Letter From Manhattan June 1, 2007
© 2007 by Joel

Happy Anniversary to Me

My first Letter From hit the electronic stands a year ago today, and I've enjoyed every typo, punctuation error and misspelling since. (Mangling names such as Sy Hersh's and Zbigniew Brzenzinski's is my favorite.) Readers from thirty some odd addresses have gone out of their way to tell me they keep up with what I write.

My biggest surprise is how many punches I have pulled. ("That's pulling punches," you gasp?) My biggest disappointment is that you don't write letters to this editor that I can quote from. Having a dialogue surely beats spouting off into space, and when I, too, am someday online, I suspect that will take place.

My predominant thoughts are of gratitude to the Carises and for having you as family and friends.

jerry fallwell

Author and Bad Boy Christopher Hitchens told Anderson Cooper, "I'm sorry there isn't a hell for jerry fallwell to go to." Amen!

I understand that Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton, one of whom credits fallwell with having had "a heart of gold," had nice things to say about their fallen colleague. Demagogues of the world, unite!

How Is "Mike" Doing?

For those who have asked me how New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg is doing, a Daily News poll of May 14 has 46% to 29% thinking that Bloomberg would make a better president than Rudy Giuliani, and 56% to the same 29% regarding Bloomberg as the better mayor of the two. My take is that, though he is as tough as nails, Bloomberg is perceived as an energetic and effective manager who doesn't rely on America's Mayor's theatricality and vindictiveness to succeed.

How About Five "Number Ones?"

June 10 is Tony Time again. As entertainment awards have more to do with commercial calculations and backstage politics, why not give awards to the five "best" in every category from star to stage doorman and leave it at that?

"Nay, Nay," Quoth the Raving

Chris Hedges, who makes some excellent points in his new book, American Fascists, disappointed me mightily at a talk he gave the other week at a church on Manhattan's Upper East Side. At the time of 9/11, Hedges and his kids happened to have been in Times Square. His little boy asked why some drivers displayed smaller American flags and others larger ones. Hedges ended his talk at the church with his reply, "The larger flags belong to the larger assholes." With that, for me, a share of the speaker's credibility slipped down the drain.

Respecting the other guy or gal's point of view, which does imply agreeing with it, is going to be a recurring, if not relentless, theme of my Letters From. Nixon made one good point when he declared, "We cannot listen until we stop shouting at one another." My ongoing worry, "who wants to listen?" should be the world's worry, too.

"Feel Good" Movies? Don't Be Silly!

Does anyone know who coined the expression "Feel Good Movie," and when? From the examples of movies friends have deemed "Feel Good," and from the goofy looks on their faces when they so deem, such films appear to be sentimental, artless junk that is rather easy on the mind. I would like to ask my Feel Good friends, what is the opposite of a Feel Good movie, a Feel Bad film?

I know I am out of sync with our national obsession with silly, one small example of which is how business news and the weather on t.v. are introduced with gales and guffaws, but I feel good, even great, after any movie, however heavy, which is well acted and overall done well.

Winds That Shake the Barley, a tale of the 1920 Irish Revolution, is all about violence, courage and hurt, and I left the theater feeling so darned good. This best movie I've seen since History Boys, in its story, acting and directing, fails to hit a false note. One reviewer complained that the film takes sides, but I left feeling respect and compassion, though not necessarily agreement, with both Irish sides of the aisle.

I've just seen a production of Glass Menagerie, about as unhappy a tale as one could find, at the Berkshire Theater Festival, and I emerged feeling absolutely wonderful about Kate McGuire's performance in the lead and Tennessee Williams' gorgeous prose. Alas, Sister Silly was in the house, too. Some audience members in their twenties found every line of the play's critical scene hysterically funny and laughed aloud. The young actor who played Tom was caught mugging and too often playing for laughs. The actor and his generation have been conditioned to become living canned laughter soundtracks by excessive exposure to t.v.

Gays in the Military, Again

So, fifty-eight invaluable Arabic speaking members of the U.S. military have been canned because of being gay. Blind, irrational disapproval and fear of gays has trumped our nation's well being once more.

Virginia Tech Sadness

The issues have been discussed intensively and all too briefly in every living room in the land. Were lives, mostly young, snuffed out by a cold blooded killer or a blameless nut? Should or should not gun use be controlled? The video tape: yea, or nay?

Clearly, some things are very, very wrong. A college professor threatens to resign, her colleagues form a self protective alliance, the killer's roommates and a stalked female student file reports and a college administration fails to take action because either they are legally constrained or a part of their anatomy has failed to descend.

Despite the high incidence of emotional problems and suicides among college students, mental illness remains stigmatized, medical insurance provides inadequate coverage and in-patient attention needs to be significantly improved. Legal questions arise. Should we revisit the balance between ordinary citizens' well-being and the rights of potentially violent individuals whose behavior is sometimes impossible to predict? What about reconsidering the laws that govern involuntary commitment? Should police be empowered to intervene before it's too late? We talked about this with friends in L.A. who have a (now medically controlled) psychotic son. An individual may walk down the street acting as mad as a hatter, they told us from personal experience, without having broken a single law. Once, they called the police because in the midst of a psychotic episode their son had sped off in their car. "And who says he's psychotic?" snapped the cop. "You a psychiatrist?" No one, thank God, was harmed.

Tech and Guns

A writer to the New York Times rightly counseled we not waste our time "fight(ing) a gun lobby that won't move one inch." This past March, in Parker v. District of Columbia, a federal appeals judge "struck down a gun control law on Second Amendment grounds." Legal experts as liberal as Laurence Tribe have concluded, to their own dismay, that the Second Amendment does protect the right of an individual to own a gun.

Now consider this. No one, much less a slightly built young man, could stab, strangle or dirty look to death thirty-two people in one felled swoop. Only automatic weapons can do that job.

Tech and Goo

A survivor of the rampage was asked by a choked up John Roberts of CNN how he could remain so calm, and how he anticipated "dealing with 'it'" when "the horrors of (this) experience sets in, as in a day or two it surely will?"

That reminds me of the time, a year or two ago, when I was approached by a Japanese t.v. team following Seiji Ozawa's farewell concert with the Boston Symphony. Every other question was, "And did you cry?" Now, considering that Asians reportedly regard Americans' overt emotionality as a sign of weakness, you can understand that I felt I was being "led." Fed up, I sweetly answered, "You know that Seiji's tenure has not been without controversy." I didn't know a t.v. crew with all that equipment could run away so fast.

The object at Va. Tech was to get the subject to break down on the air, and I am so proud of the majority who refused to succumb.

On this subject, critic Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times has written, "When it comes to an anchor's presence at a major breaking story, less can be more." Events of the magnitude of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina "emboldened t.v. newscasters to fold themselves and their feelings into the story, and that has led to the Anderson Cooperization of the evening news."

Ms. Stanley singled out ABC's Charles Gibson for rejecting the role of "the nation's grief counselor" for that of its "newsman.” Gibson's questions, "posed in a kindly but neutral manner, solicited information, not emotion," rendering his interviews "more bearable to watch."

Stanley sharply criticized Katie (whom I remember from a long time ago as a competent newswoman named Kathryn) Couric, who "in interviews...tends to lower her voice to signal compassion and to gaze at the interviewee with gauzy, sorrowful looks," a variation of the Cancer Face (see Letter, April 15), in my view. "Mr. Gibson," she concludes, "doesn't try as hard to look softhearted...(He) doesn't look as if he were simulating emotion or fact-finding; he looked professional and self-effacing. And in a calamity, that is actually a comfort."

Tech and Guilt

Gregg Easterbrook, a journalist's journalist, took criticism of the media coverage a step further in The New Republic, May 7, in which he takes on issues of euphemism and evil. Noting broadcaster's frequent use of "the shooter" when referring to Cho, Easterbrook explains that "plenty of media figures could not bring themselves to say that the killer was a killer, that the murderer was a murderer. Instead they used 'shooter,’ a weirdly neutral term that practically sounds like a skilled trade. To call someone a 'shooter’ is to say he was holding a firearm that discharged, but to imply nothing about any moral choice involved or the fact that it's bad to aim a pistol at a helpless person and pull the trigger." The same holds for using the word "gunman." Tech experienced a "mass homicide, (and) to call Cho a ‘murderer’ would have been a simple statement of fact." Also, a "shooting spree" is more properly called a "rampage."

Another word avoided was "madman," with its implications for the culpability of the mentally ill. "We don't need to be psychiatrists...to determine the Va. Tech murderer was mentally ill...Whether (Cho) was legally insane—unable to distinguish right from wrong—is a separate question. Most who suffer from mental illness remain sane. Cho's suicide suggests he was sane; presumably he killed himself to escape punishment for his crimes."

Because "we should be judgmental...the larger, more troubling explanation has to do with morality" Evil exists, even though our president has "cheapened the word by constant bandying." The media "want to dismiss (Cho) as no more than a confused gunman because they don't want to contemplate his demonstration that evil is entirely real."

"That Cho became evil," Easterbrook rightly concludes, "is distinct from whether society failed him at earlier points; you can sympathize with his earlier self and agree that someone suffering his condition deserved better care. But set aside whether evil results from psychosis—or from supernatural temptation, trauma, poverty, wealth, or ideology; evil exists and must be spoken of as evil, not in euphemism. On a windy Monday morning in Virginia, evil armed itself and performed the most despicable of acts; pleasure in the taking of innocent life."

Gun Control: Why Not

At its core, opposition to gun control has little to do with the rights of hunters or collectors of guns. Gunnies have a paranoiac obsession with protection, and not necessarily from people of another race or robbers and rapists who break in. The object of their obsessions is none other than police officers and federal agents themselves. Gun rights advocates trace their apprehensions to the legitimate fear of tyranny on the part of the Founders themselves. Their overriding objective is to preclude a government monopoly on the use of force. (Were that legitimate monopoly in effect in Iraq today!)

I am even more skeptical about acquiring bang-bang, you're dead weapons for purposes of self-defense than I am of the effectiveness of prohibitions of guns and in general. Kids grab hold of guns and accidentally extinguish themselves and others; some think it's cool that dad owns guns and conclude that violent behavior pays. Household disputes can quickly turn deadly when bullets and guns are at hand. Ask any cop; using a firearm isn't as easy as it looks on t.v., especially when innocent bystanders are near. Officers pray they never have to fire their guns.

A Partial Decision, Or, Women? Doctors? Who Are They?

Physicians call them intact dilation and extractions; opponents prefer the more grisly partial birth abortion. In its April 18 decision in Gonzales v. Cahart, the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 in favor of upholding a federal act that criminalizes doctors who perform the contested procedure, with the sole exception being to save a woman's life and not to preserve her health. The rationale supporting this momentous decision, namely to spare women the emotional consequences of their own folly, is offensive on its own. Pro-choice Americans are right to worry that this decision may be the first slice off a long slalomi down the slope of eviscerating Roe v. Wade, my worst play on words yet.

The decision strikes me as, at its heart, an extension of the male majority's personal religious beliefs. Former Justice O'Connor, as much a Catholic as Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Scalia and Kennedy, understood that she was appointed to serve her country and not her Church.

Abortion is mentioned, much less prohibited, nowhere in the Bible, nor, like homosexuality, in the words of Jesus. A conservative Christian woman and her Orthodox Jewish counterpart flanked President Clinton as he vetoed a Congressional ban on ID&E. This infrequently used, therefore rarely abused, procedure enabled both women to abort hopelessly hydrocephalic fetuses and retain their capacity to reproduce, I daresay, adherents of their respective faiths.

Even the strident Chris Hedges, author of the newly published American Fascists, the Christian Right and the War on America, agrees that liberals ought to pay more attention and respect to the heartfelt priorities of deeply religious Americans. For the intolerant "dominionists" such as James Dobson and Pat Robertson, who feel divinely authorized to take over the earth, Hedges recommends intolerance, asserting that "they may not be able to meet us using reason." (May not?)

Liberals are not all atheists, nor are all pro-life Americans dangerous fools. I will never forget the Catholic woman interviewed on NPR several years ago who disagreed with her pro-choice husband but accorded him and those who are pro-choice her utter respect. Then, there is a town (small city?) in our land, profiled on t.v. years ago, in which both sides on the abortion issue agreed on a moratorium on the local abortion clinic's operations (now don't get your blood pressure up) in exchange for the earnest efforts of pro-life residents to improve the lives of all children, including pre-natal counseling, sex ed in the schools, publicizing birth control, and expanded funding for schools and adoption services. I don't know how this experiment turned out, but I remain in awe of how co-operation and compromise became the alternative to divisiveness and distrust.

Red Flag, and I Mean It

Genetic research has enabled us to learn a lot about a child way in advance of its birth. Doctors may discover early on that the fetus is grossly malformed or developmentally disabled, and prospective parents may conclude that the heartbreak and burden is more than they can afford or bear.

Spokespeople for disabled Americans maintain that in such instances abortion is another name for eugenics, and this is just for starts. Soon enough we'll be able to screen for physical attractiveness, sexual orientation, personality traits and other variables ad infinitum, en route the perfect Eugenia or Eugene. (One more like that, Joel, and we cancel our subscription)

The implications of genetic engineering are deep and serious in themselves. Now is the time to ponder the consequences of handing this sort of ammunition to the pro-life side.

Meet the Docs

In his play entitled A Bright Room Called Day, Tony Kushner worries that "Centuries of progress seem never to have taken place." One more appointment to the United States Supreme Court before January 20, 2008 and we are all going to be in the soup.

Now that five Justices think they know better than doctors, I am turning over all my legal affairs to my physician and, when I have a cold, consulting Dr. Kennedy; indigestion, Dr. Roberts; fallen arches, Dr. Alito; and for colonoscopies visit Dr. Thomas, who can hold me down so Dr. Scalia can kiss my.....

To Be Or Not To Be: Iraq Vet Suicides

Do you feel as I do at the news of a returned solider from Iraq having taken his or her own life? Do you also become enraged at the military's indifference or derision toward their psychologically wounded troops? How many more deaths due to untreated mental illness (Iraq, Virginia Tech) will we tolerate?

My response to news of suicides does not vary. I imagine myself saying to the soldier or Marine something like this. "Don't you do this, don't you dare. Your contemplated act is impermissible. You are so wonderful, so needed and so dear that I will do anything–anything– in my power to help you feel well enough to reconsider. You're too good for this. Please allow me to help. Please."

If my entreaties fail, I ask to be allowed to remain until the very end.

Freud, theologians, poets and our own common sense have identified the great paradox of human existence that pits our inherent separateness against our yearning to belong. We are separate even as we are inseparable. Each time one of our servicemen and women commits suicide, in a sense we die, too. Memorial Day this year was rougher than usual for this fact.

Now try this on for size. Is keeping a veteran with PTSS alive without benefit of adequate treatment, possibly for the remainder of her or his life, any mercy at all?

I've Got 'The Secret!'

Need to lose a little weight? Easy. Just avoid looking at fat people and stop having fat thoughts. In need of "parking spaces, necklaces or bikes?" No problem; the Universe will provide 'em. Not enough money? Imagine your mailbox filled with checks. (Stop imagining; this is serious)

You think I'm kidding? I wish I were. Next time you're in a bookstore, browse through the amazing bestseller titled The Secret and try not to laugh.

The sales figures that accompany this comic book are anything but a joke, with two million copies in print and almost as many on DVD. Inspired by one hell of a shrewd marketing instinct and a volume entitled The Science of Getting Rich that was published in 1910, former Australian t.v. producer Rhonda Byrne has surely discovered the secret of her own net worth. And if you doubt the book's importance, not only does Oprah swear by it, but Larry King devoted an entire precious program to a discussion of The Secret's ideas that was so inane I turned my television off.

You can tell from the jacket and design of the book that its contents are meant to seem profound. The cream of the great religious, literary, philosophical and scientific personalities of all times, all currently dead, are quoted in the service of the book's central idea. In a particularly moving passage, Jack Canfield of Chicken Soup fame, reveals that The Secret has brought him a $4.5 million "mansion" and a "to die for wife." Homer, Shakespeare or Luke couldn't have put it any better.

By now you must be dying for the secret, & with a little help from reporter Jerry Adler, who profiled The Secret in Newsweek, March 5, I'm not going to let you down. The Secret is that "you create your own reality through your thoughts. (The book's) explicit claim is that you can manipulate objective physical reality (such as) the actions of other people who may not even know you exist, through your thoughts and feelings." In sum, "Ask. Believe. Receive."

I'm going to be serious. The primacy of one's attitude—right, John C?— is far, far from bunk. Adler quotes a Harvard psychologist as "willing to credit the idea that you can change your life by consciously directing your thoughts in a positive direction." Popular authorities such as Wayne Dyer, Susan Jeffers, Deepak Chopra and, though less well known, University of Pennsylvania's cognitive psychologist Martin Seligman, posit that our thoughts can be the keys to our well-being. Their Exhibit A is invariably Victor Frankel, who wrote stirringly of the beauty of life from the inside of one of Hitler's camps. Even Hamlet tells us, "When it comes to good or bad, thinking makes it so."

Back to the ridiculous and to Adler's critique. The Secret's vaunted Law of Attraction—"that thoughts, good or bad, attract more of whatever they're about—is not only "preposterous" ("...the last thing Americans need is more excuses for self absorption and acquisitiveness"), but spiritually bankrupt and of potential harm.

"On an ethical level," for example, "The Secret appears deplorable," with its "focus 100% on middle class concerns and not the rest of humanity," with nary a word "about serving others." And talk about victimization. Regarding horrors such as ethnic cleansing and criminal assault, "the law of attraction implies that you have brought that fate down on yourself as well." One professor calls the book "pseudoscientific, pseudoinspirational babble," and ranks The Secret among the perhaps 10% of self-help books that are actually "damaging." "The problem," he asserts, "is the propensity for self blame when it doesn't work."

Perhaps most disturbing is a book editor's comment that "Nobody ever went broke overestimating the desperate unhappiness of the American public." The issue of human happiness, I believe, underlies all religions, ideologies, literature and, in our age, psychology. I don't have to elaborate how tough life can be or remind you that the ways in which we respond to life's ups and downs ultimately define our character. I sometimes wonder if we are greedy for more happiness than we have any right to expect.

Closing words on this topic are from no less a first class philosopher than the late Ingrid Bergman, who got it right when she defined happiness as "good health and a bad memory."

Coming Soon (Not Necessarily Next)

Immigration Legislation, Iraqi Refugees and the Whole Damn War, Our Schools: Some Very Direct Words, Plays and Movies and Who Knows What More.


By now you know which subjects I enjoy and like going on and on about. If you have a topic you would like me to include in an upcoming newsletter, please leave a message or drop a line, even with the new postal rates. I will try to do the project justice, and I value your feedback more than you know.

Archive 2007