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"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

November 10, 2009

People Are Funny

Here's Ehud Barak in 2002:

[Palestinians] are products of a culture in which to tell a lie...creates no dissonance. They don't suffer from the problem of telling lies that exists in Judeo-Christian culture. Truth is seen as an irrelevant category. There is only that which serves your purpose and that which doesn't. They see themselves as emissaries of a national movement for whom everything is permissible. There is no such thing as "the truth."

And here's Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 1921, writing to his brother about splits in the Zionist movement between the German-American Jewish community (who were more assimilated and powerful and less interested in establishing a state) and the Zionist movement in eastern Europe:

The Zionist [clash] was inevitable. It was one resulting from differences in standards. The Easterners—like many Russian Jews in this country—don’t know what honesty is & we simply won’t entrust our money to them.

Or as my grandfather the historian liked to say:

The hostility of those who have power toward those who can be called inferior because they are different—because they are others, the strangers—has been a historical constant. Indeed, at times it seems to be the dominant theme in human history.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at November 10, 2009 01:49 PM

Whoa, Saint Brandeis said that? This is almost as funny as the story about Voltaire demanding (and succeeding) that Rousseau's book Letters from the Mountain must be burned as an insult to Christianity.

Posted by: abb1 at November 10, 2009 03:53 PM

Your grandpa sounds really cool. Why don't you quote him more often? After all, isn't what he says applicable to every historical situation?

Posted by: Seth at November 10, 2009 04:05 PM

So many shattered illusions! First Brandeis, and then Abb1 has to topple Voltaire too. I just know somebody is going to start talking about Sally Hemming and Marilyn Monroe and break my spirit.

Grandpa Schwartz sounds almost as wise as my grandpa, who said almost everything Emerson did and only fifty years later.

In support of ancient Schwartzian wisdom, I remember reading in Perry Anderson's Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism how the Romans used to grouse about the insufferable laziness of their German slaves. They just couldn't get a lick of work out of those lazy Germans without beating them.

Posted by: N E at November 10, 2009 05:54 PM

So many shattered illusions! First Brandeis, and then Abb1 has to topple Voltaire too. I just know somebody is going to start talking about Sally Hemming and Marilyn Monroe and break my spirit.

Wow, given all the hullabaloo over "Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson", imagine the uproar when the facts about "Sally Hemmings and Marilyn Monroe" finally reach the public!

Posted by: b. a. at November 10, 2009 06:30 PM

Speaking of the wisdom of the ancients and what people are like, today I downloaded Mark Twain's "What is Man?" - [I began by looking for Alexander Pope's "Essay on Man", and came across Twain's work serendipitously - Pope was being read by the character Marianne Dashwood in the most recent dramatization of Sense and Sensibility (BBC, 2007), although he was not to her taste, of course - and missus charley and I were watching the DVD last night].

And much to my surprise, I discovered that Carl Reiner (there's another ancient, relatively speaking) had recorded an audio version of this in 2002, described thusly:

"Is man nothing more than a machine, incapable of free will? What are the factors shaping his actions and decisions? Mark Twain entertainingly posed and answered these questions in a volume published anonymously. Twain's biting view of mankind spares no one, but it contains rays of hope. Carl Reiner takes the roles of both teacher and pupil in Twain's Socratic dialogue. Reiner captures both the humor and the serious underpinnings of Twain's work, although in giving the more natural voice to the teacher while making the student seem unbelievably naive, Reiner tips the scales toward the cynical view. This audio production will provide much thought, as well as laughter.

J.A.S. © AudioFile 2002, Portland, Maine"

And isn't thought - and laughter - what A Tiny Revolution is all about?

My grandpa wasn't a published writer, but he spent some time in the trenches in France in World War I. It had quite an impact on him, even though he never spoke of it directly.

May the Creative Forces of the Universe stand beside us, and guide us, through the Night with the Light from Above [metaphorically speaking].

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at November 10, 2009 07:30 PM

And I should have said that the Fall National Holiday in Honor of War (as contrasted with the Spring National Holiday in Honor of War, which occurs at the end of May), which is being observed tomorrow, began as a celebration of the cessation of hostilities - it was originally called Armistice Day, and marks the end of the shooting in World War I.

And it is also the birthday of Kurt Vonnegut, who also qualifies as one of the ancients (if Carl Reiner counts as one), who, like my grandfather, went from Indiana to Europe to participate in the hostilities, and unlike my grandfather wrote about his experiences (in fictionalized form) - and whose last book published during his lifetime was titled "Man Without A Country."

I feel a bit like that sometimes myself.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at November 10, 2009 07:41 PM

I have missed mistah charley, ph.d. It's hard to remember that our tribute to warriors (and so war) started out as Armistice Day.

Posted by: N E at November 10, 2009 08:16 PM

On the subject of dashed illusions, here's my favorite quote of the day:

"She doesn't have the scope. She didn't work with Mother Theresa. She didn't spend six months working in Zen Buddhism. She didn't take Linda Rondstandt to Africa. She didn't have her own astronaut."

Posted by: N E at November 10, 2009 08:18 PM

Or as my grandma Goldie the garment factory worker used to say, "German Jews think their shit don't stink."

She also used to say, "Hey, look what I got!" with a carrot stuck between her legs while cooking dinner, which probably isn't really relevant, but it is the truth.

Posted by: godoggo at November 10, 2009 11:50 PM

Though come to think of it, the 2nd part is relevant to people being "funny." At least I think so.

Posted by: godoggo at November 11, 2009 01:13 AM

That's Schwarzian, not Schwartzian. I monitor these lapses on behalf of cousin Jon and the rest of Schwarzdom, so he doesn't have to. Incidentally, who's this broad who has her own astronaut?

Posted by: Jethro Schwarz at November 11, 2009 04:06 AM

My bad Jethro! I will not cross Schwarzdom again!

That was Jerry Brown talking about Hillary.

I got a kick out of him offering to provide "rhetorical fusillade" to some journalists too.

Posted by: N E at November 11, 2009 08:28 AM

It is kind of NE to note my recent absence in the comments section here. In the last month or so my paternal unit became ill and passed away, the son-in-law of my grandfather the WWI doughboy. We had clashed very much when I was younger - at the end he was my best friend. A few months ago he was reminiscing about how, when he was part of the occupation of Japan in 1945 and 1946, the Japanese did everything they could to make the Americans comfortable. I said, "They'd had enough of war." He said, "I wonder when our country will have enough of war." The end of his Army career was during the Vietnam War, which he always considered a terrible mistake and a great tragedy.

A lifelong Republican, during the G.W. Bush years he became an independent and donated several times to Obama. I tried not to call his attention to how very disappointing the Obama regime has been (so far). Maybe it's a blessing he's gone.

Here are the remarks I made at Colonel Charley's memorial service, with a few identifying details removed.


During his 96 years my father travelled far, in time, space, and circumstance. In 1913 he was born in a small village in Nova Scotia. It was there he learned his love of plants and animals. His father farmed and “drove the mail” to support his large family. Although they were not poor, they never had any money. His mother had gone to school and worked for a book publisher in Massachusetts before returning to Canada, and poetry was a daily presence in their home.

At 16 he set out for Boston himself, with $20 he'd earned while supervising a gang of strawberry pickers. It was 1929. He lived with his Aunt L., worked in office jobs and at Sears, and went to evening classes at Boston University, less prestigious then than now. The students had a saying: “If you can't go to college, go to B.U.” His Aunt F. took him to the Boston Symphony and taught him to appreciate classical music.

When the US entered World War II, he entered the Army. He did so well on the IQ test he was asked if he'd taken the test before. He served in the Army Air Corps in the States and in the occupation of Japan.

Demobilized, he met and married his best friend's fiancee's neighbor, my mother, in Framingham, Massachusetts. Soon after I was born, he was invited to rejoin the Army and make it his career. It took him to Panama, where his second son was born, to Korea and back to Japan, and to Italy, where his third son was born. It was in Naples that my parents became friends with Mr. and Mrs. B. After retirement, both couples settled in the same town in Florida. After both were widowed, my father and Mrs. B. were married.

In retirement, my father became a city councilman and then mayor, as well as serving as treasurer of his church. He always maintained his interest in public issues.

A man of strong principles and opinions, he wasn't always easy to get along with. However, his tender care of my mother during her last illness helped heal rifts in my family. Austere with himself, he was generous with others.

As I mentioned, poetry was a part of his daily life. He would recite Shakespeare and Kipling and Tennyson. Nevertheless, the verses he had repeated the most times would have to be the lines he learned from his granddaughter , which were his table blessing in the years he lived the retirement home. They are from a modern adaptation of St. Francis of Assisi's Canticle of the Sun.

For all your gifts, of every kind,
We offer praise with quiet mind.
Be with us, Lord, and guide our ways
Around the circle of our days.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at November 11, 2009 09:40 AM

The world is clearly a poorer place for the loss of your father, Mistah Charley. Condolences, and thanks for the words.

Posted by: NomadUK at November 11, 2009 09:47 AM

Another perspective on Colonel Charley's life is found in the remarks made by my two-years-younger brother at the memorial service, held at the military retirement home where my father lived for seven years.


Hello. I am the number two son and also trustee of my dad’s beloved Welsh Corgi dog, which I’m sure some of you remember. She is doing fine at home in Puerto Rico.

One thing you did not hear in my brother's outline of my father's life was the word “teacher”.

My dad was a great teacher.

My dad taught me about family. When I was about ten years old and we lived in Naples, Italy, my best friend was a boy named Dennis whose father was a naval commander. Dennis was in the habit of saying: “Yes sir, no sir, everything sir.” I think we spent a day together with his dad playing golf, and I picked up the habit. Well, it only took about a day before Dad set me down and said: “Bobby, I just want you to call me Dad.”

My dad taught me how to drive a car.

When I turned fifteen I got my learner’s permit, and my father spent time on the week-ends teaching me to drive. No driver’s education in school for me; Dad was going to do it himself. As soon as I turned sixteen, either on my birthday or a day after, I took the driver’s exam and passed the first time, even doing the parallel parking perfectly just like my father had taught me. About a week or two later, we shoved off on vacation from Virginia to Florida in my father’s new Cadillac. My older brother was away with a summer job and my little brother was three and in the back seat with me. In South Carolina, on a beautiful new interstate highway, my dad asked me if I would like to drive. I jumped at the chance, since I had learned on my mother’s little Rambler American. Well, the beautiful highway soon turned into a narrow two lane road, with traffic in both directions, through a swamp. To make matters worse we got behind a large semi truck. For miles we could not pass and kept going out and getting back. Finally the way was clear and I was cautiously passing. Dad said: “You are going too slowly, step on the gas!” I floored that Cadillac and it jumped like a tiger that had sat on a firecracker! We passed that truck and the next one too. After a few miles a Stuckey’s came into view and my dad said it was time to take a break. I knew I was going to be back in the back seat with my little brother, and I was. Dad always said: “Get stuck at Stuckey’s and hooked at Horne’s.” He was a McDonald’s man himself.

My dad taught me about duty and perseverance.

I was nineteen and at basic training in Ft. Benning, Georgia in July. It was hot; the Vietnam War was in full swing so the training was especially intense. Young men were collapsing from heat stroke, and there had been a training accident killing four or five young men the day before my first chance to call home. In those days there were no cell phones, so after waiting an hour or two for a pay phone, I used my dime to call home collect. Dad happened to answer the phone. I told him what was happening, and that I didn’t know if I could make it through. He said: “Bob, listen to me. I made it through basic training in WWII, and your grandfather made it through basic training in WWI, and you’re just as tough as we are. Do the best you can, remember who you are, and you will be fine. Now talk to your mother.” Two years later I got my commission as a 2nd Lt. when I graduated from college. There was a look of pride in my dad’s eyes.

My dad taught me many things without ever speaking.

For years as I was growing up my dad made the Thanksgiving turkey. He would prepare the turkey and do homemade stuffing, and I would watch him intently. Years later when I got my own family I started the same tradition. Finally one year Dad got to taste a turkey and stuffing I had cooked. He said: “Why Bob, this is just about as good as mine.” That was high praise from my father.

In conclusion, I thank God for my father. In addition to being a wonderful father, my dad was also a great teacher. He was always ready to share his knowledge and his wisdom and his favorite poetry with his sons, and with his grandchildren, and really with anyone willing to listen. Thank you.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at November 11, 2009 09:51 AM

That's a lovely story, mister charley, and a lovely blessing too.

Posted by: N E at November 11, 2009 10:08 AM