People who read are constantly asking other people who read what they’re reading — unless they're part of a book club, then everyone knows. 

Speaking of book clubs, the Voorheesville Public Library has had one since 1996 when Suzanne Fisher invited the community to share her love of literature at monthly meetings.

Suzanne was among a small group of librarians The New York Times picked as the best librarians in the United States in 2005. A plaque recognizing her honor hangs in the foyer of the Voorheesville Library.  

And from one who’s interviewed Voorheesville librarians from the earliest days, I’d say Suzanne’s recognition is no small thing.

I remain amazed at the enthusiasm of book-clubbers; kudos to them and every other soul who views books as an integral part of life. 

Book-lovers can speak intelligently about the classics (Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” James Joyce, and the like) as well as appreciate the book as an object of art. Their interest is not just first editions but the feel of a book’s paper, its dust jacket, the width of its margins, the typeface, even the quality of its index.

When I’ve had a say in how a book would look, I pushed for margins wide enough for the reader to open up a lounge chair to sit and enjoy the show of life — which is what all literature is about.

Book clubs or not, what every American in the country should be reading right now is some insightful work on the life of Julius Caesar — the Rubicon guy, the Gaius who brought the Roman Republic down, the man who destroyed Rome’s democracy to set himself up as king.

And because the republics of Rome and the United States are so often compared, Americans would do well to study how that man managed to destroy a nation’s centuries-old political structure — because a sizeable portion of Americans today are working hard to bring the American republic down.

If he were here right now, General Julius would say he was just the last straw in a bale of politico-fascist generals — like Cornelius Sulla and Lucius Cornelius Cinna (Caesar’s father-in-law) — who already had Rome on her knees. 

The latter two butchered the human flesh of any soul who differed politically; Sulla slaughtered thousands and then hung the heads of the dead on pikes stretched across the Forum.  

And Caesar had the gall to give a blow-by-blow description — in Commentarii de Bello Civili — of him slaughtering fellow citizens to become top dog in the ancient world.

It must ne’er be forgotten that it was he, not Augustus, who was Rome’s first emperor/king. (He had a little Richard Nixon in him.)

TRIGGER ALERT! Or maybe the correct phrase is caveat lector, which means “let the reader beware of a con,” because last spring a book of mine came out on none other than Julius Caesar. My colleague at The Enterprise, Sean Mulkerrin, introduced it to our readers.

The title of the book is “Veni, Vidi, Trucidavi: Caesar the Killer, The Man Who Destroyed Nations So He Might Be King.”

The first part is a play on Caesar’s oft-quoted slogan Veni Vidi Vici — which the people of Rome first saw on a placard on a float in a parade down Rome’s main street to honor the general’s victory over King Pharnaces II of Pontus at the Battle of Zela in 47. 

The three fricative v’s of Veni, Vidi, Vici sound like the badda-bing of a TV commercial. Remember, Caesar was Italian. Badda-boom.

And scholars are still unsure if Caesar or one of his minions created the text but it did reflect his view of power.

Years ago, every student in any accredited academic high school in America — they didn’t even have to take Latin — knew Veni, Vidi, Vici — maybe not its political implications but had heard it said.

And yet, when I talked to people after my book came out — I conducted a little survey — my subjects said they never heard the phrase and, when I translated it into English, one or two said it sounded vaguely familiar.

By veni Caesar was letting the Senate know he got to the place they had assigned him — for the purpose of waging war. The veni of course is Latin and means “I arrived.” 

The vidi means “I saw,” by which Caesar was saying that, when he arrived at the front, he saw a way Rome could exterminate the blood-poisoning vermin enemy bar-bar without making a dent in the city’s coffers.

And vici is, “Once I got the Roman war machine going, the bar-bars were done faster than a soft-boiled egg.”  (An accurate translation.) 

The viewers of Caesar’s parade that day — which the Romans called a triumph — were stunned at the hubris; he was saying, “See how fast I brought a king down, step out of line and you’re next.”   

The title of my book is a play on the three V’s except, instead of vici, I use trucidavi — the Latin verb to slaughter — thus “I came, I saw, I slaughtered.” By the time of the parade, Caesar was already Rome’s slaughterer-in-chief having destroyed untold tribes (sovereign nations!) in Gaul for nine consecutive years. In my book, I call Caesar carnifex Gallorum, the butcher of the peoples of France.

He carnifexed as well tribes in Germany, Spain, Britain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and elsewhere.

In the 25th chapter of Book Seven of his “Natural History,” Pliny the Elder says, “I would not myself count it to his [Caesar’s] glory that in addition to conquering his fellow-citizens [in a civil war] he killed in his battles 1,192,000 human beings, a prodigious even if unavoidable wrong inflicted on the human race, as he himself confessed it to be by not publishing the casualties of the civil wars.” 

That million number puts the general in the league of Mao, Stalin, and even Hitler.

And for all the light the ancient documents still shine on the man, it’s hard to get hold of a personality that’s rife with such complexity of thought; the scholar who’s gotten closest is the Swiss-German classical historian Matthias Gelzer (1886-1974) in his “Caesar, der Politiker und Staatsmann” which appeared in German in 1921. How embarrassing it took until 1968 before the English “Caesar: Politician and Statesman” came out.

Toward the end of this classic (page 290), Gelzer says that, once the general had the commonweal under his thumb, “the number of decrees which he [Caesar] issued was so great that there was not enough time to keep to the usual complicated procedure …  he often shortened the transactions of the Senate by simply informing the senior members of what he was going to do and, if he called a meeting of the whole body, he simply announced his decisions and without any discussion, they were entered in the archives as senatorial decrees.” 

Caesar didn’t care if you were a red state or blue state, he wanted control of your Roman body a là Michel Foucault.

He decreed that no one could travel outside of Rome but, if it did happen, how long the traveler could stay; then he started telling his fellow Romans the kinds of clothes they could wear. 

The great historian Suetonius (Div 43.1-2) says he outlawed “litters [taxi cabs] and the wearing of scarlet robes or pearls to all except those of a designated position and age, and on set days.”   

He moved in for the kill when he made decrees “against extravagance, [which included] stationing watchmen in various parts of the market, to seize and bring to him dainties which were exposed for sale in violation of the law … sometimes he sent … soldiers to take from a dining-room any articles which had escaped the vigilance of his watchmen, even after they had been served.” 

Imagine sitting at home eating dinner and a soldier barges in and rips from your mouth the piece of pork you’re chewing on; you can see why Brutus and Cassius planned a surprise party for the fascist on the Ides of March.

How sad that, in the United States of America today, two-thousand years later, we have Julius Caesar Redux in our midst; it’s just as Yogi predicted, “déjà vu all over again.”

— Photo by Dennis Sullivan

The clerk at the Civil Registration Office in Killarney copies the name of Dennis Sullivan’s grandmother, Barbara Sullivan, from the public records.

For Patrick Damien McAnany

Every St. Patrick’s Day, as soon as the sun is up, I go to the front yard and hang a large Irish flag from our magnolia tree closest to the road — it’s my sláinte to the world. The flag measures five by seven feet.

I have a smaller Irish flag — three by five feet — that flies on the hill behind the house atop a tall steel pole encased in cement and stays out all year long. I raised the pole right after I became an Irish citizen to remind me of the duties to my new home.

My grandfather Denis and my grandmother Barbara were Sullivans from County Kerry — Sneem and Kenmare — and when an American has a grandparent who comes from Ireland, he can apply to become a citizen by heritage.

But the Irish do not hand out such things lightly.

I had to get a copy of my grandmother’s birth certificate and then track down her marriage certificate in New York City — and the documents had to be the so-called “long form” with the raised seal of the government. No exceptions.

Then I had to get my father’s birth certificate to prove that the aforementioned woman was his mother — my grandmother — followed by his marriage certificate to prove he was married to the woman who gave me birth — then a certificate of my birth saying I was John Sullivan’s son. 

People who buy and sell property engage in this process all the time; it’s called “chaining,” tracing every transfer back to the original source so nobody gets stuck with a pig in a poke.

I got my grandmother’s birth certificate in person at the Civil Registration Office in Killarney where, at one point, the clerk started talking to me like an Irish Catholic nun. 

I also contacted state and local officials in different jurisdictions in the States, saying I needed papers to prove my line. Everyone was eager to help — though in the National Archives in Dublin an office genealogist started talking to me like an Irish Catholic priest.

If attention has to be paid to Willie Loman, it certainly needs to be paid to the chaining process. Two people I know said that, after sending all their papers in, they got rejected; a letter came back saying they’d made a mistake. They didn’t have to start over, but were put on hold until they sent the right papers in.

I listened to how they described their mistakes so my application flew through with flying colors. Then one day a large white envelope appeared with “Irish Government” as the return address; it contained a small certificate, shaded in green, with a number signifying my new birth; it said sláinte, you’re now one of us.

It was one of my greatest possessions ever; I say “was” because, after enclosing it in a beautiful frame, I gave it to my son as a gift, letting him know what it meant to me.

Though I did then, and still do, cherish my new family, I must admit I’m not such a big fan of the Irish, qua Irish. I find part of their socio-genetic make-up a heavy lift, they ask a lot before they’ll leave their shell — though I think the younger folk are dodging the complex.  

The Brits I’ve met, on the other hand, always seemed to be “just there.”

For many years, I served as editor-in-chief of an academic journal out of the UK called Contemporary Justice Review — published by the esteemed Routledge, an imprint of Taylor & Francis — so at least once a year I was in meetings with Brits who came to discuss the health of our enterprise.

I also did a book with the company (with a colleague/friend) and, because of the journal and the book, the British editors used to take me out to dinner when we met at conferences, the fare paid with the Taylor & Francis American Express Card. 

And though I fully enjoyed the gastronomical outings with my over-the-pond British colleagues, I felt uneasy about my meal being paid for from the corporate till; it seemed like payola. More than once I offered to pick up the tab next time.

Maybe the Brits I worked with were London’s cream of the crop but I always felt they were there for their editor-in-chief. Plus, their sense of humor was more akin to mine than what I’d seen in the Irish.

I went to Ireland seven out of eight years to size up things for myself. In an essay I wrote when I got back, I explained, “When I first went to Ireland seven years ago I went not to see the place but to find out who the Irish were, a much more formidable task.”  

And I warned that the Irish are tricky: “It is possible to walk away after an hour’s conversation with the most personable Irishman to be found, only to shake your head a few moments later realizing that person told you nothing of himself.”

I’m not an ethnographer — I speak cum grano salis — but I sensed that the/many/some Irish have a passive-aggressive, minimalist, irony-ridden, almost cynical, take on things. More than one Irishman and Irishwoman I met had a story to tell but seemed unable to get it out so they spoke in a sideways tongue of wistful mirth.  

But in my relations with the two nations, I found the Irish — I was with them often outside of business — to be extraordinarily hospitable; even though their B&B’s are a business, the hoteliers treat guests with the kindness of a friend.

With St. Patrick’s Day just around the corner, I’ve been thinking of all the Patrick’s in my life. I have a grandson named Patrick; we used to have a cat Patrick. Years ago, I taught in a Catholic high school in Newburgh called St. Patrick’s; and because I lived eight or nine doors away from the church associated with the school, St. Patrick’s Church became my parish. 

Also, my grandparents, the Denis and Barbara mentioned above, were married in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York — and my favorite Irish poet is Patrick Kavanagh.

Then there’s my old friend, Patrick McAnany, who died a week or two ago, a man who cherished his Irish line. He and his wife, Charlaine, are two of the best Christians I ever met, having spent their lives treating the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned as one of their own.  

All these things are floating around my mind as I prepare to hang out my flag next week. The flag on the hill, a symbol of love for my second home, will easily take care of itself.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona duit!

— Photo from 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee

The crowd at President Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration, above, was sparse compared to the crowd at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, estimated at 1.8 million, which filled all of the white rectangular spaces, flowing into the treed areas on either side.

One of the most celebrated research experiments in the field of social psychology is a series of studies the Polish-born Gestalt psychologist Solomon Asch began conducting in 1951 with 50 male students at Swarthmore, a small liberal arts college 10 miles southwest of Philly.

The published results of the experiment and various responses to its findings make up a literature that is referred to as the “Asch conformity experiments” or “the Asch paradigm.”

A lot of psychologists — even people on the street — were interested in the “conformity” aspect of the research because a Cold War was going on at the time and there was considerable talk about brainwashing as a way to control people’s minds.

Asch wanted to know what takes place in the psyche of a person who sees something, is asked to say what he just saw, and then says the exact opposite of what his eyes described — the eyes physical entities that ground us in reality — in other words, why would a person lie about something he knows to be true? 

If Asch used the parlance of today he would say “the liar” was not only treasonous but a generator of “alternative facts,” alternative facts being a gateway drug to fascism.

Asch first shared what he did at Swarthmore in a journal article called “Effects of group pressure on the modification and distortion of judgments.” He describes how the experiment took place in an ordinary conference room where, around a large rectangular table, he situated eight men who had agreed to participate in a psychology “vision test.”

The subjects were told they would be shown pictures on a placard — Picture One to the left and Picture Two beside it — and, after viewing both, were to say what in Picture Two was exactly the same as what was in Picture One. And the content of Picture One was nothing more than a black vertical line against a blank background.

Picture Two had three lines: one was shorter than the line in Picture One, one was longer, and the third exactly the same. The subjects had to call out A, B, or C; it was not a heavy lift.

At Swarthmore, the subjects saw 18 trials, that is, were shown 18 cards one after the other where the length of the line in Picture One varied as well as two of the lines in Picture Two but the third always matched the line in Picture One.

And since eight subjects made a judgment for 18 trials, 144 judgments were made in all. Plus, Asch had the study going on at three other universities in addition to the one at Swarthmore.

But here is the first wrinkle in the story: Before the eight students went into the experiment room, Asch secretly took seven aside and told them — hush-hush — they were going to be part of the research team; they were told what the experiment was all about, that the “vision test” would be rigged, and it was they who were going to rig it by picking a line in Picture Two that did not match the line in Picture One — they were told to speak their choice with confidence and no hesitation.

The purpose of the project was to see whether the eighth subject whom they would meet in the experiment room shortly — a foil or dupe — would go along with their crazy choices and deny the veracity of his own eyes.

All the dupe knew was that he would take part in an experiment with seven other students, that the group would be shown pictures — Picture One and Picture Two — and after scanning them, would make a judgment about their contents.

The research team arranged the seating so the dupe was at the end of the table and the last to voice his opinion.

Here’s the second wrinkle: When the first two sets of pictures were shown, the seven confederates picked the line in Picture Two that was the perfect match for the line in Picture One. They did not lie, so the dupe was led to believe the test a no-brainer.

But, starting with the third set of cards, the seven confederates dissimulated, picking the wrong line in Picture Two trial after trial, and their boldness in saying so rattled the dupe who began questioning his own eyes.

What takes place in a person’s mind who decides to cave to a lie?

And it should be pointed out that none of Asch’s subjects suffered from a visual disability like agnosia, which would radically alter what they saw. (I have in mind a patient of the late great neurologist Oliver Sacks who suffered from agnosia and once, after leaving Sacks’s office, grabbed his wife’s head thinking it was his hat on the hat rack — which Sacks describes in his wonderful book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”)

When Asch examined all his data together, he saw, “One-third of all the estimates in the critical group [the critical group being the dupes] were errors identical with or in the direction of the distorted estimates of the majority [the lies of the confederates].” That is, a third of the time the dupe denied what his eyes were telling him.

But more importantly perhaps was that Asch found “one quarter of the subjects [dupes] were completely independent and never agreed with the erroneous judgments of the majority.” They believed what their eyes said and mustered the courage “to recover from doubt and to re-establish their equilibrium … it was their obligation to call the play as they saw it.”

In several of his trials Asch introduced a ringer, a subject who disagreed with the confederates outright — which gave the dupe the courage to speak the truth as well.

And to test whether caving under pressure was the operative variable, Asch assembled a control group of subjects who were told they could write down their responses in private — under these conditions the dupes made a correct judgment 99 percent of the time.

As a social psychologist, Asch had to limit his conclusions to what took place in the experiment room; he never extrapolated to a family, a neighborhood, community, or society where a group or groups of people publicly contradict what people say they’re seeing — and when power’s involved — the contradiction has the force of a command.

On Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States, his side-show man, Sean Spicer, came to the mic and said the president drew the biggest crowd in inauguration history — even though photos taken from the Washington Monument the day before showed Trump’s crowd paled severely in comparison to the president’s before him.

When NBC’s Chuck Todd asked the new president’s other side-show sophist, Kellyanne Conway, why Spicer would lie like that, she said, “Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. You’re saying it’s a falsehood, and they’re giving — our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts.” 

The man behind the Orwellian lie added, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening” as if a confederate in Asch’s study.

Trump’s crime is not that he stuck a knife in the heart of the American Republic but that he took that knife and slashed the DNA of homo sapiens — a species whose eyes have evolved to near perfection in seeing what sits before them. The dupes threw over the advances of human evolution.

The result, as we know, is half a country that suffers from fascist aphasia aggravated by the fact that so many of the sufferers have nothing to lose. 

Some days I wake up and feel like a French existentialist imprisoned in a fifties film noire called “No Exit.”

— Illustration from the cover of Robert D. Putnam’s  “Bowling Alone”

This is the preface to a paper, “The New Scotland Law and Order League and the Case of Elmer Peter’s Hotel: The Temperance Movement in Albany County, N.Y. in 1905,” that Dennis Sullivan, the village historian for Voorheesville, will present on June 6 at the Voorheesville Public Library. Another Enterprise columnist, Jesse Sommer, will hold a whiskey-tasting at the event, serving liquor produced locally by his company, New Scotland Spirits.

While engaged in writing history over the years, I have often wondered if communities have genetic traits they pass on to the generations that come after them, in the same way that people say families do, that is, part of them comes from another world.

In the preface to a book I wrote about the village I live in — Voorheesville, New York — nearly 40 years ago, I alluded to the importance of a community understanding the social DNA it was, if you will, born with.

I called attention to the fact that a lot of people look at history as a series of quaint little artifacts, for example the time the postmaster fell in the creek on the way home from the square dance having quaffed too much of Aunt Trudy’s punch. When the locals are in a group and that story is told, everybody goes, “Ha ha; wasn’t that Bill Finch something!”

In our village history, I wrote that, if that is a community’s approach to history, it makes the past an abstraction by which we simultaneously sever ourselves from the present.

I added, “Community-making becomes impossible or at the very least extremely difficult when people lack a sense of place. Sooner or later life becomes haphazard; anything goes.”

Some people say that that’s what’s going on in the United States today, that Americans no longer have a sense of place because America the Beautiful has disappeared. Thus, in the news we see all sorts of stories about young people struggling with mental-health problems: It’s due to a loss of grounding, a sense of place, the cousin of “having a purpose in life.”

Nearly 25 years ago, Robert Putnam in his American classic “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” said America was in for a rude awakening, that we already were a country whose people bowled on separate alleys with no connection between one and the other.

It’s what American sociologist Mildred Newhall spoke about 100 years ago when she coined the phrase “parallel play.” It’s a 2-year-old madly at play sitting next to another kid madly at play in a common sandbox — the two mentally aware of each other but wanting no further exchange. It’s a stage of youth we all go through but cataclysmic when a nation lives that way.

This booklet is about a town in upstate New York at the turn of the 20th Century. It’s a sad story in a way because it involves a cell — the way Communists use the term — of people in our community who sought to stop friends and neighbors from getting together and having a drink after work, gathering the way the Irish do in pubs to talk over the day’s affairs. 

The prohibitionists in our town, mostly from the Methodist and Presbyterian churches, frowned severely on people having a drink, constantly mocking the fool-headed “drunkard.” It was this thinking that fueled the W. C. T. U., the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, one of the most doggedly committed (fanatical) groups ever to go against drink.

On one level, the temperance movement those churches championed is understandable because many men — after working like dogs at heavy machinery jobs during the industrial era — frequented bars on the way home and got “hammered,” after which they went home and hammered the missus, women treated as less than dogs. The women couldn’t even vote.

In our town, the town of New Scotland, a group of church-goers got together when the temperance movement was running high and sought to stop drinking in our bars and hotels, even in our homes. They called themselves the New Scotland Law and Order League and, like vigilantes, went about rendering judgment on, and simultaneously punishing, tipsy souls as they left the local saloon — like a grammar school principal washing out the mouth of a kid with soap for saying something naughty.  

Mouth-washing for drinking got serious when the United States forbade the production and use of alcohol through the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The national decree lasted from 1920 to 1933 and, as history says, it was a gargantuan failure. Things got infinitely worse.

One of the leaders of the law-and-order league in our town, say in 1900, was Frank Van Auken, a church-going Methodist whose family was here for generations. He lived at 10 Voorheesville Ave. in the village of Voorheesville — an incorporated village inside the town since 1899. For nearly 50 years, I have lived at 14 Voorheesville Ave. two houses away from Frank’s, though he was long dead when my wife and I came.

I have been inside Frank’s house at #10 many times — it’s been beautifully redone — and, when I give historical walking tours of the village — as part of my job as municipal historian — when we come to Frank’s house, I comment on his involvement in the law-and-order league and shake my head in disbelief. (His granddaughter Gert once had a dance school in the barn out back.)

And as village historian — the town has its own — I’ve been involved in researching and writing about our people and its institutions for 38 years. When I walked down Main Street while writing the history book, I saw people from the past come out of their homes and greet me as if I was Thornton Wilder in “Our Town”; I thought of Voorheesville then as “My Town.” Not hubristically, as those who know me know.

I’d like to send this essay to every municipal historian in Albany County and to every president of every historical association in every village and town within its bounds, inviting each and all to come to Voorheesville and share stories about the temperance movement in their community during the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

The town of Guilderland didn’t take kindly to prohibition in those days; they voted for drink pretty much every chance they got.

If our convivium does take place — and I am there — my first question to the gathered throng will be: Does your town have a life? And to those who say yes, I will ask: Who were the mother and father of that life, who were its grandparents and those who came before them? Has the social DNA of those times affected who we are today?

In my capacity as village historian, I was asked to provide an historical snapshot of our community in days-gone-by for the “Village of Voorheesville Comprehensive Plan,” which village officials adopted on June 26, 2018.

I did, and in it I said that the Voorheesville of 2018 was different from its self in 1910. I wrote, “Of course, [today] the churches maintain sub-communities which are important to the social cohesion of the whole — though there are changes in that sphere as well — but in the second decade of the new millennium, a face-to-face community-wide sense of community remains absent.”  

When the plan came out, one of my neighbors called this assessment somber, bordering on depressing. Was I saying Voorheesvillians were bowling alone?

And, if that is true, how would we bowlers know? What are the criteria by which to assess such a thing? And how might such a problem be solved? And if we, at the local level, cannot devise ways to respond to community, how can we expect a nation — bowled over by diversity — to set its ship aright?

What follows is the result of my research into what happened in our town in 1905 and, as you will see, some Voorheesvillians were involved. Is what happened then still with us or did the social genes of that era die with it?   

I love Voorheesville and I love our town, despite their disparate selves, and in this love affair I remain perplexed by our law-and-order league of old and by the man who lived two doors down. Are we they? Are they us?

 A drawing John Keats rendered of an engraving of the Sosibios Vase circa 1819.

The great English poet John Keats caused a sensation when he ended his much-beloved “Ode on a Grecian Urn” with the couplet: 

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

In the four-and-a-half stanzas preceding those lines, Keats reveals how he reached that conclusion; the couplet is like the QED at the end of a math problem or a riddle from the Sphinx of Thebes.

Whatever exegeses literary enthusiasts have come up with over the years to decode the two-line cipher — and there have been many — one thing that has not changed is that the 18 words are a statement of “cultural literacy,” that is, Keats is telling us what knowledge people need to have in order to live in the world successfully, which involves sharing a language with others so conversations can occur without folks resorting to aggression or violence.   

In 1978, the great American poet Adrienne Rich came out with a book of poems titled “The Dream of a Common Language” which reflected her desire that someday there’d be a society where people would understand each other’s language well enough so as to avoid engaging in a continuous war of words: Word A would mean A and Word B would mean B, no more no less, as in 1 and 1 are always 2.

Culturally literate people are able to translate the metaphors others use and through that understanding create and maintain the common bond communities and societies need to stay alive, to evolve successfully — and communities and societies that lack such a bond do in fact fail.

The translating in question is a skill that can be learned but requires considerable practice in the same way that mastering French or Greek requires considerable practice. What is sad about America today is that so many Americans have given up on learning that skill—indeed downgrade its value—and thereby fail to add to the social capital that keeps America e pluribus unum.

In the same way that we call someone literate who can read and write — they know their way around the alphabet — we say someone is culturally literate who has the foundational knowledge of the culture he lives in and is able to respond to the tongues of others without feeling threatened and then compelled to start a war of words; to repeat: the culturally literate person is fluent in his own tongue as well as those of others, even subcultures that are diverse and abrasive and requiring great patience to understand and accept: Rich’s dream of a common language come true.

When the subject of cultural literacy arises, culturally literate people — pardonnez-moi — think right away of the American educator Eric “E. D.” Hirsch and his much-lauded “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know” which came out in 1987. Underscore “What Every American Needs to Know;” it’s a tremendously bold imperative. Every American? And nowhere does Hirsch mention that Keats scooped him 168 years earlier.

Hirsch’s basic premise was/is: (1) “all human communities are founded upon specific shared information;” and (2) “culturally literate [people] possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world,” and by “modern world” he means the world a person is living in at the time. And, because there are so many cultures and subcultures, the culturally literate person is a kind of master linguist.

By using the word “thrive” Hirsch was more than implying that the culturally ill-literate person is ailing in some way — is sick — and needs to immerse himself in the ethical culture he’s living in to save his own soul.   

What made Hirsch’s work problematic is that the same year his book came out, there appeared the American classicist and philosopher Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” which is another tremendously bold imperative. Bloom was saying America was slowly losing her mind.

Some readers interested in Bloom’s ideas started taking off the gloves as soon as they got to the subtitle of the book, “How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students.”  

It’s one thing to say someone is failing democracy, it’s quite another to accuse him of demolishing the souls of the young and thereby lessening their chances of getting into heaven.  

One wonders what was in the water at the time because, as those two books were making their way to the best-seller list, William Bennett — the Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan (1985-1988) — started accusing American educators of “dumbing down” what they were teaching kids, especially the “underserved.” It’s a form of cultural triage. 

The journal “American Speech,” which publishes articles on the origin of words and phrases, says that “dumbing down” was instituted “so as to appeal to those of little education or intelligence” and that it was Hollywood moguls who led the charge by telling script writers and directors during the Great Depression to stop being “too subtle,” that dumbing down “saves time and wearying gestures.” And sells tickets!

Hirsch made a major error by providing at the end of his book a list of the “names, phrases, dates, and concepts every American should know” that ignited a culture war of sorts — some groups claiming that their names, phrases, dates, and concepts were not among the 5,000 Hirsch gave; they felt they were being relegated to the realm of non-American. Hirsch’s list can be viewed as cultural preparation for the SAT exam. 

Forgotten, or submerged, for years, “cultural literacy” came to the fore on Oct. 7 when Hamas slaughtered more than a thousand Israeli people and their associates and the Israeli government responded with (still-going-on) vengeful military strikes.

But what sparked a war of words at home was the statement the Graduate Students for Palestine and the Palestine Solidarity Committee at Harvard, issued on Instagram the day after Hamas’s slaughter; it reads, “We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” It was co-signed by more than 30 other organizations on the Harvard campus. The statement is like telling a woman who’d just been raped about the concept of “victim-precipitated rape.”

As the reverberations of the statement continue to be felt to this day, on Oct. 17 — nine days after the pro-Palestinian j’accuse appeared — the Vice Provost for Global Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, Ezekiel J. Emanuel — came out with an op-ed piece in The New York Times called “The Moral Deficiencies of a Liberal Education.”  

He said the pro-Palestinian ideologues at Harvard were able to get away with such a view because their professors — as with professors at American colleges and universities across the board — and by deduction teachers at secondary schools — had dumbed down the required lessons on the ethics and morality of social life.  

Emanuel said the American university system had failed, “to give them [the pro-Palestinian students at Harvard and similar-thinking souls] the ethical foundation and moral compass to recognize the basics of humanity.” He was repeating Bloom’s warning that there were too many ill-literate Americans who could not speak to others without engaging in a war of words.

To pay some degree of homage to Emanuel’s concerns, I suggest that every university in the country require every incoming frosh to take a two-semester Civics 101 course where each student must satisfactorily be able to answer the questions: (1) what does it mean to be a moral person? (2) am I a moral person? (3) what is the payoff for being moral — the psychological and spiritual benefits?; and (4) if such a thing as a moral nation exists, does America fit the profile?

If Keats were alive today he’d say those questions sum up the beauty/truth cultural literacy imperative he laid out, that is, when a person becomes an ethically moral agent, he achieves a psychological and spiritual security that no attack of words or arms can turn him into a machine of revenge and retribution.

¡Les deseo a todos un Día de Acción de Gracias seguro y saludable!

— The Crucifixion by Pietro Perugino, circa 1482

“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,” said Jesus Christ before he died.

The act of forgiveness — of one person forgiving another — is fraught with psychological tension and contradictions that are constantly fed by a reservoir of competing and antagonistic emotions because forgiving someone goes against the two automatic response mechanisms we have as human beings to survive — fight and flight.

That is, when we feel threatened or pained by some harm, our sympathetic nervous system triggers a stress response that readies us to attack or flee the source of harm.

But forgiveness, as a way to deal with a harm-done, does not permit the “victim” to make war on the “perpetrator,” to take the wrongdoer down a peg to satisfy an eye-for-an-eye tooth-for-a-tooth payback ethic; thus, with forgiveness, the first of the two automatic response mechanisms — fight — is dismantled.

Nor does forgiveness allow the person who has been harmed to avoid dealing with the situation by fleeing. Physical and mental escape are ruled out because such tacks hinder healing, keep the harmed person — the victim or survivor — from moving on with life, from getting back (hopefully) to where things once were.

Anyone who looks into the issues related to forgiveness soon sees the daunting complexity involved; there’s a million permutations: For example, should a person forgive a wrongdoer who will not accept responsibility for his act and refuses to apologize?

And what of a courtroom situation when the wrongdoer, now a defendant, passes by the table where the victim is seated and casts a leering smirk his way, translated as: Why are you making such a big deal of this? Does such behavior lessen the chance of forgiveness?

For Christians, of course, these kinds of questions are moot — especially with respect to the fight response — because one of the fundamental tenets of their religion is: When someone harms you, you turn the other cheek, you do not do to them what they did to you. Indeed, their Scriptures say a person must forgive a wrongdoer seventy times seven times.

The architect of that code, Jesus Christ, after being whipped, beaten, mocked, spit upon, and crucified on a cross — in a state-sanctioned execution — said, as he was about to expire, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Luke 23: 34) There was to be no retribution for what they did.

During the years he preached to the multitudes who came to hear him, over and over he said love is the only way to respond to a harm-done and then, when he himself was subject to ignominious pain — bodily torture — he practiced what he taught. He forgave the vigilantes.

And because he acted so under those circumstances, many Christians say he was a god, which some people say is true of Nelson Mandala who, after being locked in a prison for 27 years, forgave the robbers of his freedom, setting up in 1996 a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help South Africa’s communities deal peaceably with those who committed grave crimes against their friends and neighbors.

As a concept and as a practice, forgiveness comes into play when one person has been harmed by another. And the harm might range from a spiteful husband making cutting remarks to his wife, all the way to a stranger on the street hitting a passerby on the head and taking his wallet.

And with respect to the latter, it may not be just the bop on the head and stolen wallet that’s at stake because the victim might have lost his eyesight, been forced to leave his job, and even seek public assistance; in such cases, forgiveness must deal with not only the original harm but also the suffering that accrues and takes over a person life.

People have divergent views on how to handle such matters; the 45th president of the United States said his MO is: “If someone screws you, screw them back 10 times harder.”

There’s a perverse kind of pleasure involved in such behavior — physically and metaphorically — as the overlord mouths words from the retributivist’s handbook while beating upon his mark, “Here, take this, you sonuvabitch; see how that feels. There’s plenty more where that came from and I know where you live.”

The avenger who gives issue to that kind of rage could be the wife mentioned above deeply hurt by her husband’s slings but, because of a power imbalance, goes after him in indirect passive-aggressive — but no less-lethal — ways.

In her much-lauded “Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice” the University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum says she cannot fathom the payoff people get from unleashing retributive, revenge-fueled feelings on another. “Why would an intelligent person,” she says, “think that inflicting pain on the offender assuages or cancels her own pain? There seems to be some type of magical thinking going on.”

But the thinking is not magical at all, it reflects the sophisticated logic of an ethic of justice based on the equalization of loss, a desserts-based justice; the real magical thinkers are those who compartmentalize the event by pushing out of consciousness their rage, resentment, and scorn, hoping to find some peace of mind that day.

However, the research of Everett Worthington, a psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, shows that people who compartmentalize hurt begin to exhibit the same neuro-cardio symptoms people under great stress have. His conclusion: “Unforgiveness” has no redeeming psychological, medical, social, or economic benefits.

Those who choose to forgive, therefore, come from the other side of the room, having made a commitment to confront the violent feelings associated with retribution — rage, scorn, and hate — wanting at all costs not to revictimize themselves by letting such poison infiltrate their blood.

The ancient Greek word for forgiveness, aphiemi (ἀφίημι), means: letting go; giving up; handing over; getting rid of; sending away; leaving alone — all of which speak to how to dissolve revenge-based feelings that maim consciousness. But letting go does not mean condoning, excusing, forgetting, minimizing, or taking any other path that denies the effect of a harm on one’s life.

What it does mean is that the forgiver must descend into the inferno of his psyche’s id and there face the vortex of rage-filled feelings that encourage, activate, and reward retaliatory behavior. It’s a war against the demons of fight and flight.

To start with, the person who forgives must acknowledge the extent of his hurt as well as the source. His inner-dialogue might be, “My body aches; my mind is riddled with rage, revenge and fear; and that person over there caused it.” It’s an internalized victim impact statement that seeks to be shared with the rest of the world.

A 1988 survey by Gallup found that nearly every respondent said it was important for people to forgive, but most said it could not be done alone, and traditional devotional prayers seem to help little.

It seems odd in a way but many who suffer a harm — whether they call themselves victim or survivor — choose to meet with the person who harmed them in a safe milieu like Victim-Offender Mediation or some other restorative justice practice — and our married couple above might seek out a therapist to help them free themselves from a revenge-fueled feedback loop they’ve imprisoned themselves in.

The Enlightenment poet Alexander Pope is the one responsible for the oft-quoted “To err is human, to forgive is divine,” which is misinterpreted in so many ways.

There is no God or any other divinity involved in forgiveness; it’s a pained and hurt human soul digging deep within — hopefully with the aid of a supportive community — to find the strength to refrain from doing unto others what they did unto him.

George Orwell in 1940, broadcasting for the BBC.

George Orwell began writing “Animal Farm” in November 1943; four months later, at the end of February, it was done. A cloth copy of the first edition runs to 92 pages. 

Too short for a novel, booksellers and publishers called it a novella. To one friend and political ally Orwell described the work as a “little squib” of a thing.

The story has been called a fable, a beast fable, an allegory, and satire; to some, it’s a religious parable.  

And, because the title of the book, when it first came out, was “Animal Farm: A Fairy Story,” unknowing readers thought it was the British counterpart of “Charlotte’s Web”; “Animal Farm” has pigs, Charlotte has her porker, Wilbur.

Early on Orwell thought the chances of the book finding a publisher were iffy. In his classic biography of the writer, “George Orwell: A Life” (Little Brown, 1980), Bernard Crick quotes from a letter Orwell sent to the Russian-born American poet and literary historian, Gleb Struve, where he tells the poet that “Animal Farm” “might amuse you when it comes out, but it is not OK politically that I don’t feel certain in advance that anyone will publish [it].”

Who would turn down a fairy tale? No one; but “Animal Farm” was a political minefield.   

At one point, Orwell told his long-time publisher Fredric Warburg — of Secker & Warburg who eventually published the book — that, while writing “Animal Farm,” he had already conceived of another work that expanded on the socio-politico tenets found in the fable — which we now know to be “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

Animal Farm was “the story of the revolution betrayed,” as Crick says, “and [then there’s] the story [‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’] of the betrayers, power-hungry in each case, perpetuating themselves in power for ever.”

And although Orwell did refer to the fable as a squib — and a politically incorrect one at that — Google “Animal Farm” and a zillion hits will come up. People from nearly every age group and cultural stratum say it was on their summer reading list in high school; and these days, those taking the Advanced Placement Exam in English had better know every pig in every sty if they hope to get a Five.

As far back as 1982, a school district in Jackson County, Florida blackballed “Animal Farm,” calling it “pro-communist,” the exact opposite of the words Orwell wrote.

And, internationally in 2002, education ministers in the United Arab Emirates took “Animal Farm” out of circulation with 124 other titles, decrying the book for mocking Islamic and Arab values: They said there were pictures of pigs drinking liquor on the farm, and other “indecent images.”  

And yet more recently, in 2021, Carnegie Mellon University said that, in preparation for the upcoming “Banned Books Week,” it would not offer a list of books for people to examine, but recommend just one title: “Animal Farm.” 

I’m not sure whether they still exist, but the transcripts of the discussions that went into that decision are worth their weight in gold; they’re statements on cultural literacy. A student at the school should be doing a thesis on it.

That Carnegie Mellon took the step in the first place is direct homage to the lasting power of the work.

The story, of course, is about the lives of barnyard animals on the farm of a certain Mr. Jones who, the animals say, has mistreated them and they were not going to take it anymore.

The Spark notes (online edition) begin its summary of the book this way: Once upon a time a prize-winning boar called Old Major, called all the animals of the Manor Farm together into the big barn; he wanted to tell them of a dream he had of a society where all animals lived in harmony, where no boss-man was around to oppress or control them.

Old Major forewarned the community, however, that such societies do not just spring up, but must be worked for; he tells his comrades, “Your resolution must never falter. No argument must lead you astray … among us animals let there be perfect unity, perfect comradeship in the struggle. All men are enemies. All animals are comrades.” 

Then he adds, “Weak or strong, clever or simple, we are all brothers. No animal must ever kill any other animal. All animals are equal.”  

Old Major clearly knew his Marx; he then gave his comrades a Marxist revolutionary song, “Beasts of England,” to sing as a clarion call to animals everywhere to make a society where the needs of every citizen are met — equally, and without resentment. 

But over time — the story continues — differences of opinion arose so that the new chief pig, Napoleon, began to call all dissenters fascists who needed to be annihilated. 

And as the constitution and bylaws of the once-hoped-for just society began to dissolve, the chief pig decreed that thenceforth only one commandment needed to be obeyed: ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL, BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS. The revolution was dead.

Of course, great works of fiction like “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four” easily stand on their own, but their meaning intensifies when we know that Orwell wrote both books after spending six months on the front fighting Franco during the Spanish Civil War. He was relieved of duty after taking a sniper’s bullet in the throat, the doctors saying a millimeter to the left he would have been no more.

During the war there were three “ideologically progressive” units fighting against Franco — Socialists, Anarchists, and Communists. What shook Orwell’s faith in humanity — the cause of the birth of the two dystopian works — was that at one point the Communists turned on their revolutionary comrades.

Crick says it began when, “The Communists spread the tale that the P.O.U.M. [Socialists] were secretly allied to the Fascists, even receiving arms from them across the lines at night, and that the Anarchists were ‘objectively Fascists,’” a canard, he adds, that “was repeated without question by Left-wing and even by some Liberal newspapers in Britain.”

It ended with four-hundred killed and a thousand wounded.

In his 1947 preface to the Ukranian edition of “Animal Farm,” Orwell told his readers that, “in the middle of 1937 … the Communists gained control (or partial control) of the Spanish Government and began to hunt down” every Socialist alive — state Socialists and libertarian Socialists alike.

Among the hunted himself, Orwell says we, “found ourselves amongst the victims. We were very lucky to get out of Spain alive, and not even to have been arrested once. Many of our friends were shot, and others spent a long time in prison or simply disappeared.”

He says the “man-hunts in Spain went on at the same time as the great purges in the USSR and were a sort of supplement to them. In Spain as well as in Russia the nature of the accusations (namely, conspiracy with the Fascists) was the same.” 

Orwell’s Communists were Napoleon the killer pig, the avatar of Stalin, destroyers of every revolution that seeks to meet the needs of all equally and without resentment.

He documented his experiences during the war in the much-lauded classic “Homage to Catalonia,” which, along with “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” makes one of the great, if not greatest, literary triptychs of all time.

To his dying day Orwell could not get over “how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries,” as if he were talking about the United States today.

In “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” the dissenter Winston Smith is warned that, under Fascism, “There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy … always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless.”

And for those who want “a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.”

Lappawinsoe, a chief of the Delaware people, was painted in 1735 by Gustavus Hesselius. Boys in the tribe went through a destiny-discerning ritual to become men.

Ever since Donald Trump got seriously involved in electoral politics, the issue of a person’s character rocketed to center stage, not just the probity of Mr. Trump — twice impeached and indicted now in four jurisdictions for felony crimes — but the character of every politician running for office; indeed, the issue has filtered down to the average person walking down Main Street in Anytown, USA.

And, while this average person walking down Main Street USA might refuse to challenge his ideological counterpart sur la rue about the probity of his character directly, we Americans run around these days judging each other on the Moral Character Inventory Scale (MCIS) as if partaking in a national rite.

Character is one of those words embedded in the personal thesaurus of each one of us but, when someone asks us to say what character is, we stammer like a child. A wonderful essay could be written about the mental gymnastics a person goes through when asked: “Are you a person of character?” Are you a moral person?

Years ago, when I first encountered Norman Brown’s classic “Love’s Body,” I was taken with his statement that “character is not innate,” that it must be developed. 

Such a view runs counter to the belief that character is fixed at birth, that we are born with an already-made moral structure so that, when we get caught doing something wrong, we can say, “I was born that way. I couldn’t help myself.”

That’s what Geraldine — the boisterous alter-ego of the old-time comedian Flip Wilson, used to say when confronted with bad behavior, “The Devil made me do it.”

Brown says, “A man’s character is his demon, his tutelar spirit” referring to the Greek daimon, a person’s inner spirit — what the Romans called genius, “a protecting spirit, analogous to the guardian angels invoked by the Church of Rome … The Greeks called them δαίμονες (daimones).” [Smith, “Dictionary,” 1880.]

In November 2006, I delivered a paper at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in Los Angeles called, “To Have A Calling in Life: A Human Antidote to Growing Up Absurd And, For Those Involved in the Criminology-Related Disciplines, A Sure Measure of Delinquency Prevention.”  

In that smörgåsbord of ideas I called attention to Socrates’ use of daimon in Plato’s “Apology,” which he called a “divinatory voice,” a voice that comes from so deep within that we think it’s divine.

Socrates said that voice “opposed me even in very small things if I was about to do something I should not rightly do.” For him, the daimon was a kind of superego informing him when he was being treasonous to himself and others. It is this protective voice that people of faith call their guardian angel and that Brown calls a tutelar spirit.

The image most Americans have of such a spirit is Clarence Odbody in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when an angel comes to earth and opposes George Bailey for doing something he should not rightly do.

Xenophon — a student and friend of Socrates — in his “Apologia” and “Memorabilia” expanded on what his teacher said, describing the daimon as inspirational direction, that is, as having a future-oriented visionary dimension. The philosopher Proclus Lycaeus went further by calling the daimon a transformative force, a sort of psycho-genetic energy system from which moral character is born.

Brown says this force is found “in a dream,” that the dream is the mother of our destiny, thus character and destiny are linked in a dream. Freud would call destiny one’s “ego-ideal,” the true self we are meant to be. 

Our aboriginal ancestors in the United States were very much in touch with this process. Indeed, they incorporated a destiny-producing dream sequence in a rite of passage which every young man had to endure to enter adulthood; a young man was forced to look his destiny straight in the eyes.   

In his ethnographic writings, John Heckewelder — a Moravian missionary who lived among the Delaware Indians for more than a decade beginning in 1771 — describes the destiny-discerning process the young male Indian had to go through in his “History, Manners, And Customs Of The Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania And The Neighbouring States.” 

He says, “When a boy is to be thus initiated, he is put under an alternate course of physic and fasting, either taking no food whatever, or swallowing the most powerful and nauseous medicines, and occasionally he is made to drink decoctions of an intoxicating nature, until his mind becomes sufficiently bewildered, so that he sees or fancies that he sees visions, and has extraordinary dreams, for which, of course, he has been prepared beforehand.” 

During the dream ceremony, the young man fancies “himself flying through the air, walking under ground, stepping from one ridge or hill to the other across the valley beneath, fighting and conquering giants and monsters, and defeating whole hosts by his single arm.”

He even connects “with the Mannitto [Manitou] or with spirits, who inform [the young man] of what he was before he was born and what he will be after his death. His fate in this life is laid entirely open before him, the spirit tells him what is to be his future employment, whether he will be a valiant warrior, a mighty hunter, a doctor, a conjurer, or a prophet. There are even those who learn or pretend to learn in this way the time and manner of their death.”

It’s what I described in my criminology paper as having a calling in life.

And during the dream encounter, the initiate is given a name “analogous to the visions that he has seen, and to the destiny that is supposed to be prepared for him. The boy, imagining all that happened to him while under perturbation, to have been real, sets out in the world with lofty notions of himself, and animated with courage for the most desperate undertakings.”

To confirm what he saw, Heckewelder spoke to “several of their old men who had been highly distinguished for their valour, and asked them whether they ascribed their achievements to natural or supernatural causes, and they uniformly answered, that as they knew beforehand what they could do, they did it of course.”

When the elders were asked how they knew what they were capable of, “they never failed to refer to the dreams and visions which they had while under perturbation.”  

Christian Miller — a professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University, a man much in tune with every facet of character development — said in a talk at Notre Dame University not long ago that, even when a person accepts that character can change, he must remember that “it can change in multiple directions so …  just because it changes … doesn’t mean it necessarily will go in the good direction. We can also go in a vicious direction instead.”

Thus, each of us, he says, must be “intentional in thinking about how we can shape our characters … in a more positive direction.” 

His short video on character development is worth the attention of all:

In the meantime, I am willing to wage everything I hold dear that no native American in the history of our country ever emerged from his dream ceremony and described his destiny as, “I will be your retribution.”

The first verse of Chapter 12 of the Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Scriptures says, “Dishonest scales are an abomination to the Lord; but when people weigh things honestly, the Lord is delighted.” 

The sentence structure here is an example of a literary form called “antithetic parallelism,” characteristic of much Old Testament writing; the first part of the verse says God is disappointed when people cheat, the second part says he’s happy when people measure things right.

The writers of Proverbs were prophets of justice in that they were constantly reminding God’s Chosen about what it takes to be a moral person. When a person goes to the store and orders five pounds of sugar, the sugar he gets should weigh five pounds.

The earliest recorded systems of weights and measures go back to the third and fourth millennium B.C.; the community must have had its fill of cheaters; thus sales and distributions of any sort thenceforth were to adhere to protocols set by a governing body about what a true weight and a true measure are.

Thus, three linear feet are always 36 inches and 36 inches are always a yard in the same way that five pounds of sugar always weigh five pounds — when the needle on a certified scale reaches five, not before or after. It’s a bedrock of justice.

The Hebrew scriptures reflect the rabbinical ethic on honesty. The Encyclopedia of the Bible says, “The Hebrews recognized the importance of exact weights and measurements in the commercial, ethical, and legal life of the nation.”

Deuteronomy 25:13-16 says, for example, “Do not have two differing weights in your bag — one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house — one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.”

The rabbinical bar of justice was set so high that businessmen had to periodically clean the dirt off their scales to avoid shorting people on their measure.

The following story is a case in point:   

Once upon a time a man went to the store and told the storekeeper, “Sir, I’d like five pounds of sugar.” The storekeeper started pouring sugar onto his scale to measure out five pounds, but the needle on the scale went to just three. The storekeeper said, “Sir, here’s your five pounds of sugar; that’ll be 10 dollars.”

And the customer — a man of justice — said in a quiet and easy tone, “Excuse me, Mr. Storekeeper, I ordered five pounds of sugar and you gave me just three; the needle on your scale only went to three and you’re saying that that three is five and you’re charging me for five. Did you not see the needle go to where I saw it go? Do you not see what I see? Have you never heard the Christmas song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” It starts like this:

Said the night wind to the little lamb,
Do you see what I see
Way up in the sky, little lamb,
Do you see what I see
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite.

The storekeeper, piqued by the criticism of how he weighed things, grew testy, “Night wind? Lamb? Dancing star? Kite? What do you take me for, a fool? I set the rules; I am the Chosen One; what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”  

Not one to back down in the face of injustice, the customer came right back, “Sir, you have violated the rules our community has held dear for eons: two and two are four, five pounds of sugar are five pounds of sugar determined when the needle on the government’s certified scale reaches five, not three. According to the code of our ancient covenant, sir, you are a resounding ‘cheat.’”

Now heated beyond compare, the storekeeper gathered his workers into a posse and made them all chant: “Three is five, five is three!” He shouted over them with, “I am the Chosen One who alone can fix it! If you go after me, I’m coming after you. You will not replace me.” He ordered the posse to arm themselves.

Many years ago, when I was hired to work on a grant by a New York state agency, there was an employee in the division with whom I had gone to school at the University at Albany’s Ph.D. program in criminal justice. 

One morning while this fellow and I were chatting in the coffee room, the director of the agency stuck his head in the doorway and said, “Ralph [we’ll call him Ralph here], Ralph, I saw the report you handed in and your data do not match what I’m trying to achieve here; go over the numbers again and bring me something better.”

Ralph caved; I knew it, he knew it, he knew I knew that he had sold out, the two of us once journeymen in the same school where we were taught strict standards of justice.

Later I ran into Ralph and asked him right away, “Ralph, why did you sell out and besmirch the code of honor we were taught to live by?”  

All he said was, “Dennis, I have a wife and a mortgage. Adios.”

I never saw him again.

In 1895, the esteemed French sociologist, Gustave Le Bon, came out with his classic “Psychologie des Foules” in which he described how people morph when they become part of a crowd. The usual translation is “The Psychology of Crowds”; mine is “The Psychology of the Mob-Mind.”

Le Bon said that, when people become part of a crowd, it “makes them feel, think, and act in a manner different from that in which each of them would feel, think, and act if they were alone.” They succumb to a “sentiment of invincible power which allows [them] to yield to instincts which, had [they] been alone, [they] would perforce have kept under restraint.” 

Such a sentiment, he said, is “contagious, and contagious to such a degree that the individual readily sacrifices his personal interest to the collective interest.” He is like a “hypnotized subject … an automaton who has ceased to be guided by his will.”

On his own, such a person might be “a cultured individual … [but] in a crowd, he is a barbarian … a creature … [possessing] the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity, and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings …. A trace of antipathy [can turn] into furious hatred.” 

And the wily leader of such a mob knows he must hold them “in fascination by a strong faith (in an idea) in order to awaken the group’s faith … [such a leader] must possess a strong and imposing will, which the group, which has no will of its own, can accept from him.” It’s Le Bon meets “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

Sigmund Freud was so taken with Le Bon’s assessment that he wrote “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego,” describing what takes place in a person’s psyche when he sacrifices his needs, interests, desires, and goals, his “ego-ideal” to a collective mind designed to cheat and steal.

I’m a long-time baker of pies and breads. While at the store a short time ago, when I picked up a five-pound bag of sugar, I saw that the bag contained no longer five but four pounds of sugar!

I could hear the night wind whispering in my ear, “Do you see what I see, little lamb?”

I responded, “I just want to find 453.592 grams of sugar.”

— Photo from

Thomas Merton

As has been mentioned here before, Pope Francis, during a six-day visit to the United States in 2015, was invited to (and did in fact) address a joint session of Congress — on Thursday, Sept. 24. He was the first Pope of the Holy See ever to do so.

In a subtle way — paradoxically — he was being quite bold, giving the kind of sermon a deeply-Christian preacher might give to his congregation at Sunday service. There were more than a few in the politically savvy conclave who thought they were back in college listening to a lecture in The Politics of Social Justice 101.

The Pope started by calling attention to the elements a society needs to evolve successfully into the future. He said, “A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.”

By satisfying common needs he meant meeting the needs of all, which was then, and remains, the calling card of his papal administration; in Congress, he was challenging America to see if it had the brass to adopt such a view.

In using the word “vocation,” as in “having a calling,” he was describing the inner energizing force a society needs to help the least of its members, “those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk,” without resentment, where the undying care for others is a cardinal rule.

The Pope was more than intimating that societal instability does not arise when neighborhoods and communities attend to “the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.” The gloss on the text is: He was calling for the needs of the poorest person in America to be responded to in the same way those of the richest person are. He is not one to brook benevolent triage.

But, when we look at American society today, we see social-movement-like rivulets of dystopian resentment springing up everywhere toward those in need, those who require extra (special) attention, more time, more money, more care. If the dystopians had their way, the weak and needy would fall off the face of the Earth and wither from memory.

The Pope is very smart — and not just because he’s a Jesuit — more because he’s ingested the core message of Jesus, which he lives out each day with humility. From the start, he rejected all the trappings of papal royalty — like living in the Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo — in favor of his namesake Francis of Assisi.

As the Senators and Representatives — the Supreme Court judges were there too — listened to his every word, the Pope drew attention to those Americans who “shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people,” a spirit that enables a country to withstand “crises, tensions and conflicts, while always finding the resources to move forward, and to do so with dignity.”

He mentioned four Americans who fostered such a spirit: (1) Abraham Lincoln; (2) Martin Luther King Jr.; (3) Dorothy Day; and (4) Thomas Merton — for which he received a rousing applause.

Lincoln and King everybody knew but Day? Merton? Puzzled faces abounded: “They aren’t in the history books!”

I greatly admire Dr. King, as I do our 16th president — though not fully understanding all he did — but what more than thrilled me that day was to hear the Pope mention two visionaries who helped shape the ethical foundation of my life: Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton — and by ethical I mean the values I live by each day.

I started reading their works more than 50 years ago and, in the case of Merton, I read him still — he’s the person who’s most influenced my life.

With respect to Dorothy Day, some members of Congress were aware of her because a group of Catholics had been feverishly pushing Rome to make her a canonized saint. And on April 28 of this year, millions more knew her because the New York City Department of Transportation led the inaugural ride of a 4,500-passenger Staten Island Ferry called the Dorothy Day.

In the 1940s, Day had a cottage on Staten Island she used as a respite from running her Catholic Worker soup kitchen and house of hospitality on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She took the ferry back and forth, which she no longer does because she’s a permanent resident of the Island: Section 10, Resurrection Cemetery overlooking Raritan Bay.

But in the case of Merton, who has no boat, the average person walking down the street in any-town-America can no more identify him than they can the local Roto-Rooter man.

Merton was a poet who entered the Trappists in 1941 and almost never left the monastery’s grounds in Kentucky for 27 years. In 1968, when a new abbot took over, the abbot gave Merton permission to travel to Bangkok, Thailand to make a presentation at an important international gathering of monks from East and West.

Many at the time considered Merton — Christians and believers of other faiths alike — the most important spiritual writer of the 20th Century; he kept emphasizing how important it is for a person to be his/her/their authentic self if they wanted to be with God.

After his talk at Bangkok on the morning of Dec. 10 — he was slated for a Q and A in the afternoon — the tired traveler took a shower but, somehow on the way out, grabbed hold of a faulty fan and was electrocuted on the spot: dead at 53. His first big trip outside the walls in 27 years and whammo.

In addition to his many works on peace and justice and embracing a life of solitude, Merton left seven volumes of journals containing thoughts from nearly every day of his adult life. Every page is a Rorschach card revealing a man in search of peace within.

He mandated that the contents of the journals not be released to the public until 25 years after his death — he’d named names. Thus, in 1995, the first of the seven volumes appeared, which all together run to 2,966 pages. I’ve read all seven several times and Volume Seven as many as eight times. It’s on my bed now; I’ll read some tonight.

The great spiritual writer, Madame de Guyon, says in her treatise, “A Short Method of Prayer,” that every soul needs to take a few minutes out each day for meditative reading to assess if they’re going in the right direction.

She says every such soul needs to have a book that shows them how to be a more mature and happier person; the aspirant should start reading just “two or three lines, [to] enter into the full meaning of the words, and go on no further [until] satisfaction [is found] in them … not reading more than half a page at once.”

In other words, she was advocating for meditative self-reflective reading so that a person can assess his/her/their progress in becoming a better, happier, more sensitive person each day.

To those sympathetic to Guyon’s urging, I recommend Merton’s journals, all from beginning to end, 1941 to 1968, to see how one thoughtful solitary struggled to rid himself of falsity and be at peace with himself and the world around him.

Of course such reading requires laying down the phone and iPad and finding a quiet place to sit in peace and ponder for a while.

For those bothered by Merton being a monk, a Catholic, and forever talking about God, I suggest simply viewing him as a poet, a man, who sought to transcend every one of those categories — monk, Catholic, God — himself, unwilling to be hemmed in by any construct that stifles the authentic self within.

In his “Disputed Questions,” the poet prefigured Pope Francis by 50 years when he said, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.”