Friday, April 10, 2015

The American girl who gave Japanese women their rights

The Last Boat to Yokohama: The Life and Legacy of Beate Sirota Gordon by Nassrine Azimi and Michel Wasserman is a fascinating small book about an extraordinary woman. It includes an introduction by Gordon herself and an afterward by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who writes "It is a rare life treat for a Supreme Court Justice to get to meet a framer of a Constitution." In 1946 Gordon, 22 years old and a member of General Douglas MacArthur's Occupation staff, helped write the Japanese Constitution.

Gordon's father was Leo Sirota, an internationally famous concert pianist, born in Ukraine, a 1908 graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. A successful concert tour in Japan in the late 1920s led to Leo moving his wife and six-year-old Beate (Bay-AH-tay) to Japan permanently in 1929. By the time she graduated from Tokyo's American high school in 1939, she was fluent in Japanese, English, German, French, Russian, and Spanish. Given the international situation, college in neither Japan nor Europe seemed like a good idea and so she entered Mills College in Oakland, California.

Although her mother wanted to stay in the United States at the end of a visit to Beate in late 1941, her father insisted Japan would never attack such a big country and in November they took the last boat to Yokohama. While their lives did not change much during the first couple years of the war, by the last year, they were living in an unheated summer home in Karuizawa and bartering clothing for food and fuel.

Beate monitored Tokyo radio broadcasts for the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service of the FCC. In 1944 she joined the Office of War Information as a writer and translator into Japanese of its propaganda broadcasts. In 1945 she moved to New York City to become an editorial researcher for Time magazine. When the war ended, and she received word that her parents were alive, she was able to join the Government Section of the General Headquartrs, Supreme Commander Allied Powers, and return to Tokyo.

It was clear to the Occupation powers that Japan needed a new Constitution, one that would put it on a road to democracy. After two unsatisfactory attempts by the Japanese, MacArthur gave his staff nine days to write something acceptable. Beate, the only woman in the room (the title of her autobiography), contributed Article 24:

"Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis. With regard to choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce, and other matters pertaining to marriage and the family, laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes."

While there have been attempts to amend the Japanese Constitution since it was promulgated in 1946, they have all failed. And women, who were expected to walk three steps behind their husbands, now walk with equal rights.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

David Rothenberg's remarkable fortune

Fortune in My Eyes
David Rothenberg's friend and literary agent told him, "Stop telling those stories and write them down." The result is Fortune in My Eyes: A Memoir of Broadway Glamour, Social Justice, and Political Passion, and while the writing is workmanlike rather than sparkling (he tends to name-drop) the life and observations more than make up for the prose.

A New Jersey boy who fled to New York City as soon as he could, Rothenberg began his work life as a Broadway publicist and producer. That life exposed him to the talented and glamorous. For example, at a small London dinner party he attended as the young protege of producer Alex Cohen, the guests included Ingrid Bergman, her daughter Pia Lindström, Sir John Gielgud, and the actress Joyce Carey.

In 1966, Rothenberg heard about a prison play by a Canadian writer, John Herbert. When he received a copy of the script, "I was up all night, reading and rereading Fortune and Men's Eyes. I was devastated by what I read" and resolved to produce the play off-Broadway himself. When he could not raise enough money, he "committed the cardinal sin of producing" and took out a bank loan to cover the shortfall himself.

While the first reviews were mixed, the play attracted enough business to remain open. A sociology professor asked if he could bring his 30 students and stay to discuss the play with the cast after the final curtain. A note in the program that night invited the entire audience to stay, and during the discussion one member of the audience shouted, "This is a lot of crap. These characters are all stereotypes, and I don't buy any of it."

In response, another man stood to say, "This play is so real that I thought I was back in my cell. . ." Rothenberg invited the man, Pat McGarry, who'd done 20 years to join the on-stage panel. McGarry convinced Rothenberg the play "was a mirror for the lives of men whose stories had never been told. Fortune was about the system's destruction of the spirit and how society would pick up the bill at a later date." The play led in almost a straight line to the founding of The Fortune Society in 1967 which helps ex-offenders re-enter society.

So Rothenberg's memoir is much more than an account of his brushes with celebrity. He has profound and interesting things to say about criminal justice in the U.S. He was called into Attica during the horrific 1971 riot that resulted in 39 men dead and hundreds wounded. While many of his heart-warming stories are about men and women who were able to turn their lives around after prison, not all are—just as in real life. For some former prisoners, life on the outside is too stressful.

With his theater contacts, Rothenberg was able to make The Fortune Society happen. Alvin Ailey, one of his friends, joined its advisory council. He offered tickets to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on nights they were not sold out, leading one ex-offender to quip, "When you get out of prison in New York, you get forty dollars, a baloney sandwich, and two tickets to Alvin Ailey."

Midway through the memoir, Rothenberg announces something many readers will have suspected: "I am a homosexual…gay…queer…whatever word is being used this year." Born in 1933, Rothenberg grew up in the time when no one talked openly about homosexuality and "fairy" was a gut-clutching insult. Caught up in the gay rights movement of the early 1970s, he came out to his mother (and includes the moving letter he wrote her) and to the The Fortune Society leadership.

He told his associates, all ex-offenders, he was gay, he was going on The David Susskind Show to announce it, and he was prepared to submit his resignation as the Society's executive director. "This was greeted with a long pause; everyone was looking at one another. Kenny Jackson broke the silence and asked, 'What are you going wear on television?'" Not the response he expected, and when Rothenberg suggested his coming out might affect the Society's support, one of the others said, "You've stood beside us for six years, telling us to be honest about our past lives. Why not give us the same opportunity to stand by you?"

The man has had a fascinating life and his memoir is filled with incident and anecdote. Nevertheless, it is difficult to tell what Rothenberg is really like, perhaps because for his first 40 years he had to mask what he was really like and the habit is hard to break. I would like some examples of regret, failure, bad judgment to provide some balance for all the glamor and success. Still, Fortune in My Eyes is well worth your time if only for Rothenberg's experiences with and observations about criminal justice.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Reality always wins

I've lifted the second half of Martin Grebel's book title to headline this review because it's something I believe. The book is Reality Check: In the Battle Against Reality, Reality Always Wins. Its a short book by a clinical psychologist arguing for reality, starting with the problem of our beliefs.

How do we know that what we believe is real? In many cases, how do we even know what we believe? Many of our beliefs are formed in early childhood, long before we are capable of judging whether they are true or not. And once we have a belief, especially one that gives us our sense of identity, we tend to ignore or discount any evidence that contradicts the belief and to accept without question evidence that supports it. For example, a child growing up in a very troubled, poor, and uncaring family "would almost certainly develop far more negative beliefs about life" than one growing up in secure, loving family.

Grebel notes that parents have complained over the years that their children don't listen or still act inappropriately no matter how angry they get or how they threaten. If the parents do not change their beliefs about how to moderate a child's behavior—a belief usually based in how they were raised—nothing will change.

Grebel notes that science—"an intricate, subtle, and complex system used in acquiring knowledge and applying it to the knowable world"—is the most reliable model for evaluating beliefs. Science relies on accumulating evidence to determine whether a hypothesis or theory (or belief) is valid or invalid. The challenge, of course, is to recognize both one's beliefs and the evidence that contradicts it. (We usually don't have trouble recognizing the evidence that supports what we believe.)

When belief systems are invalid, he writes, "they often produce long-term negative effects on our well-being, while also lowering responsiveness to our real needs, wants, and feelings. In these instances we pay a double price: loss of self and coping with negative outcomes." For example, people who are overly self-directed tend to believe their viewpoints are not only correct but are the only valid view. "They believe that being aggressive in pursuing their own goals is always legitimate regardless of any negative impact it may have on others." Others, impacted negatively, may reject or sabotage or avoid (or all three).

While I think highly of Reality Check, I thought it could have been even better with an index and with more examples from sources other than Dr. Grebel's on practice. As it stands, it is almost an essentials text rather than fully exploring the subject—when I would like more. Nevertheless, Reality Check should make you think (always a good thing), and I recommend it.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Nantucket Five-Spot: An interesting thriller, filled with plausible characters

Nantucket Five-Spot by Steven Axelrod is subtitled "A Henry Kennis Mystery," but it's more thriller than mystery because we know (or should know) at page 14 who the bad guy is. We just have to see how much mayhem he plans to cause on Nantucket island one summer at the height of the tourist season.

Henry Kennis, the narrator, is Nantucket's chief of police. (Axelrod thanks Nantucket Police Chief William Pittnam "for his continuing advice and support.") The book starts with a bang. In the first paragraph, Kennis and Franny Tate, a former love, are having a romantic dinner overlooking Nantucket harbor "when the first bomb went off."

Almost immediately, the island is overrun with state police, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and the Joint Terrorism Task Force agents as Kennis and his officers are elbowed aside for crowd control and "support."

Of course, Kennis and his staff know the island and the year-round residents—and the residents know their chief, an important factor. Indeed, Nantucket itself is virtually a character in a book filled with characters, and Axelrod's characters have strong feelings about the island's changing landscape (the second bomb partially destroys a nouveau country club).

As Kennis says about a careless driver, "That's something I hate. People who drive like that. Sometimes I want to arrest everyone—throw them all in jail, impound their cars and their cell phones and their computers and their TVs, and give their stupid McMansions which they use two week a year to the homeless people who need a roof over their heads."

Nantucket Five-Spot is satisfyingly complex with a pulse-raising conclusion. And, perhaps because Axelrod has an MFA in writing from Vermont College, the writing often crackles: "He was a slender man with lots of well-groomed blond hair framing his hawkish face, blue eyes set tight together, sharp nose, thin lips clinched around his indignation, sucking it like a sourball. He spoke with a slight southern accent...." Another example: "For some reason she reminded me of my daughter, soberly explaining that popping all the bubble wrap would make it easier to fit the plastic into the recycling can, when both of us knew she just wanted to do the firecracker dance."

For readers like myself who trip over foreshadowing, the novel did cause me to stumble once or twice: "Just how catastrophically, tragically, fatally bad that choice had been she was going to learn before the end of this close and humid summer day...." And as I wrote a moment ago, the story is complex with wheels within wheels that might put off some readers.

But on balance, I think Nantucket Five-Spot is an interesting thriller, filled with plausible characters, and a plot that edges right up to but never quite tips over into the preposterous.

Friday, December 19, 2014

What does it mean to be human?

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler does not need my endorsement. It was short-listed for a Man Booker prize and nominated for Nebula Award for Best Novel. Barbara Kingsolver gave it a positive review on the cover of The New York Times Book Review when it was published in June 2013.

It is the story of Rosemary Cooke, her sister Fern, her older brother Lowell, her psychologist father, and her mother. It's an unusual story because Fern, virtually the same age as Rosemary, lives for the first five years of her life as part of an experiment to learn the effects of being raised within a human family— and the effect having a non-human "sister" has on Rosemary. But rather than tell you more about the story, let me tell you some of the reasons why I enjoyed the book so much:

1) Rosemary addresses the reader directly. She begins chapter 1: "So the middle of my story comes in the winter of 1996...In 1996, ten years had passed since I'd last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared. The middle of my story is all about their absence, though if I hadn't told you that, you might not have known." Fowler tells us her story in a friendly and engaging voice and never has to resort to another point of view.

2) The story is plausible. I believe that Rosemary's memories of growing up with Fern could be a five-year-old's memories. I believe in her life as a college student at UC Davis. I believe everything that happens to her and the people around her could have happened.

3) The novel reports a healthy amount of scientific information about experiments into language acquisition and the differences between humans and chimps.

4) The characters, even the minor ones, seem fully drawn. (I'd like to study to see how Fowler does it because I would like to be able to do so myself.) These are people you could know.

5) The structure of the book is interesting. It is not a straightforward chronological account, and I can imagine that certain readers would be put off by this. I found it fascinating, however, by the way Fowler gives the reader information. For example, we don't learn that Fern is a chimpanzee until page 77. (There, I've spoiled it for you. But read the book anyway.)

6) The novel addresses good questions: What does it mean to be human? What are the ethics of experiment on animals? Do animals have any rights? Should they? Can we trust our memories? (No.)

A remarkable novel. Read it for not only the reasons I've just given but for your own pleasure.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

An engaging journey from belief to freedom

Reportedly, the Jesuits say, "Give me the child for seven years, and I will give you the man." The idea being that if you can indoctrinate a child early enough, he/she will never question the underlying belief system.  

John Van Dixhorn says, "It strikes me as a tragedy, even a form of abuse, that my radiant intelligence, available to all healthy children, could create an adult of feeble intelligence because I was indoctrinated into a belief system before I could think for myself. By the time my intellect awakened, I was already imprisoned in that belief system." His memoir, Prisoner of Belief, is an account of how he broke free. The subtitle gives away the story: "One Man's Odyssey to Reclaim His Soul—from Evangelical Minister to Searching Psychologist."

Dixhorn, now in his late 70s, was the middle of nine children, brought up in rural Wisconsin, and raised in the Dutch Reformed Church. Religious training dominated his life, a Calvinism that dwelt on the perfection of God and the imperfect and deprived nature of man. When his grandfather was dying, John blurted, "Grandpa, I know I'll see you again in heaven." The old man rebuked him, pointing out that only God determined who would be in heaven. He learned about sex from watching a bull service a cow, and was mortified by his own sexual thoughts and desires—mortification the church encouraged. His Youth for Christ leader told boys that "masturbation was sinful and that he could tell if we were masturbating, because the whites of our eyes would yellow."

Dixhorn studied at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and was ordained with the Evangelical Free Church of America. As such, he was committed to a belief in biblical inerrancy; the Bible as the word of God, without mistakes, without contradictions. If there is an apparent contradiction, the fault is with the believer, not the text. Unfortunately, "the gospels are not biographies of Jesus but statements of religious belief written by Christians for Christians." Gradually, although Dixhorn was a pastor to churches in New City, NY; Naperville, Il; and Orange, CA, his doubts about the Bible and questions about his beliefs grew. And he saw how belief could torture parishoners.

The son of a couple in the church was sent to Vietnam during the war. The boy's parents were naturally concerned, but his mother was comforted by a verse of scripture she read the day the boy left. "She felt it was a sign from God that he would keep her son safe." He didn't, and Dixhorn met regularly with the parents for months to help them in their grief. One day the mother made an individual appointment. "She knew why God had not spared her son, and it was destroying her emotionally." She'd had a secret abortion at sixteen—not even her fundamentalist father knew. She'd killed her baby, and that's why God had taken her son. Knowing her Bible, she said, "David had a man killed in battle and God took his baby. I took my own baby, so God had my son killed in battle." Dixhorn was trapped: "How could I comfort her and honor the Bible at the same time?"

In time Dixhorn realized that he had "cherry-picked my own way through scripture all the time thinking I was taking the Bible at face value.... How could I be a true, Bible-believing Christian without acknowledging that biblical writers presented very different and contradictory views of God. How could I follow the teachings of a God that advocated something I knew was wrong, even downright evil?" He couldn't and eventually left the ministry, earned a master's degree in Marriage and Family Therapy and a doctorate in clinical psychology. He did post-doctorate work in psychoanalysis and became a certified psychoanalyst in California.

I found the book to be a engaging intellectual journey and the paragraphs above barely hint at the story's richness. We come to realize with Dixhorn that fundamentalism—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Communist, Fascist—is anti-intellectual and totalitarian. "My own experience and self-reflection gives me better insight into the motivations and pain involved in giving one's self over to a totalitarian system," he says. "As a psychologist I can listen more deeply to the religious and ideological ruminations of my patients." He sounds like a fascinating and caring man.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What's the right thing to do?

Michael Shaw Perry has published Moral Dilemmas, Identity, and Our Moral Condition: A Guide for the Ethically Perplexed.  Perry is well-equipped for such a discussion. He earned a BA in philosophy from Dartmouth and an MA and PhD in philosophy from Johns Hopkins. Apparently an over-achiever, he also obtained a JD from the University of Michigan Law School.  His book reflects his "personal and intellectual struggles with the framework for ethical thinking and trying to figure out how to live a purposeful, fulfilling life." It is not light reading.

Ethics, says Perry, "is the study of how one ought to structure one's life and it is from this that ethically correct actions follow." When one is faced with a moral dilemma, ethics can help us understand the right thing to do. Perry says there are three kinds of moral dilemmas:

1) The pedestrian—the kind of daily choices we have to make, between, say, going to a child's birthday party or finishing a project at work; between telling a cancer patient she has six months to live or saying nothing.

2) The theoretical—push a fat man off a bridge to his death to stop a runaway trolley that will otherwise kill five people tied to the track? I.e., that is should you kill one person to save five?

3) The critical—a dilemma in which someone, through no fault of her own, must make an impossible choice. I.e., a mother in a concentration camp is told to choose which of her two children may live. Fortunately, such dilemmas are rare if only because there is no satisfactory solution.

After discussing moral dilemmas generally, Perry clears the ground of earlier philosophical approaches to ethics by discussing the weaknesses of theological, deontological, consequential, and value-based approaches. While each of these may have value in a specific situation, history has shown that they are not universally applicable—and philosophers like Plato, Bentham, Mill, Kant, and others have tried to develop an ethical theory that would be universally applicable.  Perry argues, cogently, that such an approach is bound to fail because they leave a gulf between the theories and "our moral condition as we find and experience it."

Perry's approach is to ground ethical behavior in identity. "I am a human being and as such have various needs, interests, and obligations. I respond to reasons, show sympathy with others, desire certain ends, feel affinity with my fellows, etc." Moreover we often have many other identities: child, brother, father, husband, citizen, employee, manager, and many, many more. Some of these identities you can never shed. You are still someone's child even if your parents are dead, even if you were an orphan. Other identities are more transient. You may be a member of the PTA, but you can drop out without serious consequences.

With these identities, says Perry, come ethical norms and obligations. These are perhaps clearest for people like doctors and lawyers, professions for which the norms and obligations have been hammered over time. It means that a doctor, a lawyer, a psychologist, a police officer, a President may perform an ethical act in that role that would be someone who is not a doctor, a lawyer, etc.
It also seems to mean that ethics are culturally bound. That is, an act that would be unethical for a businessman in one culture (offering a bribe, for example) may be perfectly ethical for a businessman in another—same identify, same act, different ethical norm.

As I said above, Moral Dilemmas is not easy reading. It would have been helped with more concrete examples, less passive voice, and a good editor. (The chapter about ethics and lawyers is among the most lively and accessible.) Nevertheless I believe the book is worth the effort to absorb if only to help clarify your own thinking about the right thing to do in what seems to be a moral dilemma.