Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Nedra and I like to watch the news and we mix MSNBC, PBS, CBS, CNN, and an occasional switch to Fox News, especially when no other news is available. That gives us a nice spectrum of opinions and I find it helpful to know the spin that each commentator gives on a lead story. As I watch the current crises in Ukraine and the Gaza strip I am reminded of a similar range of opinions on the Iraq war.  We are not privy to the debates that take place in our presidents’ cabinet meetings.  We usually start off united and enthusiastic for a war, especially if there is a provocation.  For Iraq it was Sadam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction for first the atomic bomb that wasn’t and second for the mobile poison gas units that were show cased at the UN by our duped ambassador.  As the momentum for war was urged by the neocons and war hawks in the Bush administration, I listened to their spin. The war would be over in a few weeks.  We would use precision bombing that only hit military targets. Guided missiles would spare putting pilots at risk. Once Hussein’s army was crushed (one general called its army “laughable”), the liberated people of Iraq would throw flowers at our soldiers as they marched through Baghdad.  That last image touched my memory.  I thought of the Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy (accidentally) kills the wicked witch by throwing a bucket of water on her (to put out a fire on the straw man set by the wicked witch), the witch melts and dies.  Her army that terrorized Dorothy and her companions, then turns to her and shouts out “Hail Dorothy!” and the soldiers kneel as they adore her.  I felt then that this is how foreign policy is shaped in our childhoods.  We have a fairy tale image of our virtues and strengths and of our enemies’ evils and flaws.  We do not have fairy tales with shades of grey. What depresses me is that fairy tales are not limited to one country. It is a universal childhood theme of good versus evil. Stepmothers are wicked. Ogres exist. Justice prevails.  It is when the war ends or the war drags on or the casualties are seen and the mistakes are made that the shades of grey — what we call reality – set in. Those murky accompaniments of war disturb us because they do not fit the fairy tale expectations that accompany the start of war.  Instead of a “Hail Dorothy” moment we hear “Get out of Vietnam” or “Get out of Iraq” or “Stop the War” or “Hey, hey, hey, LBJ, how many people have you killed today.”  Instead of invoking “light at the end of the tunnel,” the puzzled war hawks invoke “the fog of war.”  They feel that they and their nation were betrayed by unpatriotic protesters who sabotaged their dreams.  They do not feel that they were betrayed by their fairy tale image of yet another controversy in a war saturated world. 

Monday, July 21, 2014


About 50 years ago I read a column by I. F. Stone. He said “All governments lie.”  That idea has never left me and I think of it whenever a controversy or war erupts.  It was reinforced when I did the research for a book on Agent Orange which I shelved.  I read hundreds of declassified documents and I also attended an International Conference on Agent Orange in Ho Chi Minh City.  I learned that a major reason for classifying documents as secret is not to prevent an enemy to know our plans but to shield our government from embarrassment. Thus in the early phase of the Vietnam War when we were still advisors and not participants, we arranged for US trained South Vietnamese pilots to use our planes modified for spraying but had these painted with Vietnamese identification.  We could then pretend that this was a Vietnamese operation. When I visited the War Museum the North Vietnamese built after the war, its exhibit on the war included some misleading representations of the effects of Agent Orange, including a picture of a child with advanced retinoblastoma in one eye.  No data supporting the incidence of exposed and unexposed populations was used.  The data was misleading but I can understand why Vietnamese would want to blame Agent Orange for any child born with a birth defect. At the conference when I pointed out the low frequency of birth defects among non-exposed populations in a paper presented on Agent Orange and birth defects and why the US and Europe and other industrialized nations have incidences ten to one hundred times higher, he said this was because Vietnam had virtually no industrial pollution.  I suspect, but cannot prove, that most of the data was compiled by self reporting from parents who would claim exposure to Agent Orange if they had a child with a birth defect. Today’s reports on the Ukrainian disaster with a Malaysian plane shot down likely by Russian trained missile operators reflects Stone’s insight as we listen to each side blame the other for an event that should not have happened had more thoughtful people been in the decision making process. Similarly it is small comfort in wars to victims of “surgical strikes” if innocent families are trapped in their neighborhoods to be told that “every effort” was made to avoid civilian casualties.   If they are not “precision bombings” then we invoke another lie.  We say it was to save more lives that would have been lost if we didn’t ….[fill in the blank: kill the Jews in death camps before they destroyed our German culture and way of life; drop the bomb on Hiroshima to end the war and spare American lives; cluster bomb Coventry and London to break the will of the British people; fire bomb Tokyo and break the will of the Japanese people]. The list of rationalizations is quite large.  A corollary of Stone’s comment is “the first casualty of war is truth.”  What is remarkable is how effective lies are in convincing the public that its government is righteous and our sacrifices are both noble and necessary.  It works with the same certainty as Lucy pulling the football as Charlie Brown tries to kick it in Peanuts.

Thursday, July 17, 2014


Why is Libertarianism such an appealing economic and political movement?  As I understand it, the movement began with the publication by Herbert Spencer in 1855 of his book Social Statics. I read that book as background for a chapter in a book I wrote in 2002 called The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea. Spencer believed the state is the enemy of the individual. He opposed all government activity except for protecting a country against foreign invasion.  He rejected the legitimacy of the Monarchy. He believed all colonialism was wrong because it held other people in subservience to a conquering state.  He opposed all public education because he felt the function of state supported education is indoctrination of loyalty to the state and its policies.  He felt all education should be autodidact with children learning to use libraries to educate themselves.  He opposed discrimination against women and felt they had the right to divorce, owning property, and competing with males for any job they took an interest in.  He believed people (not government) should provide insurance for their health, retirement, police protection, fire department protection, and accidents.  Companies should pay for roads, harbors, and other infrastructure and not use the state to do so.  He felt no licensing should be issued by states or organizations.  You would be assessed by the quality of your work not by your degrees or training.  He included lawyers, physicians and engineers in this category. He also believed “unfit people” should not reproduce their kind.   As you can see, many Libertarians today would cherry pick what they like and drop other items from Spencer’s list.  It was Social Statics that led to the “social Darwinism” movement in the late 19th century, especially in the US.    

The problem I see with Libertarianism, then or now, rests on the assumption that just being born gives all babies an equal start.  Each is assumed to be master of his or her fate. Supposedly, rational infants will educate themselves and compete fairly.  He does not believe that wealth or social class or race or sex plays a role in who succeeds or who fails.  He offers the lawsuit as the response to cheaters.  Can you imagine filing hundreds of lawsuits each year (and paying for them) because about ten percent of humanity acts selfishly or deceptively or is ignorant of all the ways their actions have unintended bad outcomes?  After all, there would be no regulations in the free trade markets.  Toxins in your foods?  Sue me.  Clothes fall apart?  Sue me.  Your house collapses because it is shoddy work?  Sue me.  Your kid dies because there are no public health programs and you ate food I prepared with unwashed hands?   Sue me.  What if I can block each lawsuit with a dozen lawyers and you have nothing to speak of to pay for your lawyers?  What if I counter sue you for slander?   Is that the world we want?  How does Libertarianism differ from anarchy? 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


I enjoyed turning 83 on July 15, 2014.  Nedra and I celebrated with a dinner out (including a margarita with two straws) and she baked my favorite cake – an almond cake with a crispy icing and studded with raspberries.  That takes the edge off the reality of old age with its multiple insults of a less effective body; a feeling of being marginalized by the rush of the present and the recession of the past into history; and a foreboding of a truncated future.  That marginalization came to me when I learned my Life Lines column would shift from every other week to once a month.  I can’t complain because I have done that column for 17 years (over 400 articles) and I am grateful it will continue in its monthly schedule.  But what it tells me is that nothing lasts. Culture constantly changes.  It would be delusional to think of writing a column in the style of Montaigne, or Francis Bacon, or Addison and Steele, or Thomas Paine or T H Huxley. A new generation seeks a new way of saying things as it proves with introducing jazz then swing, then rock and roll, then rap.  In my life time I wrote letters avidly in my youth, did not use a telephone until I was in my 30s, wrote my first books with a fountain pen, shifted to a typewriter, and did not use a computer until the late 1980s.  Now I look at the doings of my relatives, friends, and former students on Facebook.  I regularly use email. But I do not Text or Tweet and I have resisted getting a cell phone so I can enjoy privacy while walking or visiting. I have experienced at least four generations so I have seen lots of changes in culture.  The experience is like driving an old car.  It eventually becomes elevated in status as an antique car (especially if lovingly restored) instead of being seen as a tin lizzy.  

I enjoyed reading The 100 Year Old Man Who Crawled out the Window and Disappeared  by Jonas Jonasson.  It makes sport of history and politics and its hero, Alan Karlsson, is like Inspector Clouzot in the Pink Panther films. I wish aging were as  humorous or as free of decrepitude as the novel portrays it. But wouldn’t it be a dreary world to live without some illusions?

Friday, May 30, 2014


I was born in Brooklyn in 1931 so I did not have to do anything to earn my US citizenship.  My father, who was born in Stockholm came to the US not as a place he sought but as a place he liked in his merchant marine days in the early 1920s. He worked in New Orleans and at West Point before settling in New York City. He never became a US citizen because he said he had nothing bad to say about Sweden.  He read a Swedish-American newspaper to keep up with events in Sweden and faithfully wrote to his mother in Stockholm.  My mother was also born in the US, in Bound Brook, New Jersey.  Her parents were immigrants from Tarnapol then part of the Austrio-Hungarian empire and now part of Ukraine. She was placed in an arranged marriage by her father to a Russian immigrant and in those days that meant she lost her US citizenship and became a subject of Russia (she belonged to her husband under then US law). After she divorced and remarried my father, she became stateless.  In order to vote for Roosevelt she had to be renaturalized and my brother and I went with her to be sworn in, in 1940, as a US citizen even though this was the land of her birth. 
I pledged allegiance to the flag every school day K-12 before it was modified to include the phrase “under God.”  Since I had no religion I would have found that offensive or at least compromising to my beliefs. Whenever I have an occasion to recite that pledge, I omit the inserted two words because I feel it is unconstitutional to impose religious beliefs by the state.  I admire the America of our Founding Fathers who mostly embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment.  They established a country based on the consent of the governed and not an imposed government by monarchies, tyrants, or the privileged few.  I admired Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley, the non-violent abolitionists, the early feminists, the first labor union organizers, the preachers and journalists who denounced child labor, the social reformers who built settlement houses, the pioneers who settled small farms in the Midwest, the educators who established free public schools, the public health programs that introduced immunization against infectious diseases,  the inventors who built our bridges, roads, railroads, and ships, the philanthropists who established public libraries and outstanding universities.  I also admired our critics – Henry Thoreau, Ralph Emerson, Walt Whitman, Ida Tarbell, Eugene Debs, Ralph Ingersoll, Clarence Darrow, Emma Goldman, Martin Luther King, and other men and women who braved the condemnation of the rich and the powerful.

We oscillate from decades of progress and hope to decades where the few dominate our lives and attention.  We shift from generations that live in peace and generations stuck in wars that are elective.  We believe in merit and earning our own reputations and lives but we also believe we are innately exceptional.  We  fear immigrants as often as we welcome them and appreciate what they have contributed to the diversity of American culture. We have done wrongs like passing compulsory sterilization laws, like establishing internment camps for the Japanese in WWII, like the fugitive slave act, like “separate but equal” segregation laws, like making corporations “people,” like tolerating laws that target students, minorities, the poor and the elderly so that they find it difficult to vote.  America has always been a land of contradictions.  It requires the diversity of its critics, reformers, and activists to counter the tendency of the selfish to purchase legislation that favors their interests.  

Friday, May 16, 2014


The last person convicted of blasphemy in the United States, in 1834, was Abner Kneeland, a minister who lived in Massachusetts and who was shifting his views as he read more about religion and corresponded with other ministers of different faiths.  He argued that there was no evidence for miracles, no evidence for the Trinity, no evidence  for the existence of souls, and no evidence for any specific god.  He did not consider himself an atheist, but described himself as a pantheist.  He did so because he felt the entire universe or what is called Nature could be considered as God.  In his correspondence with other ministers he wrote lengthy arguments to defend his views and they wrote equally lengthy replies. The letters are friendly, unlike those of John Calvin and Michael Servetus, where Calvin was so outraged over Servetus’s arguments against the Trinity that he ordered him arrested if he ever set foot in Geneva.  Servetus unfortunately did come to Geneva to plea his position personally with Calvin and instead Calvin turned him over to civil authorities where he was burned at the stake for heresy.  Kneeland had two trials and was convicted in the second trial and served 60 days in jail and paid a fine.  He then moved to Iowa to live out the rest of his life as a farmer.
In his speech to the jurors at his second trial, Kneeland argued that one of the charges, obscenity, was spurious because he used satire to reject the conception of Jesus by the Holy Ghost.  He argued that the Holy Ghost is not a material being and his name implies he was a spirit and immaterial.  As such, he claimed, he lacked the male genitalia to impregnate Mary. Neither the prosecutor nor the ministers who brought charges against Kneeland were amused.  When the jury found him guilty, the judge denounced Kneeland as a cantankerous person who deserved punishment for libeling religion.  Ministers were divided.   Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing, early Unitarians, were his supporters.  But other Protestant ministers, including some Unitarians and Universalists (otherwise thought to be  liberal) condemned Kneeland.
You can read Kneeland’s correspondence and his speech to the jury on line if you go to the Digital Library of America and select “bookshelf” and then enter “Abner Kneeland” and then select “Speech of Abner Kneeland delivered to the City of Boston in his own defense for blasphemy, November term 1834. 

Fortunately blasphemy is rarely used as a criminal charge in municipal, state, or national law.  It would likely be found unconstitutional.  Blasphemy is usually considered an insulting way of describing God or the religion of other people.  Blasphemy was usually selective and invective descriptions of non-Christian religions were quite common when I was growing up.  “Bible belt” Protestants often equated Roman Catholics with Satan.   “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” was even a campaign slogan against Democrats in the 1896 Presidential election because Democrats drew a large portion of Irish voters on the East Coast. 

Monday, May 12, 2014


 I consider myself a person because I am self-aware.  There are probably not more than a dozen people in the US and perhaps a hundred in Sweden with my name, Elof Axel Carlson.  I can be identified by my anatomy which includes photographs of me at different stages of my life cycle. My 83 year old portrait is not too different from my 55 year old portrait but it is considerably different from my 30 year old unwrinkled appearance. My fingerprints, of course, have not changed since I was a youth. A very complete autopsy at my death would reveal a considerable amount of information about my various organs and tissues. I am also a person defined by the artifacts of my life.  I have a personality that is known to my family, students, and colleagues over the years. Readers know me through my books, articles, and this Blog.  For some of you it is as if I am conversing with you. I could add those items to a variety of social and historical facts to make a CV or curriculum vitae, which I used to use when I was seeking a job. It was used by deans and committees to create an overall impression of who I was as a person.  For the most part my written record would not give many clues to others about how I look or what my personality is like.
At a genetic level, I have a unique genome that no other person alive or dead has.  Our genomes can give some information about us as persons.  If there is an abnormal chromosome number, we could predict that a person with trisomy-21 has Down syndrome, trisomy-13 has Patau syndrome, trisomy-18 has Edwards syndrome, and for the sex chromosomes, individuals who are XXY have Klinefelter syndrome and those who have an unaccompanied X are said to have Turner syndrome.  Today people can have their genomes sequenced, partially or completely, depending on how much they are willing to pay. They can learn about their risks for a variety of disorders and get some insights into their ethnic or racial ancestry.  Their DNA might also reveal a number of physical traits.  But reading my entire genome will not tell you what books I wrote, what field I worked in, or the type of information you could obtain by reading my CV. At a physiological level, you could learn about my blood types, my HLA tissue antigens, and a variety of health conditions and past illnesses I have had. When my physicians do laboratory tests, they are interested in my risk factors for diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, and other diseases. If I were consumed by a fire and my jawbones were left relatively undamaged, my current dentist would be able to identify me from my extractions, implants, crowns, and fillings.

I have no conscious awareness of who I was before I was about three years old. I would be unaware of my name as a fetus, unaware of existing as a fertilized egg.  I think of personhood as a process of becoming rather than an event that is assigned by society as fertilization in an oviduct, implantation into a womb, birth that is recorded on a birth certificate, or concluded with a death certificate. Like Walt Whitman, I contain multitudes of people through their contributions to civilization – thousands of words coined over centuries, hundreds of ideas and values that I was taught and absorbed into my personality, and,  of course, some 25,000 genes that were transmitted from Swedish farmers, pious Lutherans, polytheistic Vikings, Orthodox Jews in Ukraine, survivors of pogroms, who some 1900 years ago were scattered by a Roman conquest of Jerusalem.