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Al Rodbell's Blog

Thursday

Tomorrow Belongs to Me

A song, an anthem for a people, a rallying cry for a generation, an artifact of a perversion of humanity.  What do we make of this song, shown in this video from the film version of "Cabaret" ?  Watch it please (now disabled) and note the cinematography, the old man's reaction, the building of connection among the crowd, first one, then a few, the young, then the old, the sense of destiny, of solidarity, of hope for a future, a tomorrow that will transcend the pain of defeat, starvation and degradation.

It is the representation of what historians of the Third Reich, call "Volk" as elevated to "mystical identity under Hitler."  I place this in quotes as it is from the index of a book, an important book that this essay is reviewing, "The German Genius" by Peter Watson.

While I will point out two errors for discussion, it should be noted that I discovered them only because the amazing quality-- the clarity and lyricism of this encyclopedic tome in conveying the complex interplay of the forces that form a society.  If interested in this subject you can explore it in two ways.  You can start young and learn German, and start to read it's literature, beginning in the early eighteenth century.  Start with Kant then Hegel, Heidegger and Nietzsche.  While doing this should learn organic chemistry, some early pre Darwinian theories of heredity, then  psychoanalysis.  On weekends you may want to read some of Einstein's early works, including the development of quantum mechanics.   Oh, be sure to squeeze in Marx and Engels to trace back their roots in earlier philosophers.   Or, if you don't want to so dedicate your life,  you could read this book.

Watson is a journalist, rather than an academician, and that makes all the difference.  His readership, mostly centered in London publications,  is a diverse group of interested educated people, most of whose earliest memories were violence and death originating in Germany. I don't know his life story, but I assume he shared this experience.  It was an inherent act of courage to write a book that can be described as praising this country.

The vast majority of reviews of this book have been laudatory, some mildly critical of his dependency on secondary sources, which ignores the reality that such a coherent readable narrative would have been impossible without generalizations, and faith in such sources in weaving together the story of this unique culture.  No human being could possibly absorb the primary sources that that underlie his narrative, his interpretation of how a country, a nation, a people, a linguistic community, can rise to leadership of the world in a wide array of intellectual endeavors over the course of a few centuries, only to fall victim to.....the "Tomorrow" that came to pass.

Among the more than a thousand names that punctuate this book, I probably recognize a couple hundred at most, and have read a few dozen or so.  This was enough for me to do a sample, a type of informal statistical validation of his universe of sources, and it came out to my satisfaction.  Even reading his hundreds of secondary sources is a lifetime endeavor, that he did the service of excerpting and organizing.   

Among the generally laudatory reviews, there were some with just the hint, the tone of suspicion that this was, just perhaps, in spite of its intellectual appearance, a covert paean to the deepest strands of the ideology of Nordic racial superiority that justified German fascism.  I myself have found, and will present, two items that could be used to support this theory, this criticism, and this personal attack on the writer. 

I do it because the points are meaningful for the discussion of this book, and more importantly because they are in the spirit that the book was written.  If Watson had set a standard of perfection, we would not have this comprehensive tome to spark these conversation, and the world would have been poorer for it's absence. 

The first point is the song of the title of this essay.  Watson attributes it to Hans Baumann, " The troubadour of the Hitler Youth"  whose idylic childhood was tempered by the inflation and unemployment of Wiemar Germany.  His earliest poems reflected this with titles such as " Unemployed" and "Four Flights Up" about living in tenement slums as a child.  From "The German Genius" pp 636:

Bauman became active in the Catholic youth movement, this gave rise to some of his early songs, the most famous of which s, "Morgen gehort mir," "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," was popularized in the 1972 film "Cabaret."  This song helped Bauman's rise to fame.

snip-

The song became famous among the Catholic youth movement long before it was taken up by the Hitler Youth.


The exact provenance, the actual author of this song is important as it still is alive for the present incarnation of this movement.  The Ringtone of the song is available for those who see this song as more than an historical artifact, but a viable motivating force in their lives.  For those who revere the spirit of this song and still long for such a "tomorrow" whether it was written by Aryian youth such as depicted in the film clip, or two Jewish songwriters, is of great importance. 

Watson is wrong when he writes that the play "Cabaret" "popularized,"  a song by the young Baumann, which implies "Tomorrow Belongs to Me"  is close translation of the German original, rather than being loosely modeled on such songs. which seems to be the current consensus.   There are a slew of motivated members of "Storm Front" who have searched the German archives for such a common original of "Tomorrow" to no avail. The long discussion now going on for several years describes how the current culture of this group is connected with the past. 

Back to reviewing Peter Watson's book, and its meaning.  The other incongruity of a higher order.  It is not a mistake of detail, such as attribution of composer of a song, but something quite different.  I will express it by excerpting this letter that I sent to Watson's editor:
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I was transfixed by the talent of one individual to convey the monumental contributions of the German Civilization into a compendium that read like a novel.   I admired Watson's courage to present this story, without apology, as history needs none.   

But then I came to a single paragraph, that I have not seen commented on in any review.  It is on the last paragraph of page 829 of the hardcover edition.  It does begin with the qualification of "For what it is worth" and then goes on to quote a "survey, reported in 2006" that shows that Germans have a greater brain size and I.Q. than other European countries, specifically those that were its enemies in the two world wars. 

The carelessness of this inclusion is reflected in the note of attribution, a secondary source,  a book by Gertrude Himmelfarb published the year before the survey.  There is no attribution to the actual research, which was Richard Lynn's 2006 book,  "Race Differences in Intelligence: An Evolutionary Analysis" 

The paradigm of this throwaway comment is actually profoundly important, as it reflects, and supports the underlying neo-Darwinism that was so distorted by the Nazi regime. This ideology sees races as sub species of humans, which biologically may be accurate, and as such is a moot subject for understanding variations of cultures.  However, It is a completely different analytic approach to a cultural-historical explanation of the "genius" of a culture.  

Had Mr. Watson excluded the tidbit of this paragraph, it would not have detracted at all from his encyclopedic presentation, but to slip it in, apparently unnoticed by reviewers, is a shock to his careful readers.  I suggest that this paragraph simply be removed for future editions, as it would take a different book, of a size and complexity of this one to do justice to the controversy raised by its implicit premise.  At the very least, if you want to "go there" present the concept, "that underlying genetic intelligence is the root explanation of cultural achievement"  as inherently inconsistent with the rest of the book. 


If Watson were serious about this paragraph being meaningful, he wouldn't  need an 800 page book to carefully define the many threads of German achievement.  He could put it on a bumper sticker that says, "Germans are greater because they are smarter."

But I don't think he would ever do this, or that he actually thinks this is true.  Someone who thinks in slogans doesn't do the life long research to write a book of this magnitude, which is in its overall tone devoid of any taint of simplistic explanations.  The scholarly tone combined with the journalist fluidity is an invitation for participation, a prod to thinking, that in my case led to discovery of these defects, but also to an overwhelming number of epiphanies, of connections, of new understanding that otherwise I would never have made.

Anyone who has slogged through this long essay, would be fascinated by "The German Genius"  And, only by learning about yesterday, can we have any hope that our  "Tomorrow" will reflect the common dreams of humanity, rather than the nightmare that was the culmination of a time and place so well explored by this courageous book.    












   

Friday

Encinitas Madonna

Stupid Gringo that I am, I had never even heard of her. If someone had mentioned "Our Lady of Guadalupe" I would have responded with a quizzical, "Huh?'

Here's the news story, with a photo, from the local San Diego Union Tribune:

The city famous for its catchable waves and funky public art now has a new piece apparently installed by a brazen crew of bogus construction workers.

On an afternoon shortly before Earth Day and a few days prior to Easter, a group of men in hard hats installed a 10-foot square stained-glass mosaic of a surfing Our Lady of Guadalupe, complete with booties. “Save the Ocean” runs along the side of the mural. On the nose of her surfboard is the face of Saint Juan Diego who, according to legend, saw the Virgin Mary near Mexico City in 1531.


I feel a certain obligation to write this blog, since when I read about this I wrote a letter to the members of our city council that now has been tempered by some discussion and personal investigation. Here's that letter:

To the Encinitas City Council:

Interesting article in today's UT.

This time, I agree with Councilman Jerome Stocks (who was reported as saying it must be removed), plus these additional reasons to remove it.

The last thing we want in a tunnel, where cars are driving close to pedestrians is a visual distraction. Remember the tragedy in a similar site under I5 on Sante Fe Drive

We do not want to encourage Guerrilla Public Art, as it will always present this conflict of either removing, or tacit public support for the message in retaining it.

One way to deal with this is to consider a venue, a time and a place for open expression of artistic messages. However, this could also be more problematic than it's worth, as it could be a source of more contention, something we don't seem to be in short supply of now.

And here's an aside, not to be made public. The underpass of a train is a target for terrorism. A few sticks of dynamite with a simple cell phone type of detonator, could bring down the trestle, with great loss of life to a passing train. There should be a focus on how a group of people pretending to be authorized construction workers were not questioned by law enforcement. New procedures should be considered. -(Since the potential for something like this was subsequently publicised from Osama bin Ladin's computer, no need to worry about giving anyone the idea)

This is defacing public property, and it's not the council's job to be moral arbiters or art critics. Remove it quickly. And if you find those who did it take appropriate action for their infractions.

And suggest that they use the many venues legally available to express their artistic impulses.


When I spent some time at the mosaic, talking to several people, I got a different perspective. Sometimes we are better to benefit from an event like this, to explore what can be learned, rather than react as I did, that it was a breach of lawful process and that's the end of the issue. Actually, that's only the beginning.

I had a long discussion with Ava, a woman who came to this country from Mexico when she was a small child, and lives her life in both cultures. She was hesitant to be interviewed but then gave me the O.K. She described the complex feeling that she had about this image of what I learned was the patron saint of Mexico, a revered Icon that is the source of comfort for so many Catholics.

Her ambivalence, coming down on the side of keeping the mosaic in place, was only made clear when an older man who spoke only a smattering of English rode by on his bike. He looked at the mural and was disturbed by what was being done to this most sanctified figure of his religious belief. For those interested in his words in Spanish, here's the short interview.





He wanted the image of the virgin, that was fine, but without the surf board---just as he always saw her represented in his church. "She is not a clown" were his translated words. Of course having a such a picture of a Catholic Saint devoid of the social commentary that he objected to, would not work in a public space for various constitutional reasons. 

Eva, told me how the Lady of Guadaloupe is more than a Church figure, but part of modern culture:



There was another woman who was visiting from Virginia, who was delighted by the mural. She was a gringo, and while being catholic did not have the same emotional connection as the man on the bike (sorry I didn't get his name, amateur that I am) She made a simple point to the crowd, with a broad smile. "Look how it has gotten us talking together."

She was right. The message in bold letters on the mural is "Save the Ocean" a sentiment that all, of every religious and ethnic background, can support. While this mural is an example of breaking the law, it raises the question of whether those who follow the law, those who are overfishing, and polluting the oceans, may not be doing far greater harm.


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The city council voted unanimously on May 18 to remove the mural, and to relocate it if possible.  




One understanding of true art is that it provides a mirror to society, just askew enough to challenge unspoken  assumptions.  From this perspective the quality of the work is irrelevant.  This is performance art, with the mosaic not being the focal object , but rather the precipitating agent of the month long drama that took place.

As performance art this a success, as both a diversion from the events of the day, and also a reflection on democratic governance.  By removing this mural, the city made the statement that it would not allow a religious icon to be either glorified or defaced on public property.  That's how this country works, whether on the Federal or Local level.  

Good Job Council

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Wednesday

Martin's Poem




This is taken from the laureate’s essay on the occasion of awarding of the Nobel Prize in Medicine to Martin Rodbell in 1994.

To my Friends: Thoughts from “On High”

Life on a roller coaster, oscillating from hither to yon,
no respite for the iconoclast, wandering from dusk to dawn.
Conjuring strange thoughts foreign and twice forbidden,
like Prometheus unbound, this Nobelist climbs in vain
to Andean peaks, seeking what most would proclaim insane.

Why, he ponders, are there no answers to protean questions when others thinking cleanly and simply with Occam’s sharp razor proclaim what seems obvious given the beam of their unerring laser. Nature, happily unfettered with philosophy, or with cunning, or with intent moves relentlessly onward or even backward with energy unspent while we mortals test and probe with twinkling machines blinking precisely at each movement, striving to unravel its irresolute randomness, its fathomless, unlimited, meaningless rush into spiraling chaos, oblivious of its multitudinous trials & errors which we pontifically believe must be unerring truth & resolution.

The laugh is on those who, burdened with pretensions of truth, believe they can fathom within 15 minutes of human existence what has transpired over eons of space and time in this Universe .

So, I extol the intuitions encapsulated in the folds of my mind from whence occasionally they hurtle to the forebrain and in a twinkling of a proton’s discharge bring to fruition a thought, an idea borne on the feathery appendages of teeming neurons wedded in a seamless synergy. Those fleeting moments are cherished as are those precious impulses imparted by the innumerable individuals who nurtured and instilled unknowingly their encrypted thoughts in mine.

So, with these fanciful thoughts in mind I give praise to you - my friends, my colleagues, my soul-mates, my loved ones - for letting my soul and thoughts meander hither and yonder in this attempt at philosophy and poetry. We now belong to the Gods on high who praise us for our frailties and our achievements.



Martin and I had the same great grandfather, who died, long before either of us were born, in a Polish ghetto that neither of us would recognize. And, I’m certain, this man said his prayers, went to synagogue and believed fully in his God. I don’t know whether Martin believed in God; but if he did it was a very different one than our great grandfather’s.

Here’s what his poem meant to me: Rather than being frustrated by how little progress he could make in fully understanding his chosen area of research, he takes pleasure in being able to solve a small part of the puzzle. As he thanks “the innumerable individuals who nurtured and instilled unknowingly their encrypted thoughts in mine,” he fully expects others to similarly value what he has brought forth, “intuitions encapsulated in the folds of my mind from whence occasionally they hurtle to the forebrain and in a twinkling of a proton’s discharge, bring to fruition a thought. “ His thought. A part of the chain of knowledge that his life work extends by a single link.

His poem can be taken as a response to those who would claim that science’s paucity of explanation is indicative of some other process, a purposeful all powerful designer. “Why,” he asks, pondering his own limitations , “are there no answers to protean questions when others thinking cleanly and simply with Occam’s sharp razor, proclaim what seems obvious, given the beam of their unerring laser.” Whether the designer be God or some ethereal conception of an ordered purposeful universe, Martin’s answer is the same, “The laugh is on those who, burdened with pretensions of truth, believe they can fathom within 15 minutes of human existence what has transpired over eons of space and time in this Universe “

I’m proud of my cousin Martin, even though I never even met him, and never will, since he died several years ago, at what now to me, seems a such young age. He would be surprised to learn that the words of his poem, imbedded in an essay printed in a book for libraries and attendees at the Nobel Awards in Stockholm, are now available to billions of people with a few key strokes on their computers.

While we are constantly made aware of the suffering caused by man and nature in all its permutations, we are also in the midst of an explosion of knowledge that his work is representative of. While we deplore the inefficiencies and, at times, duplicity, of pharmaceutical corporations, there is the constant accretion of the products of basic research, that however twisted its path, enriches us all. This growth, this inexorable drive to understand the processes of life, from the molecular to the societal, has a tenacity that defies all attempts to extinguish it.

Martin’s life is intertwined with a singular event, the epitome of focused destruction of a people, his people, my people--- a people who happen to revere this quest for understanding in all of its forms. The woman whom he married and raised his family with, his widow Barbara Lederman Rodbell, was a teenager in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. She joined the resistance and actively fought against the invaders. She was friends with another family of Jews, the Franks, who tried to survive by hiding in an attic. The world knows of their story from the diary written by their daughter, Anne.

In this time of questioning the relation between church and state, it is claimed that science is simply another religion, another belief system based on faith. While there are certainly differences between the two worldviews, there is truth to this claim. Martin, and Barbara, had faith that their lives, dedicated to a quest for knowledge, would in some way, in some time, make for a better world. Martin’s life work explicated the processes of inter-cellular communication. He showed how each of the trillions of cells of higher organisms, of we humans, coordinate to mature and survive to achieve our purposes, whether profound or profane.

Martin spent his life in his own resistance movement. It was a resistance against ignorance, and the imitation science that masks it, exemplified by the Nazi genocidal hatred that took such an unfathomable toll. His weapon was not a more powerful bomb, or a new way of marshalling the passion of the masses; it was in discovering how a process in our body works. He knew we could never erase the horror of six million Jews killed in the holocaust, or hundreds of millions who died in our lifetimes in similar excrescences of organized hatred fueled by ignorance.

All he could do; all we can do, is support the mosaic of scientific knowledge--precise, objective, verifiable, and universal. This slow laborious slog of discovery seems so puny compared to the grandeur of those who offer comprehensive answers, mystical or scientistic, whom he described as “burdened with pretensions of truth.”

If there is such a thing as evil in the world, this universal apotheosis that transcends time and place, surely its essential element is ignorance, the blindness that leads to fear, and the destruction that follows. Such evil destroys like wildfire, or nuclear blasts, or mass murder by a master race. Yet, resistance to these scourges is not to be found on a comparable scale. Rather it is the wisp of a seedling after a firestorm. Resistance is a life of discovery, the articulation of a concept that clarifies forces hitherto unseen, and perhaps an unfinished diary of a young girl, who still had hope for a better world.



Nobel Lecture and Autobiography of Martin Rodbell

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