Thursday, May 28, 2009

bob livingston 1919-2009: an appreciation

My father, Bob Livingston, died last week at aged 90 in our family home in Long Beach, NY. It was a good life and as they go a relatively easy death, which among other things gave us some time to reflect on his life and contribution. While members of my family differ in religious observance, politics, and just about everything else, we came together very nicely for the funeral and shiva, the seven initial days of mourning in Jewish tradition, from which I recently returned to Philadelphia.

At the funeral, I offered a brief appreciation of my father, a version of which appears below. It may be interesting to general readers for its discussion of his generation and its place in American (and Jewish) history. For those who knew him, of course, it will be that much more pertinent:

"We are here today to celebrate a long life and a good life. Surely the length is not in dispute. Bob Livingston lived 90 years, having produced two children, four grandchildren, and by my account seen 17 different presidents, some of whom he even liked. To give you an idea how long this is, if my father had lived backwards instead of forwards, we would now by celebrating the inauguration of Andrew Jackson, and people would be getting excited about the new railroads that were replacing canals as the principal means of safe transportation. (There is no truth to the rumor that my father met Andrew Jackson, although he appears to have met at least one of Generals Patton, Bradley, and Eisenhower, depending upon the audience.)

My father was part of a generation--the children or (on his father's side) grandchildren of immigrants--who lived to see changes that were satisfying but also baffling to them. At times, he must have felt caught between his parents' and children's worlds and the varying, contradictory demands they made upon him.

A Biblical analogy may help here. The book of Be'reishit (Genesis) tells of three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The role of the first and third is obvious. Abraham was the first Jew, the forerunner of monotheism, courageous enough to smash his father's idols and virile enough to father a child in his (not to mention his wife's) old age. Jacob became Israel, giving his name to the people and fathering what became the Twelve Tribes.

Caught in the middle, so to speak, Isaac had a more ambiguous role. In his youth, his father tried to kill him, albeit (or so we are told) for the best of reasons. In his old age, his wife and children played tricks on him. Sure, he invented Mincha [the afternoon service], but even that's the shortest and most frequently missed of the three.

Yet Isaac also did some things that the others didn't do. For one thing, the Bible tells us that he loved his wife, Rebekah, something it never quite says about Abraham. (It is best to leave Jacob's family out of it, altogether.) For another, he appears to have been rather cleverer than given credit for: at the Akedah, or binding, he asks his father why there is no animal to sacrifice, and notices that Esau has Jacob's voice on his deathbed. Isaac, in short, was less domineering than his parents or children, but appears to have been a good bit more likable, and to have provided the decency and continuity than enabled the whole enterprise to go forward in a period of radical change.

I think about this a lot when I think of my dad's generation and the pressures they endured. As children, they were expected to sit quietly before their elders, when they were allowed to be present at all. (My father and his sisters were sometimes called on to perform for the company after dinner ended.) In their old age--in late twentieth and early twenty-first century America--it was simply taken for granted that children were smarter than their parents, and the grandchildren were smartest of all.

In their youth, it was taken for granted that women--not to mention minorities--lived in separate if not actively inferior worlds. On several occasions my father related how his sister Sylvia, who attended Columbia Law School, would enter a room and the men would immediately interrupt their conversation--a conversation which, ironically enough, concerned gender issues. Who, he would ask, is more qualified than her to participate? Today we simply assume that women can be politicians, Supreme Court justices, and anything else that they want to be, and a Black man is our most popular President in a generation.

In their youth, men were supposed to keep their feelings to themselves and not discuss their emotions publicly. Now many discuss little else.

Like Isaac in the Bible, my father and the other men of his generation could at times be overwhelmed or simply confused by these changes. But when the chips were done, he and they came through.

Perhaps my father's best known contribution--surely the one that required most adjustment from his parent's world--was his work with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which spanned the last 35 years of his life, especially after he retired from Merrill Lynch [yes, that Merrill Lynch] in about 1980. As most of you know, my dad had what today would be called a substance abuse issue, which he confronted directly and forcefully, never taking a drink after 1975. That alone would have been impressive enough. But he didn't stop there, becoming an active speaker and sponsor who took the message of hope/renewal to others, most of them younger and many far less educated than he was, and some of them in considerably worse personal or professional shape. During my visits to Long Beach the phone would frequently ring with someone needing help or just somebody to talk to. He would rarely say no. In his last years, when I called to see how he was, he would often say "I'm going to a meeting" before I had a chance to ask.

That was his public side, but there was a quiet decency he expressed in private, also. In the Second World War he served as an officer in the Quartermaster Corps, affectionately known as the Jewish infantry, getting closer to the front lines than intended in the Battle of the Bulge. He spoke with pride but also humility about it, never glorifying war or denying that there had been excesses--even atrocities--on the part of American as well as German troops in the battle. He was proud of his Jewish heritage, could lead te'filot (prayers) in Hebrew, but never showed off about it or tried to impose his views on others in the family. Even in trivial matters he was kinder than most. Once, when I was visiting Merrill Lynch, a customer of another broker called asking for stock quotations [no Internet in those faroff days.] "Tell him to go __ himself," offered one colleague. "Tell him to call his own broker," said another. My father gave him the quotations.

I don't like hagiography, and I don't think that my father was perfect. Surely he was not the most patient person in the world. Many were the times we sat down for a big game only to see him get up angrily after the first setback, utter one of his trademark expressions of disgust ("Can't stop them," "They're killing them," etc.), and go off to do something else. Like many men of his generation he spent long hours away from home. Probably we got to know him better as an old man than as a young one.

Yet what stays with one most is not these moments, but the moments of decency, of support, of continuity, the sense that someone was there who cared about something besides themselves and was willing to do something about it. Such was the fate, I think, of not just one but millions of Bob Livingstons, if not the Greatest than certainly the most persistent generation of men that our country, and my people, have created. They were not as domineering as their parents and never quite as self-fulfilled or -expressed as their children. All they did was to win the war, do their best to create a lasting peace, and leave the world a little bit better than they found it. Sometimes, that's more than enough. Thanks Dad. We'll miss you."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

sonia sotomayor

I think it's a respectable but underwhelming choice. It will make the court more diverse and add somewhat more practical experience, but I don't think it does much to balance the conservative intellectual dominance on the court, or to raise the level of the court overall. It's also disappointing that Obama seems to have pretty well limited the list to one gender and perhaps even narrower--there's little question the court will eventually be gender-balanced, but a lot of question whether it will command national respect or continue to function as a sort of higher political forum. On the other hand some of the same things were probably said when Cardozo (arguably the first Hispanic) or Brandeis were picked so who knows? Right now it seems more safe than inspired.

Addendum: Sotomayor apparently has diabetes, which doesn't change my opinion but makes me identify with her a little bit more.

Second addendum: My opinion is still unchanged, but I think the attacks on her for being on the Board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund, or saying Hispanic women make better judges, are somewhat silly. Once you have a judicial record, the decision should be based on that record and your answers to the committee's questions. That's all that matters.

Friday, May 08, 2009

love, hate, death

The NY Times ran a feature today on the killing of Johanna Justin-Jinich, a student at Wesleyan University who appears to have been murdered by a 29 year-old man who stalked her after they met at an NYU summer course two years ago. The shooter fired seven point-blank shots at a bookstore cafe where Johanna worked, suggesting it had been planned carefully in advance. The alleged killer is described as "apparently disturbed, a man with shaky relationships and a malevolence toward Jews;" the story further indicates that he directed 38 harassing e-mails and numerous telephone calls at his eventual victim, which were reported to New York City police but not further pursued.

One obvious question is why somebody who hated Jews would become obsessed with a young Jewish woman to the point of following her to Connecticut and then killing her. (Ms. Justin-Jinich is described as Jewish by descent although not religiously inclined; it is possible the three "J's" in her name accentuated her Jewishness.) The story thus raises once again the bizarre interplay between racial/religious hatred and sexual attraction, an issue many would prefer not to discuss but which is hard to avoid on facts like these.

In his book "The War of the World," the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson raises a provocative question: why was the Holocaust conceived and executed at precisely the point in time when intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles was on the rise in Germany and nearby countries? Why, for that matter, did Japanese soldiers rape thousands of Chinese women in Nanjing, at precisely the time Japanese propagandists were proclaiming the inferiority of the Chinese race? The traditional approach to such incidents is to assume that they are really about power rather than sex (much less love), with the sexual gratification, such as it is, of secondary importance. But what if the actual process begins with a fascination or even obsession with the other--an obsession which is by its nature forbidden and yet difficult to control--and only later leads the perpretrator to kill or humiliate the object of his illicit affections? (Ferguson notes, interestingly, that several high-ranking Nazis appear to have dated Jewish women in their youth, although apparently not Hitler himself.)

One can see why people would avoid such questions, which are embarassing to all concerned, and carry the risk of eroticizing unspeakable horrors. Yet the role of historians is to understand and explain the past, not to sanitize it. At times this may require recognizing the less pleasant side of emotions, including love and sexual desire, in other people. And in ourselves.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Italy good and bad

Two news items in the course of twenty-four hours capture almost perfectly the contradictions that characterize modern Italy, and make the country so frustrating for people who follow it closely.

The first item concerns FIAT which--fresh from its acquisition of a stake in Chrysler--is currently trying to buy Opel, GM's European subsidiary, at what one suspects will be a bargain price. FIAT tends to be treated as something of a joke in the United States--it was said to stand for "Fix it again, Tony" when it used to sell cars here--but for many years it was the largest automaker outside of the U.S., Germany and Japan, and if things keep going this way it may be so again. A visit to the FIAT website finds snappy new models, environmental sensitivity, and a multilingual/multicultural approach--the kind of things Americans sometimes sneeze at but which are exactly what makes for success in a global economy.

The second concerns Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose wife is asking for a divorce based on assorted misbehavior by her husband, the most recent example involving his choice of a number of attractive younger women as candidates for the European Parliament. The affair was made even more lurid, if that's possible, by her statement that "I cannot stay with a person who keeps company with [frequenta] underage women"--an apparent reference to Berlusconi's attendance at the 18th birthday party of the daughter of an associate, of whom partially naked photographs have appeared in the Italian media. At current writing, Berlusconi looks likely to survive the affair politically; his reputation, such as it is, is another matter.

The historian Paul Ginsborg believes that the dominant theme of postwar Italian history is the successful development of the private sphere coupled with the failure to develop an equal sense of public commitment. The stories above capture, in an unusually stark way, the fullness of this contradiction. Italy is (depending whom you ask) between the sixth and eighth largest economy in the world, and in cultural terms it is probably in the top five. But until its public life matches its private accomplishments, there will be many who don't take it seriously, and that is unfortunate for all concerned.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

the supreme court

Barack Obama was an adjunct law professor at the University of Chicago and the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Law Review. His first Supreme Court appointment provides a rare opportunity to shake up an intellectually mediocre court and restore it to its previous grandeur. Unfortunately, there's little sign so far he'll do this.

The problem is Obama's inherent caution coupled with a strained reading of diversity, which has come to mean "otherwise conventional people who have some difference in physical appearance." Nearly all the picks suggested so far, from Elena Kagan to Sonia Sotamayor to Diana Wood and others, are in this category. None are bad picks, but none would do much to change the Court in an intellectual as opposed to a physical sense.

If Obama wants to give the Court a shot in the arm--or more likely, a kick in the pants--he has various options available. Any one of a number of legal scholars, from Cass Sunstein to Lawrence Lessig to Michael Dorf, would instantly raise the level of debate by several notches. If a woman or minority is desired, there are many available, from critical scholars like Derrick Bell or Catherine MacKinnon to conservatives like Mary Ann Glendon and a range of more conventional liberals (Stephen Carter, Randall Kennedy, and women too numerous to mention) in between. Elizabeth Warren, who is currently running the TARP fund, is among the nation's leading commercial law experts and would bring a sensitivity to class and social issues rarely seen on the present day Court. Nor is there any shortage of people with practical experience: what is Al Gore doing now, or for that matter, Bill Clinton?

If Obama really wants fireworks--and doesn't mind an older candidate--I have the perfect idea. He's 78 years old, attended Yale Law School, and has shown an intense interest in previous nominees. Appointing him to the Court is moreover the only practical way to eliminate him from the selection process. Does anyone know what Arlen Specter is doing these days?