San Michele and a bygone era

Friends here in Carboneras lent me this once-famous book, a best-seller in the 1930s, translated into 45 languages.

Munthe, Axel. The Story of San Michele. 1929. Frogmore, St Albans: Mayflower, 1975.

Gossipy memoirs of a multilingual Swedish physician and psychiatrist (1857-1949), his patients -- who included Swedish and other royalty, many rich "hysterical women" and great numbers of the poor -- and of his building of his estate San Michele atop and among ancient ruins (including a palace of Roman Emperor Tiberius) on the isle of Capri. He was a good story-teller, interested not in documenting his life but in illustrating his philosophical and psychological notions by anecdotes. You would never know from this book that he ever married (he did, twice, and had two sons, one of whom performed heroic service for the British in WW II).

My favorite parts include the opening chapter, when 18-year old Munthe first discovers the ruins in the commune of Anacapri, and some of the chapters on his experiences in Paris, especially the epidemic among bored aristocrats of the imaginary disease "colitis" -- not (in Paris in the 1880's) the disease that goes by that name today, but something much more mysterious that could be blamed for the general feelings of malaise that afflict the rich and bored (at least, according to Munthe).

Here are scenes of San Michele today.



I love this ad! MoveOn is hoping to raise money to put it on MTV and Comedy Central.


Unequal America

This article from Harvard Magazine asks why inequality of income distribution and life expectancy is so much greater in the U.S. than in other countries with a similar GDP.

Unequal America: Causes and consequences of the wide—and growing—gap between rich and poor, by Elizabeth Gudrais.

The author comes to no clear conclusions as to either the causes (historical? ideological? accidental?) or the possible remedies, but she gives us material to work with to come up with our own. Some of the proposed remedies, including stricter rules on campaign financing (so the favor-the-rich candidates don't get all the money), sound like timid steps in the right direction. A movement mobilizing greater numbers of the poor and non-poor to vote seems to me like the best way to change laws on who gets the tax breaks, which neighborhoods and which institutions get public funds, and so on. And that's the big reason for backing Obama, who is the only one currently able to motivate those folks on a national scale. (Not to slight Kucinich and others, who are working to do the same thing but whose reach is narrower.)


An American in Carboneras

Watching the amazing and stirring Obama campaign from this little town in southern Spain has made me reflect once again on what it means to me, as someone who has been intensely interested and active in U.S. politics, to be living at this moment so far from my homeland. So, what can I do from here?

First, a bit of personal political history. I've been involved in political organizing since high school 50 years ago (I graduated in 1959), when I used the history club to set up public fora on issues including recognizing the People's Republic of China (a very touchy subject in those days). Later I was president of the Socialist Club at Harvard, organizing fora, debates, film showings (Sergei Eisenstein and others), and demos. And in the years since college, I've used my writings as well as various organizational efforts to "raise consciousness" and push events toward greater equality of opportunity.

But that was then. I was much younger (and more naïve), working in places (universities mostly) where I could reach students and others in personal face-to-face contact, and in an epoch where access to other (non f2f) communications were pretty much limited to print (ditto machines, mimeographs, offset if we were lucky) and sometimes radio (on underfunded, low-power stations). The other approach, harder to achieve and much more rewarding, was to get published in larger circulation periodicals or books.

Now I am who I am, a wiser (I hope) and much more fully trained sociologist, living in a small place far from the center of U.S. politics, in an era with Internet communications, including new forms invented every week (see blog below, on "knols"). So I think it is at least possible for me to be as involved politically as ever, even from here. I don't have f2f contact with American voters, but I do have as much technical access as anybody. And U.S. politics no longer belong exclusively to U.S. citizens. Spaniards, French, Germans, Iraqis, Pakistanis and others don't get to vote in the United States in the formal sense of entering a voting booth and pulling a lever, but in mass demonstrations, opinion polls and other ways, they do "vote" in the basic meaning of that word, to "express a preference for a candidate or a proposed solution of an issue." (Etymology: Middle English (Scots), from Latin votum vow, wish — more at vow) And because our world is now so interconnected, any sensible politician will heed that vote.

All this reflection has led me to a new view of my country and its enormous power. The U.S.A. is commonly viewed as a purveyor of globalization, which of course it is, but more importantly, it is globalization's most extremely developed product. It is the most successful of the dozens of countries, all but Australia in the Western Hemisphere, refashioned from native peoples and native materials by successive waves of immigrants. The U.S., Brazil, and the others are "New Worlds" set in motion and built by forces from all of the old ones, those places where custom and tradition had more nearly congealed and opportunities for innovation were stunted. Of all of the New Worlds, the United States is where the collective force of all humanity has come together most densely and has been producing what up to now has been the greatest energy.

Much of that energy has been foolishly spent in the past eight years, but even in its Bush-whacked condition the U.S. still projects great power, partly from inertia (the power, economic, military and cultural, accumulated in years before) and partly because the country still receives power from abroad in many ways, including investments, immigration, and imitation. As we critics often say, the U.S. is undoubtedly a large part of the problems of globalization, from global warming and pollution to high food and petroleum prices, cultural banality to terrorism. But it is also, and for the same reasons, our best hope for solutions. This is something that Obama seems to understand very clearly, which is why so many people in Germany and other countries are "voting" for him in whatever ways they can. Obama has reawakened enthusiasm for the world-healing potential of American power. And that's why I'll do whatever I can, even from here in Carboneras, to encourage my compatriots to cast official, legally recognized ballots for him.

Photo: A few Obama voters in Berlin. From the NYT.

New self-publishing possibilities

I've just discovered knol, a newly invented word which I suppose comes from "knowledge on line". It's all explained in the link I just gave you. Basically, it's a software program similar to Blogger but designed for posting longer articles that may be of more lasting interest. I'm intrigued by the idea, and expect that I'll be creating some "knols" of my own. In the old days, before Internet, I devoted a lot of time, energy and anxiety to writing queries and then articles to send out to editors at magazines and newspapers, and sometimes I would get published and paid, but more often I would not, and even when I succeeded (see my Notes & Essays for samples, or my C.V. for a more complete list), the pay was meager. For those of us who write for motives other than money, which (Dr. Johnson to the contrary notwithstanding) is almost everybody who writes seriously, this is an attractive alternative to sending articles to an editor. Maybe my first knol will be about self-publishing, what it has meant historically (I just read a life of William Cobbett) and what the new technologies may portend, for the publishing industry and for political and social thought.

Meanwhile, I'll keep blogging. I like the short, ephemeral form. Which may not be so ephemeral, since things posted on the Internet seem to last forever.