four hundred pages of it, searching for errata in the formatted version; and was surprised by how many I managed to find, despite previous fine tooth-comb reading.  A very intense and concentrated read.  I don't know how many times I've read the entire story now, but it must be dozens.  It's getting so that the eyes begin to glaze...

A couple of days ago, it was the cover.  My friend Gregg Chadwick was generous enough to create an image for the front.  Having read the book, he delved into the art of the 18th century, particularly the erotic prints and drawing of artists like Thomas Rowlandson...


... and George Cruickshank and came up with an image that captured the spirit of both the period and the story that I've written.

Gregg Chadwick, "The Embrace," 2014, 30" x 24", oil on linen
Loved the painting--but there was some concern about the penis!  Even though that's the reference of the book's title--an 18th century euphemism.  But would CreateSpace allow it?  To put the offending organ in context, I suggested using a studio shot with the artist's palette, paint tube and so on arranged in front of the image.  Which is appropriate anyway, because the second of my two narrators (the other is an 18th century English gentleman) is a contemporary figure painter.

So that's how it will look.  I'll keep the actual cover for a later date, but it's now agreed upon.  For the back cover blurb, I wrote the following:
“I am no Rake.” So says the anonymous English gentleman whose two hundred year-old journal falls into the hands of the prominent Los Angeles-based figure painter and avid blogger, David Soames…

 … who is skeptical of the author’s protestation.  “No Rake…?”  Blog and journal soon begin to mirror each other in an exchange that echoes across the centuries.  As the potboiler romps exuberantly through 18th century Georgian boudoirs, it triggers the intimate memories of a 21st century man reflecting on youth—and age.

 The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.   At least when it comes to men and sex.  The Pilgrim’s Staff is an explicit, unabashed reflection on the nature of masculine sexuality…
So these are the details that have been keeping me busy.  We're getting there... I hope you'll keep an eye out for the actual book, which should be available by mid-October.  I think it's an entertaining read, and it does try to say something of value about its chosen topic.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A NOT-SO-HAPPY NEW YEAR

This evening marks the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  I am not a Jew, but am married into a Jewish family.  So I'd like to wish everyone a Happy New Year--but do so with some distress this year as I read an alarming article in the New York Times about the re-emergence of anti-Semitism in Europe.  I hope you'll take a look at it, and also at the following open letter from Dr. Denis MacEoin, a non Jewish professor, in response to the motion put forward by EUSA, the Edinburgh Students' Association, to boycott all things Israeli, claiming that Israel is under an "apartheid regime."  Dr. MacEoin is an expert in Middle Eastern Affairs and served as senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.  Here's his letter to the Edinburgh students.  It's worth reading, especially in the light of the subversion of genuinely reasoned criticism of Israeli actions in Gaza into what amounts to nothing better than hate-based anti-Semitism.

TO: The Committee Edinburgh University Student Association.


May I be permitted to say a few words to members of the EUSA? I am an Edinburgh graduate (MA 1975) who studied Persian, Arabic and Islamic History in Buccleuch Place under William Montgomery Watt and Laurence Elwell Sutton, two of Britain 's great Middle East experts in their day. I later went on to do a PhD at Cambridge and to teach Arabic and Islamic Studies at Newcastle University. Naturally, I am the author of several books and hundreds of articles in this field. I say all that to show that I am well informed in Middle Eastern affairs and that, for that reason, I am shocked and disheartened by the EUSA
motion and vote.


I am shocked for a simple reason: there is not and has never been a system of apartheid in Israel . That is not my opinion, that is fact that can be tested against reality by any Edinburgh student, should he or she choose to visit Israel to see for themselves. Let me spell this out, since I have the impression that those members of EUSA who voted
for this motion are absolutely clueless in matters concerning Israel, and that they are, in all likelihood, the victims of extremely biased propaganda coming from the anti-Israel lobby.


Being anti-Israel is not in itself objectionable. But I'm not talking about ordinary criticism of Israel. I'm speaking of a hatred that permits itself no boundaries in the lies and myths it pours out. Thus, Israel is repeatedly referred to as a "Nazi" state. In what sense is
this true, even as a metaphor? Where are the Israeli concentration camps? The einzatsgruppen? The SS? The Nuremberg Laws? The Final Solution? None of these things nor anything remotely resembling them exists in Israel , precisely because the Jews, more than anyone on earth, understand what Nazism stood for.


It is claimed that there has been an Israeli Holocaust in Gaza (or elsewhere). Where? When? No honest historian would treat that claim with anything but the contempt it deserves. But calling Jews Nazis and saying they have committed a Holocaust is as basic a way to subvert historical fact as anything I can think of.


Likewise apartheid. For apartheid to exist, there would have to be a situation that closely resembled how things were in South Africa under the apartheid regime. Unfortunately for those who believe this, a weekend in any part of Israel would be enough to show how ridiculous the claim is. That a body of university students actually fell for this and voted on
it is a sad comment on the state of modern education. The most obvious focus for apartheid would be the country's 20% Arab population. Under Israeli law, Arab Israelis have exactly the same rights as Jews or anyone else; Muslims have the same rights as Jews or Christians; Baha'is, severely persecuted in Iran, flourish in Israel, where they 
have their world center; Ahmadi Muslims, severely persecuted in Pakistan and elsewhere, are kept safe by Israel; the holy places of all religions are protected under a specific Israeli law. Arabs form 20% of the university population (an exact echo of their percentage in the general population).


In Iran , the Bahai's (the largest religious minority) are forbidden to study in any university or to run their own universities: why aren't your members boycotting Iran ? Arabs in Israel can go anywhere they want, unlike blacks in apartheid South Africa . They use public transport, they eat in restaurants, they go to swimming pools, they use libraries, they go to cinemas alongside Jews - something no blacks were able to do in South Africa .Israeli hospitals not only treat Jews and Arabs, they also treat Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank. On the same wards, in the same operating theatres. In Israel , women have the same rights as
men: there is no gender apartheid. Gay men and women face no restrictions, and Palestinian gays often escape into Israel, knowing they may be killed at home.  It seems bizarre to me that LGBT groups call for a boycott of Israel and say nothing about countries like Iran, where gay men are hanged or stoned to death. That illustrates a mindset that beggars belief.


Intelligent students thinking it's better to be silent about regimes that kill gay people, but good to condemn the only country in the Middle East that rescues and protects gay people. Is that supposed to be a sick joke? University is supposed to be about learning to use your brain, to think rationally, to examine evidence, to reach conclusions based on solid evidence, to compare sources, to weigh up one view against one  or more others. If the best Edinburgh can now produce are students who have no idea how to do any of these things, then the future is bleak.


I do not object to well-documented criticism of Israel. I do object when supposedly intelligent people single the Jewish state out above states that are horrific in their treatment of their populations. We 
are going through the biggest upheaval in the Middle East since the 7th and 8th centuries, and it's clear that Arabs and Iranians are rebelling against terrifying regimes that fight back by killing their own citizens. Israeli citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, do not rebel (though they are free to protest). Yet Edinburgh students mount no demonstrations and call for no boycotts against Libya, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Iran . They prefer to make false accusations against one of the world's freest countries, the only country in the
Middle East that has  taken in Darfur refugees, the only country in the Middle East that gives refuge to gay men and women, the only country in the Middle East that protects the Bahai's.... Need I go on?


The imbalance is perceptible, and it sheds no credit on anyone who voted for this boycott. I ask you to show some common sense. Get information from the Israeli embassy. Ask for some speakers. Listen to more than one side. Do not make your minds up until you have given a fair hearing to both parties. You have a duty to your students, and that is to protect them from one-sided argument.  They are not at university to be propagandized. And they are certainly not there to be tricked into anti-Semitism by punishing one country among all the countries of the world, which happens to be the only Jewish state. If there had been a single Jewish state in the 1930's (which, sadly, there was not), don't you think Adolf Hitler would have decided to boycott it?


Your generation has a duty to ensure that the perennial racism of anti-Semitism never sets down roots among you. Today, however, there are clear signs that it has done so and is putting down more. You have a chance to avert a very great evil, simply by using reason and a sense of fair play. Please tell me that this makes sense. I have given you some of the evidence. It's up to you to find out more.


Yours sincerely,
Denis MacEoin 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

THE WAYWARD MALE: Essay

The following is an essay written as an op-ed piece, picking up some of the themes in my new novel, The Pilgrim's Staff.  I expect the book to be out and available in a month or so...

THE WAYWARD MALE

What do the abusive NFL football player and the campus rapist have in common with the pedophile Roman Catholic priest?  I’d argue that they all suffer from misplaced, misunderstood masculine energy.  Our sisters in humankind have done a commendable job in the past century or so, exploring their sexual identity and the potential of their gender.  We men have lagged far behind them in coming to understand the peculiarities and responsibilities of manhood.

What does it take to be a man?  What is the essential difference between men and women?  How do we put our special qualities to good use, particularly in the service of our fellow human beings?   These are important questions that we, as men, tend to gloss over as being of trivial significance.  We tend to assume the answers as already given, and bruise our way through life on our impetuous, unreflective path to poorly thought-out goals and what we are sold as a notion of success.

The most obvious of differences is what we have between our legs.  The penis and the testicles.  They dangle there imperiously, demanding our attention almost from the moment of our birth—my grandson, and I suspect yours too, or your sons if you are not yet old enough to be a grandfather—plays with himself incessantly, and I think he is not untypical of his sex.  I watch him giggle with self-conscious pleasure as he does so.  This habit does not diminish as the young male grows through boyhood to adolescence, and on into maturity.  Even old age.  We do not talk about it, but for most men, I’d wager, the penis is the most sacred and treasured object of their lives, requiring constant care and attention.   The neglect of its quiet, insidious, irresistible demands results in disastrous consequences—ranging from pedophilia, to rape, to physical abuse.  I’d go so far as to suggest even the epidemics of work- or alcoholism, or other obsessive behaviors.

I speak as one man, but I have listened to the stories of countless others in this regard, as a long-time member of an international organization of men devoted to the betterment of Man-kind.  It distresses me to read of good male energy gone awry.  The secondary difference between ourselves and the other sex is of course our naturally-endowed physical strength, and it’s all to obvious how this energy can be abused.  And here I speak not only of individual physical violence directed against another man—or woman—but also, by extension, of the appalling violence that we witness in everywhere in the world around us.  The vast majority of it, let’s be honest, has its source in the male ego and its accompanying masculine energy.

How can this energy best be turned to productive, non-destructive purposes?  I think we need to educate ourselves, our fellows, and particularly our young males to the idea of service.  If I can channel my natural energy into a mission of service, I am likely to be a great deal happier and more fulfilled as a man.  This education, traditionally, starts at the age of puberty with a ritual of initiation.  Our modern substitutes for ritual initiation—confirmation for young Christian men, bar mitvahs for Jews, and so on—lack both the drama and the danger of ancient rituals that put young men literally at risk for their lives.  I do not recommend a return to such brutal experiences, but I do believe that we need to find ways to challenge our young men in such a way that they are confronted not only with their physical vulnerability but also with the recognition of the mutual interdependence they share with their fellow human beings.  They need to understand, at gut level, that their actions, positive or negative, affect those around them and not merely their small selves; and that their very lives depend on their ability to serve not only their own interests, but the needs of others with whom they share this endangered planet.

The world needs masculine energy—and not merely to procreate.  We need male strength, and integrity, and sense of purpose.  We need his sense of independence and gallantry, and adventure, his willingness to take risks and if necessary to put his life on the line for what he believes in.   What we don’t need is masculine energy gone wild, taking the form of dominance and aggression, acquisitiveness and greed.  We look around us and see too many grown-up little boys, squabbling on the playground for dominance and territorial rights.  It’s not these little boys we need, it is grown men.

I confess I indulge in generalization and risk the untruths that can result.  Not all the traits I mention are restricted to men.  Not all women are saints.  But I do believe that the time is past for men to take their gender as seriously as women have done, with such excellent results—not only for themselves but for our species at large.  If we achieve a better understanding of what our manhood is about, we shall all be the better for it.  And, just maybe, we shall have fewer wife-beaters, rapists and child-abusers.  There is always hope.