Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

24 November 2011

Thanksgiving: A Good Day to “Come Out”

Once again, I find myself abroad at Thanksgiving. In the past, that feeling has been bittersweet. There was bitterness at being far from home, mixed with the sweetness of anticipated homecoming. And―though I hate to confess it―there was sweetness also in an inbred sense of America’s global superiority.

This year much has changed. I still look forward to my return home, which will come just days after Thanksgiving. Yet the smugness of returning to an unquestionably better place has vanished utterly.

I have always been skeptical of American “exceptionalism.” Unfortunately, America today is “exceptional” in much the same sense that Mongoloid children are “exceptional.” Pride, arrogance, stubbornness, belligerence and stupidity have stained our national character as never before. It is hard to be an American abroad today without feeling a sense of shame, if only for destroying a global economy that―by our effort and under our leadership―not long ago seemed poised on the edge of a new, global Golden Age.

Nevertheless, Thanksgiving is still my favorite holiday. Unlike most other holidays at home and abroad, it celebrates no victory in war, no conquest or territorial acquisition, and no saint, miracle or religion. It recalls the simple beauty of refugees from religious and political persecution, barely surviving in what was for them a wilderness, being helped by friendly and cooperative native people.

In our very first Thanksgiving dinner, immigrant European refugees and native Americans feasted together, each learning from the other. So-called “Indians” contributed much of the food, as well as much of the know-how to grow or gather it in a harsh new land. That simple cooperation seemed to me a beautiful paradigm for inter-cultural relations. It still does.

The internment, relocation and near-genocide of our “Indians” came later. They mar the promise of that beautiful fall day considerably.

But they do not extinguish it entirely. Though tarnished, the promise of that day still shines brightly. We still are the world’s only nation―and by far the most significant major power―to be led by a member of an oppressed and once enslaved minority. We are still the nation to which many around the world seek entrance for the opportunity to live, work and prosper free from persecution based on skin color, native language, ethnicity, religion, politics, or family connections. Our “Indians” still survive, and many prosper, in a state of relative political and cultural autonomy that many oppressed minorities abroad might envy. And we all speak a common English language, with innumerable accents, including many native ones.

So in spite of our many failings, we still lift our lamp beside the golden door. In that alone, we are a luminous example.

Thus Thanksgiving still has meaning. No doubt it will as long as America (or the idea of an America) persists. Hence it’s still a good day to “come out” from behind my anonymity.

My reasons for doing so I’ve already outlined. Now that I’m fully retired from teaching (although I still profess from time to time), I have much less need to preserve my professional neutrality . In our personality-obsessed culture, anonymity seems to detract from acceptance of (and traffic to!) this blog more than I ever dreamed it would. And there is much in my background that, absent the fetters of anonymity, might enhance my credibility.

For those who hoped for some earth-shaking revelation, I apologize in advance. I am far from a household name. I’m one of those anonymous experts from the “next levels down” that I’ve described in an earlier post. I have spent a quarter century in school, have been a Woodrow Wilson National Fellow, an NSF-NATO Postdoctoral Fellow, an articles editor on the Harvard Law Review, and a Fulbright Fellow in Moscow. I've lived abroad in England and in Russia. I have visited every one of the seven continents, including Antarctica, although travel in Africa has been sparse and China remains on my list.

In my 66 years I’ve been a scientist, engineer, lawyer, and law professor. These four disparate careers give me an unusual perspective that I hope informs this blog. My last two careers―law practice and teaching―give me special insight into a society (ours) with far too many lawyers having far too much power.

And all my careers have given me an abiding respect for facts, evidence and logical deductions from both, plus a healthy skepticism of simple theory. The more you know, it seems to me, the more you come to believe that the simple abstractions our grapefruit-sized brains are capable of forming and retaining are usually misleading and often flat wrong.

Wisdom and pragmatism often abide in forsaking theory (including ideology) for facts and reality in all their complexity and detail. Fox’s cardinal sin, it seems to me, is deriving facts from opinions, rather than vice versa. That approach is very close to the clinical definition of insanity.

It may seem inconsistent with my veneration for facts, but I’m now working on my first novel. History tells us that stories (myths and fiction) can be far more influential in motivating change than fact. God knows we Americans believe many fictional things, including our own omnipotence. And God knows truth can be stranger than fiction. Who would have guessed, for example, that a blond, right-wing Norwegian, not an Arab or Muslim, would perpetrate Europe’s single greatest terrorist atrocity since the rape of Sarajevo by Christian Serbs?

My idol in this regard is Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose famous novel Lincoln credited with starting the Civil War. I am hardly presumptuous enough to compare myself with her. She probably ranks with Newton, Adam Smith, Darwin and Einstein in changing human thought and behavior. And she did it with fact-based fiction, avoiding equations and the curse of all those damned footnotes. If I can emulate her even in some minuscule way, that would sate my desire to feel a small measure of usefulness in my old age.

My name? I might as well extend the suspense a bit. Few who don’t know me already will recognize it. You can find it on my profile, and you can find a fairly complete résumé here, and a better photo and links to some of my books here. But don’t look for novels; my books to date have been dry and tedious law tomes.

In posts to come, I now can cite my background for greater credibility. I intend to emphasize my experience with and in Russia, whose language I have studied off and on for all my adult life, and whose transition away from internal terror and Communism I witnessed personally in a fellowship in Moscow in 1993, teaching in the same Institute that once educated Vladimir Putin.

But for the moment, let’s return to the bitter and the sweet. It’s sweet, I think, to “come out” now and to be free to be myself. Yet it’s bitter to do so at a time when so much is wrong in the world, and when we Americans are responsible for so much of it. As an educator, I find it particularly galling that so much of what is wrong today stems from fuzzy thinking or deliberate, self-serving nonsense that we Yanks propagate. So I intend to do what I can, in the time left to me, to set things right.

One thing I ask of readers. With my name, clever users can discover my personal e-mail address. I implore all not to use it, but to confine responses to this blog to comments on it. I pledge to be fair (albeit slow) as a moderator and post all comments that are (1) civil and (2) substantive and (3) avoid spam and abuse. Right now, further moderation of comments will have to await my return home.

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  • At Thursday, November 24, 2011 at 12:04:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Dear Jay.
    I eagerly look forward to this Thanksgiving Day because you are Coming
    Very impressive and unmatchable academic
    credentials. Your international exposures combined with your brilliant and insightful mind surely make your blogging a must read for people who are appreciative of a humble renaissance man.
    You truly make a difference in my life and I am forever grateful for that influence in my thinking process.
    My wish for you is a long healthy life. Maraming salamat uli.
    C L

  • At Thursday, November 24, 2011 at 9:57:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Dear Jay,

    AWESOME! I never doubted that you are a highly educated man to be able to construe about politics, economy and the likes.

    It gives me pleasure to read your blog because it keeps me abreast on current events not mention how reliable your facts are.

    Your credentials are impressive. You must be one hell of a good professor!

    Keep up the good work and hope to read more of your blogs.

    Best wishes,

  • At Friday, November 25, 2011 at 5:17:00 AM EST, Anonymous Jason said…

    Very interesting, Jay! I didn't need a CV to tell me I was reading a very bright writer on this blog, but it's still satisfying to see that impression confirmed by such credentials. I particularly respect the physics background, because I followed a vaguely similar path (starting in physics, then switching to something else -- ecology in my case). I find that my physics background gives me an advantageous, unique perspective and skill set for much of what I do in ecology. I also think it sets a standard of rigor for all sciences, and perhaps for other logical endeavors like law. The rigor of physics is impossible to attain while studying the complex systems in ecology, leaving me always a little bit dissatisfied with my own (and my colleagues') work -- and that's good. It makes me unusually mindful of the uncertainty and conditions of our results.

    I hope casting off your anonymity opens up more channels for promoting your insightful blog. I still urge you to devote significant time to learning about online self-promotion. As distasteful as it may seem, it's critical -- the impact of everything you've ever written here is directly proportional to the number of people who see it. Quality alone will never bring in the traffic. It will keep people coming back, but it won't do anything for the people who never find this blog in the first place. Embrace the art of getting found!

  • At Saturday, November 26, 2011 at 9:25:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I only discovered your blog 4 months ago after you cited it in a NY Times article comment. Since then, I've spent considerable time and effort reading it. Oddly, I always thought your writing had the depth of significant and disparate experience and I guessed right!

    Thank you for writing such insightful, historically rich and interconnected essays. These have been a breath of fresh air in the nonsense that's published these days.

    I eagerly look forward to your book! Regarding your book, please write the anti-tome to Atlas Shrugged. (Though what happened in the book as popularly believed is not in fact what Ayn Rand spoke of. Yes, government goes out of control in it - but it was the takeover of government by corporations that made it happen. All to control the output of other corporations.)


  • At Thursday, December 1, 2011 at 4:52:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Thanks for "coming out" Jay ... nice to errr "meet" you. Your career is impressive, but really, you don't need to tout your credentials. The quality of your mind is revealed through your writing. That's enough for me!

    Looking forward to continuing to read your thoughts and observations about our crazy world. An island of sanity amidst a sea of madness.

    Doug in DC

  • At Saturday, December 3, 2011 at 3:56:00 PM EST, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    To all:

    This thread of comments is easy to reply to. All compliments require is a sincere (and brief) “Thank you.”

    You all have that, and thank you also for taking the trouble to write.

    As for self-promotion, I’m afraid I don’t have that gene. I do find it distasteful and probably am too old to learn. But I’ll try.

    I find it interesting that most of you—my most loyal readers—reason as I did: that quality is self-evident, so my “credentials” are superfluous. But if you look at politics or commerce today, you come to a very different conclusion. If quality were self-evident, the world—and especially our country—would look very different, as would the Republican primary campaign!

    As for the book, I don't think refuting Ayn Rand would be very useful. Those who believe in her are thoroughly brainwashed, and those who aren’t would think it a waste of time.

    But several story ideas percolating in my head have as minor themes the horror of living in a post-government world run by business and public-relations people, in which everything is for sale. That may be where we're headed—a thought that makes contemplating the finiteness of life less painful.

    Best to all of you,



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