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The book! Part Three: Population and Energy.

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Why a chapter on population and energy?

Because in a very real sense it is the measure of how many live on this planet and how much energy is used for our own purposes that brings into stark consideration the fundamental, inviolate rule: that we cannot sustain an existence that isn’t in balance with what our planet can provide for us. ‘Us’ of course meaning every living thing on the planet.

The story of our energy use is scary to the extreme. By using the term ‘our energy use’ I am offering it as a label, so to speak, for the number of people multiplied by the energy each person is using.

So, first let us start with global population.

The world did not reach a population of one billion until 1800. One hundred and twenty-three years later, in 1927, that global population figure passed two billion persons. That, in itself, isn’t remarkable. But what was remarkable was the continuing growth.

Thirty-three years later, in 1960, the global population reached three billion.
Twenty-four years later, in 1974, the population reached four billion.
Thirteen years later, in 1987, the world population is up to five billion.
Twelve years on, in 1999, up to six billion persons in the world.
Then just another thirteen years on for the population to reach, in 2012, seven billion.

Now that is not a cast-iron guarantee that the growth will continue on and on in a similar fashion. Recall that old saying, “I can predict anything except those matters involving the future!”

Indeed, the UN’s Economic & Social Affairs Department, in a report issued in 2013, under the title of World Population Prospects – 2012 Revision, offered in Figure 1. Population of the world, 1950-2100 (Page XV of the summary.), four possible outcomes, “according to different projections and variants.” Those being Medium; High; Low and Constant-fertility. Just to pick the extremes projected, a Constant-fertility growth would bring the global population in 2100 to twenty-eight billion persons, and a Low growth future delivering more or less today’s global population of seven billion persons.

What is the maximum carrying capacity of the planet? A number of estimates of the carrying capacity have been made with a wide range of population numbers. A 2001 UN report said that two-thirds of the estimates fall in the range of 4 billion to 16 billion (with unspecified standard errors), with a median of about 10 billion. More recent estimates are much lower, particularly if resource depletion and increased consumption are considered.

Now if seven billion people might be (and I do stress ‘might be’) more than Planet Earth can sustain today, then don’t even start to go to future population levels of the order of sixteen billion (High) or twenty-eight billion (Constant-fertility)!

However, this is a chapter on population and energy, not just population per se. Population growth is only one part of a complex energy nightmare. A huge nightmare. We must look at the other factor: our energy use. It is both a cause and a consequence of the population numbers.

The energy used by each person, measured in kilowatts on an annual basis, remained pretty constant right up to the middle of the Industrial revolution. For example, in 1800, the energy use per person was less than two kilowatts (A kilowatt is a thousand watts) of power a year. Today, that low figure from 1800 is almost beyond imagination in terms of the energy used today!

The Industrial revolution changed everything; irrevocably. By the end of that century, 1900, while the energy use per person was slightly up, the global population was steadily increasing; as explained a few paragraphs back. Thus the total energy being used in 1900 was the sum of energy used per person times the number of persons worldwide.

As it logically is the same total calculation used coming forward to the year 2000; where the energy use per person is up to three or four kilowatts a year (the chart being used was difficult to read precisely) and the population is now around seven billion! Seven billion people using three to four kilowatts of power produces a global use of energy of fifteen terawatts (The terawatt is equal to one trillion watts!) That’s fifteen trillion watts of energy!

Once more, looking into the future is challenging; to say the least. The awareness and uptake of solar electricity panels is expanding; the idea of cars being powered by other means than petroleum fuels is becoming a reality but the broader picture of total energy used across the world reveals an intense dependency of energy for some time. Indeed, we can use the UN’s forecast of population growth out to 2050 to construct a prediction of future energy needs, again on an energy per person energy equivalent.

This shows total global energy use peaking about now (2015), to the tune of 80 gigajoules per year (The equivalent of 22 megawatt-hours per year), of which 80 percent is from the use of fossil fuels, then slowly declining by 2050 to 30 gigajoules per year, of which nearly 70 percent would be from the use of non-fossil fuels.

Indeed, you may have heard about recent declines in energy consumption in both Europe and the US, but these declines have been more than offset by increases in energy consumption in China, India, and the rest of the “developing” world.

To put this into some form of historical perspective, using the assumptions chosen, the world per capita energy consumption in 2050 would be about equal to what the world per capita energy consumption was back in 1905.

Assuming we haven’t trashed the planet before then!

930 words. Copyright © 2014 Paul Handover

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Written by Paul Handover

November 17, 2014 at 00:30

Never looking backwards!

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“They didn’t bring us here to change the past!”

That quote is from the film Interstellar.  Last Thursday, Jean and me, with our neighbours Dordie and Bill, went into Grants Pass to watch the film.  Speaking for myself, even after three days have passed, I still haven’t settled on a clear opinion of the film. Don’t get me wrong, it was a magnificent production and held one’s attention for every minute of the three-hour performance.

All of which is a preamble for an insightful essay from George Monbiot published on November 11th and republished here with George’s kind permission.


Better Dead Than Different

Our visions of the future are defined, like the film Interstellar, by technological optimism and political defeatism.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 12th November 2014

“It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are,” the hero of Interstellar complains. “Explorers, pioneers, not caretakers … We’re not meant to save the world. We’re meant to leave it.” It could be the epigraph of our age.

Don’t get me wrong. Interstellar is a magnificent film, true to the richest traditions of science fiction, visually and auditorally astounding. See past the necessary silliness and you will find a moving exploration of parenthood, separation and ageing. It is also a classic exposition of two of the great themes of our age: technological optimism and political defeatism.

The Earth and its inhabitants are facing planetary catastrophe, caused by “six billion people, and every one of them trying to have it all”, which weirdly translates into a succession of blights, trashing the world’s crops and sucking the oxygen out of the atmosphere. (When your major receipts are in the US, you can’t afford to earn the hatred of the broadcast media by mentioning climate change. The blight, an obvious substitute, has probably averted millions of dollars of lost takings).

The civilisational collapse at the start of the film is intercut with interviews with veterans of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Their worn faces prefigure the themes of ageing and loss. But they also remind us inadvertently of a world of political agency. Great follies were committed but big, brave things were done to put them right: think of the New Deal and the Civilian Conservation Corps (1). That world is almost as different from our own as the planets visited by Interstellar’s astronauts.

They leave the Earth to find a place to which humans can escape or, if that fails, one in which a cargo of frozen embryos can be deposited. It takes an effort, when you emerge, to remember that such fantasies are taken seriously by millions of adults, who consider them a realistic alternative to addressing the problems we face on Earth.

NASA runs a website devoted to the idea (2). It claims that gigantic spaceships, “could be wonderful places to live; about the size of a California beach town and endowed with weightless recreation, fantastic views, freedom, elbow-room in spades, and great wealth.” Of course, no one could leave, except to enter another spaceship, and the slightest malfunction would cause instant annihilation. But “settlements in earth orbit will have one of the most stunning views in our solar system – the living, ever-changing Earth.” We can look back and remember how beautiful it was.

And then there’s the money to be made. “Space colonization is, at its core, a real estate business. … Those that colonize space will control vast lands, enormous amounts of electrical power, and nearly unlimited material resources. [This] will create wealth beyond our wildest imagination and wield power – hopefully for good rather than for ill.”(3) In other words, we would leave not only the Earth behind but also ourselves.

That’s a common characteristic of such fantasies: their lack of imagination. Wild flights of technological fancy are accompanied by a stolid incapacity to picture the inner life of those who might inhabit such systems. People who would consider the idea of living in the Gobi Desert intolerable – where, an estate agent might point out, there is oxygen, radiation-screening, atmospheric pressure and 1g of gravity – rhapsodise about living on Mars. People who imagine that human life on Earth will end because of power and greed and oppression imagine we will escape these forces in pressure vessels controlled by technicians, in which we would be trapped like tadpoles in a jamjar.

If space colonisation is impossible today, when Richard Branson, for all his billions, cannot even propel people safely past the atmosphere(4), how will it look in a world that has fallen so far into disaster that leaving it for a lifeless, airless lump of rock would be perceived as a good option? We’d be lucky in these circumstances to possess the wherewithal to make bricks.

Only by understanding this as a religious impulse can we avoid the conclusion that those who gleefully await this future are insane. Just as it is easier to pray for life after death than it is to confront oppression, this fantasy permits us to escape the complexities of life on Earth for a starlit wonderland beyond politics. In Interstellar, as in many other versions of the story, space is heaven, overseen by a benign Technology, peopled by delivering angels with oxygen tanks.

Space colonisation is an extreme version of a common belief: that it is easier to adapt to our problems than to solve them. Earlier this year, the economist Andrew Lilico argued in the Telegraph(5) that we can’t afford to prevent escalating climate change, so instead we must learn to live with it. He was challenged on Twitter to explain how people in the tropics might adapt to a world in which four degrees of global warming had taken place. He replied: “I imagine tropics adapt to 4C world by being wastelands with few folk living in them. Why’s that not an option?”(6)

Re-reading his article in the light of this comment, I realised that it hinged on the word “we”. When the headline maintained that “We have failed to prevent global warming, so we must adapt to it” (7), the “we” referred in these instances to different people. We in the rich world can brook no taxation to encourage green energy, or regulation to discourage the consumption of fossil fuels. We cannot adapt even to an extra penny of tax. But the other “we”, which turns out to mean “they” – the people of the tropics – can and must adapt to the loss of their homes, their land and their lives, as entire regions become wastelands. Why is that not an option?

The lives of the poor appear unimaginable to people in his position, like the lives of those who might move to another planet or a space station. So reducing the amount of energy we consume and replacing fossil fuels with other sources, simple and cheap as these are by comparison to all other options, is inconceivable and outrageous, while the mass abandonment of much of the inhabited surface of the world is a realistic and reasonable request. “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger”, David Hume noted (8), and here we see his contemplation reified.

But at least Andrew Lilico could explain what he meant, by contrast to most of those who talk breezily about adapting to climate breakdown. Relocating cities to higher ground? Moving roads and railways, diverting rivers, depopulating nations, leaving the planet? Never mind the details. Technology, our interstellar god, will sort it out, some day, somehow.

George: this is a formula for the deferment of hard choices to an ever-receding neverland of life after planetary death.

No wonder it is popular.



1. http://www.cityprojectca.org/blog/archives/5392

2. http://settlement.arc.nasa.gov

3. http://settlement.arc.nasa.gov/

4. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/nov/01/sir-richard-branson-space-tourism-project-doubt

5. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/10644867/We-have-failed-to-prevent-global-warming-so-we-must-adapt-to-it.html

6. http://www.businessgreen.com/bg/james-blog/2337458/climate-adaptation-lobby-is-reckless-dangerous-and-partly-right

7. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/10644867/We-have-failed-to-prevent-global-warming-so-we-must-adapt-to-it.html

8. https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hume/david/h92t/B2.3.3.html


Do go and see Interstellar!

The world according to Lilly

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Our dear Lilly offers her special thoughts.

Preface: Lilly is reaching an amazing age for a dog; trully amazing. Lilly was featured back in February this year when we did a series of posts under the generic heading of Meet the dogs.

Yesterday, Jean thought it would be wonderful to hear it from Lilly; so to speak.

So these are Lilly’s words; as whispered to Jeannie!


The World According to Lilly

Surveying her domain.

Surveying her domain.

I am sixteen years old! That’s one hundred and twelve people years!

So no-one is going to tell me what to do; especially those bratty young dogs I live with.

I refuse to eat canned dog food and expect Mum to cook fresh meat on a daily basis or I will stop eating and give her the moon eyes. (No real issue as Mum does understand my demands! ;-) ) The only dry food that passes my lips is ‘Canidae’. It’s not cheap but, hey, I’m worth it!

No dog is allowed to snag my food or I will bite their nose; and well the others know that! OK, maybe young Oliver can sneak a nibble or two off my bowl; he is rather cute!

I will only take a pill if it is camouflaged in the fresh marrow of a bone – Mum, bless her, thinks I don’t know it’s there! Ha!

When it’s raining, I refuse to go out. Period! To make Mum happy, sometimes I let her use this sheepskin-lined sling thing to help me tackle the deck steps but many times I can manage on my own – hey! I’m only sixteen! But I know that it makes Mum’s day if she sees herself being useful!

It’s been a good life. OK, I’m rather creaky now but determined to make seventeen. Who knows maybe even eighteen!

Give Dad a run for his money any day!  Golly, he has only just turned seventy in people years and to hear him natter on you would think he feels old!

Now where’s my bed …..

Not a bad life for an old dog! (I'm speaking of Dad!)

Not a bad life for an old dog! (I’m speaking of Dad!)

Written by Paul Handover

November 14, 2014 at 00:00

The book! Part Three: Short-termism

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Our modern madness!

We live in an era that is addicted to short-termism. Largely, I’m bound to say, brought on by the financial services industry. Yet the influence of that same industry is enormous and percolates its way through most levels of most societies in most cultures and, without question, through the societies of most European and North American countries. One only needs to reflect on the critical importance of gaining and maintaining financial solvency for individuals. From having the creditworthiness to finance, and eventually pay off, a mortgage on a private dwelling, to accumulating a pension to provide some level of comfort in the ‘senior’ years and along the way managing to bring up children, have the odd vacation or two, and enjoy a small luxury or impulse purchase. So for the great majority of us it is practically impossible to live a life that doesn’t interact with banks, savings plans, building societies, pension providers, and often many other financial and investment companies.

Thus the financial services industry is an intimate part of the majority of the lives of private citizens in the ‘Western world’. Yet, ironically, my sense is that the majority of those same private individuals run their lives quite differently. I have in mind what might be called planning horizons.

Clearly buying a home is the most obvious example of long-term planning. But there’s a myriad of other involvements that we sign up to that require, nay demand, a long-term perspective. Having a family, studying for a degree or a post-graduate academic qualification, becoming an apprentice, driver’s licence, heavy goods vehicle (HGV) licence, saving for a pension, for a vacation, working in a company, or similar, with an eye on longer-term promotion and career advancement. I’ll stop there for I’m sure my point is clear!

In my trawl across the internet looking for supportive examples, I came across a paper published by the Aspen Institute called “Short-termism and US Capital Markets”. This institute declares on their website (in part) that “The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC. Its mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues.

This US-based institute published the paper on short-termism in view of “the serious consequences they see for both investors and society at large.” The report refers to research by JP Morgan that is highly critical of the present-day love affair with short-term results: “[the research] indicating that a focus on quarterly earnings in US companies in order to show short-term profits is leading public companies to defer spending on marketing research, product design and prototype development and this reduction in investment is causing problems.”

If there’s one relatively recent event (I use the word “recent” in relation to the period when writing this book) that shows, dramatically shows, the madness of short-termism then it has to be the financial crisis of 2008. (As an aside, the term financial crisis seems an inadequate phrase when one considers the full range of negative consequences that blasted into the faces of millions of people in 2008.)

The Boston College Law School held a symposium in 2011 that led to a paper being published by Kent Greenfield, Professor and Law School Research Fund Scholar at Boston. That paper is available to read online. It carries the title: The Puzzle of Short-Termism. I think a few quotations from that paper will underline the madness that came to light post-2008 and that appears to still be with us. The paper opens, thus:


When pondering the question of the “sustainable corporation,” as we did in this symposium, one of the intractable problems is the nature of the corporation to produce externalities. By noting this characteristic, I am not making a moral point but an economic one. The nature of the firm is to create financial wealth by producing goods and services for profit; without regulatory or contractual limits, the firm has every incentive to externalize costs onto those whose interests are not included in the firm’s current financial calculus.

Not much further on, Prof. Greenfield writes:

The more difficult kind of externality to address—especially if our focus is on the sustainability of the corporation—is the future externality. What I mean here is the kind of cost that a corporation’s management can externalize to the future. From management’s perspective, the future is a much more attractive place to push off costs. Stakeholders who must bear such future costs will be less aware of those costs than current costs, and even if they do learn of such future costs, they will be less able to gain the attention of regulators.

Then he offers this stark analysis:

If one is worried about the sustainability of corporations from an environmental, social, or political perspective, the problem of “short-termism” has to be a central worry. This is because, at least according to many who have thought seriously about the topic, in the long run the interests of corporations conflate with those of society as a whole. (For the sake of this Essay I will assume this to be the case, though I have stated some disagreement elsewhere.) Short-termism is a problem whether we focus our attention on the sustainability of the corporation or the ethics of its management.

Short-termism is also costly economically, since the economy as a whole benefits when companies have a long-term strategy. The economy is a summation of the fortunes of the millions of companies and individuals that make it up; if most companies make decisions that prioritize the short-term at the expense of the long-term, we all suffer. A nation’s wealth grows more over time when companies invest for the future and maintain their viability as a going concern.

Just one more extract from the paper, that without the preceding extracts would not have carried the weight and gravity that struck me, and I hope strikes you, dear reader when you read the following:

The financial crisis of 2008 brought into sharp relief the economic costs of short-term management. Among the competing theories on the cause of the financial collapse—the over-dependence on derivatives, the overuse of leverage, the culture of greed and entitlement in the finance industry, just to name a few—a focus on the short term is an omnipresent narrative thread. If managers and financiers had taken a more long-term view of the health of their own companies and the fortunes of their investors, we might not have seen the myriad other problems come to such a head. The addiction to leverage, derivatives, and greed that caused the market to become a casino would only have been possible in a business culture where short-term gains are prioritized over long-term costs. What might have been assumed to be costs that would be suffered some time in the distant future are being absorbed now. John Maynard Keynes was wrong on this point: in the long run, we are not all dead.

So despite some naysayers, the problem of short-termism is very real. Shareholders hold their stocks, on average, for less than a year, and even less for small companies. Institutional investors have been said to be particularly bad on this front, acting “more as traders, seeking short-term gain.” Managers admit that they make decisions that harm the company in the long-term in order to meet short-term earnings expectations. In 2006, both the Conference Board and the Business Roundtable, two of the nation’s most prominent business organizations, issued reports “decrying the short-term focus of the stock market and its dominance over American business behavior.” And, let’s remember, that was two years before the collapse.

The paper really needs to be read in full, especially for any individual trying to understand the pros and cons of a wide range of personal investment decisions. If only, to use Prof. Greenfield’s words, “This is because, at least according to many who have thought seriously about the topic, in the long run the interests of corporations conflate with those of society as a whole.

I sense readers might be on the verge of giving up with this book because it ain’t nothing to do with dogs! There was a large part of me that agonised over what to include and what to leave out, not only with this chapter but with all the chapters in this section. Perhaps I might be forgiven for making another ‘sales pitch’ for this whole section! That is that if good, honest folk aren’t as fully aware of the major characteristics of this new century, as this author wasn’t before the research, we cannot develop the passion and zeal for saying and promoting, as far and wide as we can, that ‘enough is enough’!

One more quotation to round off the chapter.

The Guardian newspaper published an article in October 2013 written by Larry Elliott, the newspaper’s economics editor. It was entitled: Saving the planet from short-termism will take man-on-the-moon commitment.

We choose to go to the moon. So said John F Kennedy in September 1962 as he pledged a manned lunar landing by the end of the decade.

The US president knew that his country’s space programme would be expensive. He knew it would have its critics, but he took the long-term view. Warming to his theme in Houston that day, JFK went on: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others too.”

That was the world’s richest country at the apogee of its power in an age where both Democrats and Republicans were prepared to invest in the future. Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, took a plan for a system of interstate highways and made sure it happened.

Contrast that with today’s America, which looks less like the leader of the free world than a banana republic with a reserve currency. Planning for the long term now involves last-ditch deals on Capitol Hill to ensure the federal government can remain open until January and debts can be paid at least until February.

The US is not the only country with advanced short-termism. It merely provides the most egregious example of the disease. This is a world of fast food and short attention spans, of politicians so dominated by a 24/7 news agenda that they have lost the habit of planning for the long term.

Tough stuff!

That doesn’t get any easier to read and take in as one continues.

Politics, technology and human nature all militate in favour of kicking the can down the road. The most severe financial and economic crisis in more than half a century has further discouraged policymakers from raising their eyes from the present to the distant horizon.

Clearly, though, the world faces long-term challenges that will only become more acute through prevarication. These include coping with a bigger and ageing global population, ensuring growth is sustainable and equitable, providing resources to pay for modern transport and energy infrastructure, and reshaping international institutions so they represent the world as it is in the early 21st century rather than as it was in 1945.

Or possibly for society to really grasp? Larry Elliot’s closing words:

Another conclave of the global great and good is looking at what should be done in the much trickier area of climate change. The premise of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate is that nothing will be done unless finance ministers are convinced of the need for action, especially given the damage caused by a deep recession and sluggish recovery.

Instead of preaching to the choir the plan is to show how to achieve key economic objectives – growth, investment, secure public finances, fairer distribution of income – while at the same time protecting the planet. The pitch to finance ministers will be that tackling climate change will require plenty of upfront investment that will boost growth rather than harm it.

Will this approach work? Well, maybe. But it will require business to see the long-term benefits of greening the economy as well as the short-term costs, because that would lead to the burst of technological innovation needed to accelerate progress. And it will require the same sort of commitment it took to win a world war or put a man on the moon.

Despite Mr. Elliot’s powerful plea, there might be a school of opinion, a growing school of opinion, that would argue fundamentally with the words of that plea. I’m referring to: “… the plan is to show how to achieve key economic objectives – growth, investment, secure public finances, fairer distribution of income – while at the same time protecting the planet.

The next chapter on Materialism explains why “key economic objectives” may be the last type of measurement our world now demands.

2,217 words. Copyright © 2014 Paul Handover

Written by Paul Handover

November 13, 2014 at 00:30

Studs Terkel second essay.

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NaNoWriMo sucked up my whole day!

I’m loving the writing that I’m doing just now.  I am, of course, referring to ‘the book’!

What is so delicious is taking a series of topics that, at heart, I know very little about in terms of any depth, and finding how internet web searches can unearth a trillion answers (OK, I exaggerated to make a point!) and allow one to learn the topic in some detail.  Specifically, I am authoring chapters on The Power of Negativity, Selfishness, Power and corruption, Short-termism, Materialism, Poverty and Greed. The drafts are being presented here on Learning from Dogs. (P.S. the chapters in most cases continue to be worked on after they have appeared in this place!)

Unfortunately, time is very short in terms of my own creative writings in this place. So, today, it is going to be the second essay from Studs Terkel.  The first one, in case any of you missed it, was yesterday. Me rapidly adding that the two essays were originally published as a TomGram: Studs Terkel on Death and Forgiveness in America.


“You Got Into My Heart Violently, But You’re There”

Trauma, Death, and Forgiveness on the Front Lines of American Life
By Studs Terkel

[The following is excerpted from the new paperback edition of Studs Terkel’s oral history of death, Will The Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, with special thanks to his publisher, the New Press.]

Dr. John Barrett

He is Chief of the Trauma Unit at Cook County Hospital, Chicago. He still has an Irish brogue.

“In 1966, the Trauma Unit here was actually the first of its kind in the nation. It’s dedicated to people who, more than being sick, are injured — patients who have been subjected to what we call intentional injury, violence. It’s gunshot wounds, stabbings, personal assaults. Other trauma centers see patients who predominantly are victims of unintentional injury: automotive wrecks and falls. Our experience here has been inner-urban, lower-socioeconomic groupings; predominantly young, predominantly male, and predominantly penetrating trauma: gunshot wounds and stabbings.”

I am the third of four sons. My father was a mail carrier, my mother was a dressmaker in Cork. The family really struggled to make sure that all of the sons went to university. My two elder brothers did science — chemistry and physics. I wanted to do something that was scientific in nature but more people-oriented. There was really no family tradition of medicine, but medicine seemed to fill my criteria. I can recall my eldest brother, Frank, saying, “This is a terrible waste of time — you don’t have to be intelligent to be a doctor.”

It’s not as if it’s rocket science. There’s nothing terribly difficult to understand in medicine, there’s just an awful lot of it that you have to remember. I always wanted to be a general practitioner. In my final year of medical school, I did a rotation with the then-professor of surgery, and I loved it. At the end of the rotation he said, “Well, Barrett, what are you going to do?” I said, “Well, Mr. Kiley, sir, I’m going to be a general practitioner.” He looked at me and said, “Barrett, there’s the makings of a great surgeon lost in you.” So that’s why I decided to do surgery. I realized that what I really, really enjoyed was the injured patient. It’s such an acute event: the patient is perfectly healthy, then something traumatic happens, and within a matter of seconds they are injured. They’re a great surgical challenge because they’re bleeding, they generally need surgical intervention. The epitome of those patients is the gunshot wound. Despite all the terrible things you hear about Northern Ireland and all the violence, where I was in the South we saw no gunshot wounds. I actually had to come to this country to see gunshot wounds.

I have found that surgeons have a certain personality. They tend to be very action-driven, very egocentric, frequently overconfident — especially trauma surgeons who will act very quickly with a minimal amount of information. That may not be the person you want to be your lawyer or your priest, but that’s the person you want to be your trauma surgeon. They tend to be supremely confident in themselves, and that’s why many people don’t like them. They tend to demean other people. It goes with the territory because you have to be damn confident in yourself if your job is to start cutting people open at the drop of a hat. People, when they hear that you’re a surgeon, they immediately look at your hands because they imagine there’s something unique about the surgeon’s technical ability. That’s not true at all. People have said you can teach educated apes how to operate — I’m not sure if that’s true — but it’s the decision-making process, not the technical stuff.

If you ask me to talk about life and death, the first thing I would think of is my patient. You begin to realize there’s not a sharp distinction between life and death. When is a person alive and when is a person dead? We have, for instance, patients who come in who are clinically dead: their heart has stopped beating, they are not breathing, their pupils are fixed and dilated. But we have them. The Chicago Fire Department paramedics are excellent — they get them in here fast. They’ve been without vital signs for a short period of time. You can still resuscitate some of them, you can bring them back…

Was it two weeks ago? — we had a man who was stabbed in the heart, came in clinically dead. We immediately opened his chest, released the pressure from his heart, sewed up his heart, and he actually recovered. He can’t have been dead because we got him back, but he was clinically dead. It’s not a very firm line; there’s a gradual blending from where you’re alive to where you’re dead. The people I see who are dead are in general young people who have suffered a calamitous event — they’ve been shot. You try your best. They’re either dead when they arrive or generally die fairly quickly after they’ve arrived. You can’t resuscitate them. The first thing that strikes me about it is, it seems such a waste… You’re looking at a human body, and as a surgeon you know its intimate details: the anatomy and the sinews and the arteries and the veins, and they’re now dead. This wonderful perfect machine is now no more. It’s frequently the smallest thing that has killed them. A stab wound to the heart will kill one person and it won’t kill the next. It seems to be such a capricious thing. What I really think a lot about is when children die. When adults die from trauma, you feel they have some degree of responsibility insofar as they chose to be in that place at that time. When a child dies, you think: Why did that happen? Five minutes’ difference would have changed the entire course of events. And parents ask you the same thing: “Why did it happen, doctor?” You try to explain: “He was shot, we did the best we can.” That’s not the answer they want. They want to know why this person who was awake, alive, and healthy this morning is now dead. You don’t have that explanation as a surgeon.

The first thing I feel, I feel angry, angry that they died, that I haven’t been able to save them. To me it’s almost like a personal defeat. I know in a logical sense that’s not true. I didn’t shoot them. It wasn’t my fault that there were guns on the street.

studsunbrokenRemember how I characterized the surgeon? The surgeon is supremely self-confident. We whip them back from the jaws of death, we have the scalpel, we have the decision, we have the technology, and we have a system in this hospital that’s supposed to save them. But you can’t save them all. We don’t lose a lot, but we do lose them. So initially I feel angry. That passes fairly quickly because I then say to myself: What could we have done that we didn’t do? Actually, we talk about it as a group: Could we have acted quicker, recognized this quicker? Because even though this particular patient is dead, we may be able to improve care for the next patient. Then I think: What a waste! A total, absolute waste. Especially now. I’m fifty-five years old. It makes you think about your own mortality. We really don’t realize what a precious gift life is. We take it for granted. I’ve always taken it for granted. My children are growing up, my daughter is going to college this year, I’m growing older, and I’m surrounded by people who are brought in, some of whom die. It is a very, very fragile thing we have that can disappear. The stuff that you worry about… Are you going to get the house painted? The basement floods occasionally. My God, the car keeps breaking down… It’s all so trivial… We should really realize that the greatest gift we have is time, and that means you’re alive.

When the patient comes in, you might see someone who’s covered in blood. I don’t see someone covered in blood, I see somebody who has technical challenges. A gunshot wound to the chest with hemothorax, we need to get a chest tube in, determine the rate of bleeding, and make effective interventions. So right then and there, I’m not thinking great philosophical thoughts — I’m in a mechanical, operative mode. You just go boom, boom, boom… It’s like a very organized, choreographed dance. But then at the end, he dies. Then you say, “Let’s look back at the dance. Did we do something wrong, could we have done something better?” You do tend to become a little philosophical as you grow older. I’m convinced that the solution to all this violence is not surgeons. We need to somehow prevent it.

I come from Ireland, a country that has national health insurance. Every resident is insured. I’m an American citizen and I love being one, but I can’t understand why we can’t ensure that every resident of the country actually gets adequate health care. I’m so happy to work here at the County Hospital, because that’s part of our mission statement: We will not turn you away. People refer to us as the hospital of last resort. I think that that’s a very noble thing.

People say, “Why did you stay?” It’s so perfectly logical to me. Here’s what I wanted: I wanted to be a surgeon who dealt with patients who required surgical intervention. Those are gunshot wounds. I also want to be able to teach people. I think it’s important that you pass on your skills. And to even do a little research, to maybe improve the care of the patients. Patient care, education, and the research, all three things I’m doing here. The money isn’t the greatest, and there are frustrations working in the public sector — but compared to what I’ve gotten out of it, I am one of the most fortunate people that you’ll ever meet. I would actually pay money to do this job. They pay me to do what I love to do.

When you lose a patient… I think every doctor has their own way. It’s not something they teach you in medical school, and they really, really should. Physicians and health-care people in general need to have a far greater degree of sympathy toward their patients, toward the patients’ family. No one ever taught me how to talk to a family and tell them that their loved one was dead, especially in a trauma situation. It’s one thing if a patient has, say, cancer and they become ill and then they die — it tends to be a process. You get to know your doctor, you finally realize the end is inevitable, you may have time to talk to your loved one.

Trauma is different. What happens in trauma is this eighteen-year-old leaves the house in the morning, perfectly healthy. Then the mother gets a call at two o’clock, it’s the Trauma Unit at Cook County Hospital: “Your son’s been shot. Please come in.” When she walks in, she’ll see me. She doesn’t know me, she’s never met me before, and I am now going to tell her that her son is dead. So how do I do it? The first thing that I do is I try to put myself into their situation. What they want to know is, is he alive or is he dead? I think you need to tell them that. Some people start telling them about he was shot and he came in and we did this and we did that. They’re really trying to impress the family with the work that they did to save him. That’s not what the family wants to know: they want to hear if he’s alive or if he’s dead. That’s what I tell them. I say: “You don’t know me, I’m Dr. Barrett, I’m the senior surgeon here tonight.” They won’t even remember my name. Sit them down. Sit down with them. Look into their eyes. If you can, hold on to them and say, “It’s bad news.” And they’ll say, “Is he dead?” Or they just look at you. You have to use the word, you have to say it: “He’s dead.” If you say he’s “expired,” he’s “passed away,” they don’t hear that. You have to say he’s dead. Then, then they react. They generally go into disbelief: “No, no, it’s not true — I can’t believe it… How could it happen…” Or they say, “It can’t be him. Are you sure? ” All you do then is you just let them grieve. I think it’s actually helpful for them to come and see the body. I think that’s important. He’s all covered in blood, there’s tubes in him. That doesn’t matter. They want to see that person, they want to see that face. I say to them, “It’s OK to hold him, if you want to kiss him, if you want to talk to him.” I think it’s important to do that because, afterwards, they’ll go through that scene in their mind over and over and over again. “I remember the night they called me from the County and I came in and this is what happened, and that is what happened…” It’s very important to put yourself into their shoes, but you’ve got to say the word “dead.” You’ve got to give them the finality of it.

I ask residents, “How would you do it?” They’re trying to explain to the family what they did: “He came in, we intubated him, we did this, we gave him blood, we gave him CPR.” The family isn’t even listening to that! They’re not listening to it. After you’ve said he’s dead, they won’t listen to anything for a long time. Once they’ve calmed down, it’s important to tell them the absolute truth. “I don’t know what the circumstances surrounding the shooting were, but as far as I can tell, he was unconscious very rapidly after he was shot. He never regained consciousness. I don’t think he suffered.” Just tell them the truth, it’s always the best thing.

When you die, you die. Your body rots. Everyone knows that. There’s no argument about that. But there is a spirituality to us. If you want to call it a soul, you can call it a soul. I think of it more as the thing that allows us to choose to do good or evil. You kind of fall on one side or the other. You tend to be on the side of the good or the side of the evil. You can personify this as being God and the Devil. You can call this spirituality your soul, or not your soul, but whatever it is, I do believe it continues after your body is dead. I’m not sure that thing that’s going to exist after I’m dead would say to itself, “I am John Anthony Patrick Barrett and I remember everything about John Anthony Patrick Barrett” — I don’t think it’s that simple. I do believe in an afterlife, but I don’t believe that it’s up there in the clouds somewhere with angels flying around beating their wings, and God is an old geezer with a long beard.

Let me try it a different way. You do things that live on after you. Each of us, as we pass through life, influences others. You leave behind you a legacy of things you did and people you influenced. So even if you don’t believe in a life after death, you’ve had an influence. And people say, “I haven’t had any influence. What did I do? I worked in a steel mill all my life, I didn’t actually do anything. Got married, had a few kids…” Well, you did — you had an effect as you went through life, and it was either a good effect or an indifferent effect or a bad effect. That effect continues on. I have two children, and they’re going to have influences on people and they’re going to do things. I’m also a teacher: I’ve taught lots of people, hundreds, perhaps even a thousand people that I have influenced in a very fundamental fashion. Many of them are now surgeons themselves. There’s little pieces of me that exist in all of that. So even though you’re dead, you’re not gone.

If you said, “What do I think makes me different from other surgeons?” the short answer is I don’t know… But I will tell you I think it’s a word called “empathy.” I have the ability to think and feel like the other person. I don’t know where I got that, but it’s something almost instinctive. Maybe that’s what doctors need to have. If doctors are supposed to comfort, you’ve got to understand that the person is suffering; you’ve got to kind of live in your patient’s shoes. I don’t care if you’re a Hindu or a Jew or an atheist, it’s all fine to me. I certainly don’t believe that there’s only one true religion and one true God and only one way of getting to Heaven. If you believe in your particular belief, I respect that. You’re gonna get to Heaven every bit as fast as I am, and in fact even faster probably.

I remember the first dead person I ever saw — my mother’s father. I would have been probably four or five years old. I remember a big commotion in the house, getting dressed up and washed and cleaned and being on my best behavior. He was laid out in a morgue. I recall the body. He was in the casket. It was an open casket, and he didn’t look like granddad. It was this pale waxen look — it wasn’t him. The second one I ever saw dead was in Ireland. I think I was probably eighteen or nineteen years of age, and I was out on my bicycle. There was a guy who had crashed his motorcycle into a car. As I arrived at the scene they were getting the body out — and he was dead. And they were getting him out and I remember he was covered in blood. I haven’t thought about this in a million years. I remember, as they took him out, he had his watch on. I remember the second hand of his watch was still ticking. Why do I remember that? I think it was the thing that I talked about before. He was fine, and now he’s dead… but his watch is still going on.

If you had been born a hundred years ago, Studs, you wouldn’t have lived this long. Yet you’re still living a very productive and fruitful life. There comes a time when we really do have to balance that, though. Now, how do you make those decisions? These are actually not decisions that your doctor alone can or should make. Especially those of us who are technologically driven. If you were dying from something that I think I can cure by operating on you, I am going to try and convince you to have the operation. You may have a totally different perspective on life. I think medicine needs to acknowledge that. Sometimes it’s not the patient, it’s the patient’s family who say, “I want everything done.” How much of that is driven by them because they want to be able to say afterwards, “Well, we did everything”? It makes them feel comfortable…

It isn’t a huge problem in trauma because we really do try to do everything, because the patients are young. But if I am at the stage where I’m absolutely convinced that the patient is going to die but I can keep the patient alive longer, I think what you need to say to the family is not, “What do you want me to do?” What I say to them is, “If the patient in the bed could talk to us, what would he say, do you think? You know him, he’s been your son or your husband. You know his approach to life. What do you think he’d say?” Then they begin to think: What would he say? They’re surrogates. I don’t want to know what they want to do because they’re filled with guilt and anguish, and half of them want to do this and half of them want to do that. I want them to tell me what they think he would do.

Then there’s the question about physician-assisted suicide. I can understand the sort of logic that says the patient is in absolute agony, the patient wants to die, and they want me to help them to die, but I don’t subscribe to that. I think there’s a huge difference between pushing someone into a river and having them drown, and seeing someone in the river drowning and doing nothing, letting them drown. If you look at the cases of physician-assisted suicide, man, you’d better be damn sure that you’re doing the right thing. You need to be damn sure. I mean, surer than capital punishment. You need to be sure that whatever it is the patient has is totally incurable and cannot be relieved. You’re dying because you’re in intractable pain? We can take care of it, I mean, we really can. This feeling that they’re turning to say, “Kill me, doctor…” They’re not depressed? There’s nothing we can do to help that depression? I don’t think I ever personally would feel so confident that I would do that.

I actually believe in capital punishment. It’s rare for a doctor to say that, because doctors are trained in the preservation of human life. And it’s probably even rarer for a professed Catholic doctor to say that. But I believe that there are some people who should be killed. There are justifications for taking human life — predominantly self-protection. If somebody is going to kill you and the only way you can save yourself is by killing them, then you are justified to kill them. That can be extrapolated into a just war, if there ever is such a thing. Now, let’s go to the individual. I don’t think we should execute people as a deterrent, although it is the ultimate deterrent for the person you’ve executed. I think there are some people in this world who are evil: they murder other people. So I would need to have a person who has committed heinous crimes, and I would include in those heinous crimes, rapes.

I also am very concerned about people who kill police officers, or even politicians, because they’re protecting us. I would also need to know that there is no way to rehabilitate him. So that might mean that he has committed the crime many times. I would need to know that he continues to be a risk. People say, “Well, why don’t you lock them up for the rest of their lives?” I’ve seen these people. They will try to kill other inmates. They will try to kill their custodians. They will try to kill the guards. They are intrinsically evil. They cannot be rehabilitated, and they continue to pose a risk to their captors. They deserve to die because they are a threat to us, not because we’re trying to frighten other people from committing the crime. They would have to be guilty much more than beyond a reasonable doubt. They exist — I’ve seen them. There are people like that in the world.

When I’m dead, there will be this thing that is left like the body of my grandfather. That I don’t care what you do with it. It’s like when I go to the barber, he cuts my hair. Do I worry about the hair? I don’t give a damn what he does with it. You want to burn me? I don’t care. Actually, whoever is left who’s going to be responsible for my dead body, they need a ritual to bury me. So, sure, I’m sure there’ll be a little ceremony and they’ll be singing songs and ringing bells and lighting candles and smoking incense. I don’t care what they do. Because that thing in that coffin, that is not me. Now that I’m fifty-five, I actually think about dying. I didn’t think about it when I was twenty, or thirty, or forty. But I’ll soon be sixty. And there’s a whole bunch of stuff I intend to do yet. I’ve got big plans. My mother, she’s alive and she’s ninety years old; my father lived until he was eighty-six. I hope that I’ll live a long time. But I can grapple with it now: I can see myself dying. I think the process would be messy, the actual dying, death. But I don’t think I would be particularly bothered by the fact that death is inevitable. I’m not embracing death, but I’m not afraid of it. There are also the things you’ve done during the time you’ve spent on this earth that are going to remain behind, in some way, shape, or form, forever. If I’m dead and people come to my graveside and look at my tombstone, do you know what they’re going to say? They’re going to say, “Who was he?” You want to know who I am? If I wanted to have anything written on my tombstone, I would have, “Ask my children or ask my students.” I actually never thought of it quite that way. That wouldn’t be a bad epitaph.

Studs Terkel (1912-2008) was an award-winning author and radio broadcaster. His books included: Division Street: America; Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times; “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II; Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do; and Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression; all published by the New Press. He was a recipient of a Presidential National Humanities Medal, a George Polk Career Award, and the National Book Critics Circle 2003 Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. These two oral histories were excerpted from the new paperback edition of his oral history of death, Will The Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, also published by the New Press.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt’s just published book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright © 2001 by Studs Terkel. This excerpt originally appeared in Will the Circle Be Unbroken? published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.


There were a number of links in Tom’s original post that were too awkward to carry across to here. Primarily the links were in the last chapters speaking of Studs Merkel. Please go here if you wish to follow those links.

Finally, if you wish to purchase the book then please use this link to Amazon so that Tom doesn’t miss out! Thanks!

Written by Paul Handover

November 13, 2014 at 00:00

The book! Part Three: Power and Corruption

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I am using the software Scrivener to write this book. I fail to recall how I came across Scrivener but, boy of boy, am I glad I did. It is fabulous. One can set out the raw structure of the book, section by section, chapter by chapter, much helping keep one’s mind on the construction of the book as the writing progresses.

All of which is a preamble for me telling you that when I clicked on the chapter ‘folder’ that was named Power and corruption, a folder empty of any words, my heart sank. Power and corruption! Where, oh where, does one start!

Then almost immediately kicked myself; metaphorically speaking! Simply for the reason that one of the most famous sayings is surely that of Lord Acton, the 19th-century British historian: “Power tends to corrupt; Absolute power corrupts absolutely.That is the place to start this essay on power and corruption.

History has plenty of examples of the tendency of power to corrupt. Of course, when the word ‘power’ is used on its own it misses its natural companion words; the words ‘other people’. Ergo: Power over other people tends to corrupt; Absolute power over other people corrupts absolutely. Napoleon Bonaparte declaring himself as emperor comes to mind, as does further back in time, the Roman emperors, who declared themselves gods, demonstrated absolute corruption from the absolute power, over other people, that they wielded.

Anyway, returning to Lord Acton, or to give him his full name, John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton. He was the 19th century historian and moralist who was otherwise known more simply as Lord Acton, as in the first Baron Acton (Lord Acton lived from 1834 until 1902). His expression, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely; ……” arose expressed in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887:

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.

Great men are almost always bad men: Now there’s a statement to play with!

Despite the text written in Lord Acton’s letter to the Bishop having become a favourite of the many collectors of quotations, it is probable that Lord Acton didn’t invent the idea; quotations very similar had been uttered by several authors well before 1887.

Let us explore the central question as to why it is that power has a corrupting characteristic; a largely corrupting characteristic might be more accurate. For in the Smithsonian magazine of October, 2012, there was an article that examined the social science behind why power brings out both the worst in some people, but also, at times, the best in people.

Why Power Corrupts

His [Lord Acton’s] maxim has been vividly illustrated in psychological studies, notably the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, which was halted when one group of students arbitrarily assigned to serve as “prison guards” over another group began to abuse their wards.

But new scholarship is bringing fresh subtlety to psychologists’ understanding of when power leads people to take ethical shortcuts — and when it doesn’t. Indeed, for some people, power seems to bring out their best. After all, good people do win elective office, says Katherine A. DeCelles, a professor of management at the University of Toronto, and no few business executives want to do good while doing well. “When you give good people power,” DeCelles says she wondered, are they more able than others “to enact that moral identity, to do what’s right?”

In a study recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, DeCelles and her co-authors found that the answer is yes. People’s sense of “moral identity”—the degree to which they thought it was important to their sense of self to be “caring,” “compassionate,” “fair,” “generous” and so on—shaped their responses to feelings of power.

Christopher Shea, the author of the Smithsonian article, went on to explain that:

DeCelles and her colleagues developed moral identity scores for two groups, 173 working adults and 102 undergraduates, by asking the participants to rate how important those ethically related attributes were to them. The researchers had some participants write an essay recalling an incident in which they felt powerful, while others wrote about an ordinary day. Then the participants took part in lab experiments to probe how they balanced self-interest against the common good.

Christopher Shea then concluded:

The experiment involving the adults found a similar relationship between moral identity, ethical behavior and innate aggressiveness. Assertive people who scored low on the moral-identity scale were more likely to say they’d cheated their employer in the past week than more passive types with similar moral-identity scores. But among those with high moral-identity scores, the assertive people were less likely to have cheated.

In sum, the study found, power doesn’t corrupt; it heightens pre-existing ethical tendencies. Which brings to mind another maxim, from Abraham Lincoln: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

Yet despite the evidence presented that power does not automatically corrupt, the news is so often full of stories of powerful men, well predominantly men, behaving badly in all manner of ways: sex with their staff, assaulting others, such as hotel maids, cheating and lying. So if there is no direct wiring between power and corruption, that power does not automatically corrupt, it still leaves open the question of why power so often does corrupt. What motivates people in power to behave so badly?

In my research, I came across an article in WIRED magazine, How Power Corrupts, that revealed:

Psychologists refer to this [Why does power corrupt] as the paradox of power. The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power. Instead of being polite, honest and outgoing, they become impulsive, reckless and rude. According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.

Then later on Jonah Lehrer, the author of the article, explained:

Although people almost always know the right thing to do — cheating is wrong — their sense of power makes it easier to rationalize away the ethical lapse. For instance, when the psychologists asked the subjects (in both low- and high-power conditions) how they would judge an individual who drove too fast when late for an appointment, people in the high-power group consistently said it was worse when others committed those crimes than when they did themselves. In other words, the feeling of eminence led people to conclude that they had a good reason for speeding — they’re important people, with important things to do — but that everyone else should follow the posted signs.


The larger lesson is that Foucault had a point: The dynamics of power can profoundly influence how we think. When we climb the ladder of status, our inner arguments get warped and our natural sympathy for others is vanquished. Instead of fretting about the effects of our actions, we just go ahead and act. We deserve what we want. And how dare they resist. Don’t they know who we are?

At this point, I sat staring at the screen for some time, wondering what to make of my research findings. Just ‘hearing’ my mind coming up with questions, questions that were rhetorical in nature, not hearing hard, clear questions that could command hard, clear answers. Questions such as:

• Is this characteristic of power warping our judgment, profoundly influencing how we think, as Foucault is recorded as saying, ‘hard-wired’ in humans?
• If so, has it always been this way?
• If not having always been this way with man, then what brought it on?
• Irrespective of the scale of an emergency affecting mankind, either on a regional or global scale, would power always have a tendency to corrupt?
• What cultural changes would need to take place to break the link between power and corruption?
• Indeed, could there be any changes that would achieve this?

Readers will have realised that I have not offered a single example, over and above the fleeting mentions of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Roman emperors, of power and corruption in recent times. For the straightforward reason that there are too many examples of the abuses of power around and picking, almost randomly, one from here and one from there, in no way adds anything to this chapter. That’s my view and I’m sticking to it!
1,443 words. Copyright © 2014 Paul Handover

Written by Paul Handover

November 12, 2014 at 00:30

Studs Terkel

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Gobsmackingly powerful writing!

Back on the 28th October, Tom Engelhardt published over on TomDispatch: Tomgram: Studs Terkel on Death and Forgiveness in America.  I read the essay early on that morning and was blown away by it; to use the modern venacular.  I checked with Tom that it was alright for me to republish here but decided to delay that for a couple of weeks.

The Tomgram included two essays by Studs Terkel, an author I hadn’t come across, and a terrible omission for this amateur author. His website provides this biographical overview:

Studs Terkel, prize-winning author and radio broadcast personality was born Louis Terkel in New York on May 16, 1912. His father, Samuel, was a tailor and his mother, Anna (Finkel) was a seamstress. He had three brothers. The family moved to Chicago in 1922 and opened a Studs biorooming house at Ashland and Flournoy on the near West side. From 1926 to 1936 they ran another rooming house, the Wells-Grand Hotel at Wells Street and Grand Avenue. Terkel credited his knowledge of the world to the tenants who gathered in the lobby of the hotel and the people who congregated in nearby Bughouse Square, a meeting place for workers, labor organizers, dissidents, the unemployed, and religious fanatics of many persuasions. In 1939 he married Ida Goldberg and had one son.

Terkel attended University of Chicago and received a law degree in 1934. He chose not to pursue a career in law. After a brief stint with the civil service in Washington D.C., he returned to Chicago and worked with the WPA Writers Project in the radio division. One day he was asked to read a script and soon found himself in radio soap operas, in other stage performances, and on a WAIT news show. After a year in the Air Force, he returned to writing radio shows and ads. He was on a sports show on WBBM and then, in 1944, he landed his own show on WENR. This was called the Wax Museum show that allowed him to express his own personality and play recordings he liked from folk music, opera, jazz, or blues. A year later he had his own television show called Stud’s Place and started asking people the kind of questions that marked his later work as an interviewer.

In 1952 Terkel began working for WFMT, first with the “Studs Terkel Almanac” and the “Studs Terkel Show,” primarily to play music. The interviewing came along by accident. This later became the award-winning, “The Studs Terkel Program.” His first book, Giants of Jazz, was published in 1956. Ten years later his first book of oral history interviews, Division Street: America, came out. It was followed by a succession of oral history books on the 1930s Depression, World War Two, race relations, working, the American dream, and aging. His last oral history book, Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, was published in 2001.

Late into his life Terkel continued to interview people, work on his books, and make public appearances. He was the first Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the Chicago Historical Society. His last book, P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening was released in November 2008. Terkel died on October 31, 2008 at the age of 96.

Although the TomGram includes two essays from Stud, I’m going to split it and republish the first essay, together with Tom’s introduction.

Prepare to be very moved!


Tomgram: Studs Terkel on Death and Forgiveness in America

Posted by Studs Terkel at 8:00am, October 28, 2014.
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Studs Terkel, who put oral history on the American map with one spectacular book after another, was a small man who had a knack for making everyone around him feel larger than life. He taught me the first significant lesson I learned as a book editor — and he didn’t even know it. I stumbled into Pantheon Books in the summer of 1976, hired (on the basis of remarkably little) by André Schiffrin, who ran that pioneering publishing outfit. I had only the most minimal idea of what a book editor was or did, but on one thing I was clear: I was going to put new voices between covers. (I would later start calling them “voices from elsewhere, even when the elsewhere is here.”) I couldn’t have been less interested in well known or famous writers. I was, that is, something of a reverse snob.

Nonetheless, one day that first fall André came into my office with the manuscript of Stud Terkel’s memoir, Talking to Myself, which was to be published the following spring. He asked me to read it because Studs — he claimed — wanted my reaction. A longtime Chicago radio personality, who had even hosted an early, unscripted TV show, “Studs’ Place,” set in a fictional bar (the “Cheers” of its era), he was well known indeed. The first book he and André had done together, Division Street: America, had broken into bestsellerdom and neither of them had ever looked back.

Studs didn’t know me from a hole in the wall, so I didn’t take the request seriously until André returned a few days later to ask whether I had read the manuscript. I hadn’t. He said, “Please do. Studs is waiting anxiously.” Anxiously? That was hard to imagine, but when your boss insists… so I went home, read it, and two days later let him know what I thought. (What could you think, given that Studs was fantastic at what he did?) Soon after, he put me on the phone with Studs to tell him just how good it was and make a few modest, last-minute suggestions.

So many years later, I still remember that unforgettable voice (possibly the last on Earth out of which a cigar emerged) saying something like, “Do you really mean it, Tom?” What I’ll specifically never forget was the quaver in it, the shiver that seemed like a caricature of fear. After all, he was the best-known author I’d ever talked to and, as a young man with enough doubts of my own, it had never crossed my mind that a successful writer might feel vulnerable when it came to his latest work or give a damn about the opinion of a total nobody. In a way, that moment taught me everything I needed to know about the essential vulnerability of the writer and, thanks to Studs, I never looked back.

For years, André, who was his editor, would call me in to take a final look at his oral histories. (It was like sending in the second team.) Only after I left Pantheon did I became Studs’ primary editor. It was the experience of a lifetime. Just to give you a little taste of the man, I’m including excerpts from the only letter of his I still have, typed by hand, filled with X’d out words, and further hand-corrected in pen. It came with the first batch of rough interviews for the final book we worked on together, an oral history of political activism aptly titled Hope Dies Last. By that time, Studs was in his early nineties and still a human dynamo. Maxwell Perkins, whom he mentions, was a famed editor who joined the venerable firm of Scribner’s wanting to publish vibrant young voices and ended up working with, among others, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and most famously the novelist Thomas Wolfe who simply couldn’t stop writing, which meant that his books involved marathon bouts of editing. Here, then, are the first two paragraphs of that letter in his telegraphese.

“Post-election day,” Studs began. “A hell of a time to write about hope… The ton of stuff — good and less than good. Since what you have is the raw stuff — I have already tossed aside about 20 [interviews] — I shall, of course, begin my cuts shortly after you receive this messy letter.

“You’ll be my Maxwell Perkins, though you don’t wear a hat, and I’m your Thomas Wolfe, though a foot and a half shorter than he was…”

And here’s how he ended: “I’m eagerly looking forward to your reactions when you get this bundle. Horrified [though] you may be by its bulk, remember you’re my Maxwell Perkins. If it works out, I’ll buy you a hat.”

What a guy (even if I never got that hat)! I always considered it appropriately Studsian that the book preceding Hope Dies Last was his oral history of death, Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith. Studs himself died in 2008. Circle has just been reissued in paperback with a new Jane Gross introduction by the New Press, the publishing house that André, who died last December, set up after he was forced out of Pantheon by Sy Newhouse, the right-wing owner of its parent company, Random House.

Given the grim panorama of death these days — from beheadings to pandemics — and the hysteria accompanying it all, I thought it might be both a relief and a change of pace at TomDispatch to turn back to Studs’ oral history of death, which as its editor I can testify is moving and uncannily uplifting. That, of course, is not as odd as it sounds from the man who was the troubadour for the extraordinary ordinary American. Thanks to the kindness of his publisher, the New Press, I’ve chosen two interviews from that book which stayed in my mind these last 13 years: the first focuses on an impulse that may be among the hardest to understand and yet most moving to encounter, forgiveness; and the second, from this country’s medical front lines, centers on a subject that, unfortunately, is still all too timely: the trauma deaths of young Americans from gunshot wounds. This is the only book I ever remember editing while, in some cases, crying. Tom

“You Got Into My Heart Violently, But You’re There”

Trauma, Death, and Forgiveness on the Front Lines of American Life
By Studs Terkel

[The following is excerpted from the new paperback edition of Studs Terkel’s oral history of death, Will The Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, with special thanks to his publisher, the New Press.]

“The Other Son”
Maurine Young

In contrast to her husband’s introspective nature, she is outgoing, a large-boned woman, overflowing with gusto and ebullience. She frequently laughs out loud.

I’m a forty-six-year-old woman of Jewish-Gentile descent — my father’s a Jew, my mother’s a Gentile. My parents divorced when I was young, and I was raised by my stepfather — raised Catholic. He was a truck driver. My younger brother, Mark, became a truck driver. I went to public school. But I went to the Catholic catechism every Wednesday. I did the confirmation and all that kind of stuff. I got close to age twelve, thirteen, and I began to see what I was saved from. I was saved from Hell. But what Catholicism wasn’t teaching me was what I was saved to. They didn’t tell me how to live with God and experience a taste of Heaven on Earth, now. So I began to pull away from the Church. It just didn’t meet my needs.

If I read my Bible I saw that it said very clearly to worship God, then why were people worshiping statues? To me that looked like idolatry. So, as a young teenager, I started asking questions. Then I began to wonder what is this all about? I know that there’s a God, and I know that He loves me, but what else is there? How do you live now? I lived in a very difficult, alcoholic home, and early in my teens began to experiment with drugs — do whatever I felt like doing. In the one sense, I had the Ten Commandments ingrained in me, so I knew what was right and wrong — but I didn’t really care about the consequences. I didn’t really understand the value of a God who loves me, and that because He loves me, I should act loving towards him, which means act loving towards everybody else. I was very, very selfish.

I had been working part-time jobs since I was fourteen. A couple of weeks after I graduated from high school, my dad said, “Get out of the backyard, sitting in your bikini, and get your butt downtown and find a job.” So I went downtown and found a secretarial position. I was seventeen. And then I moved out when I was eighteen, to live with my boyfriend. That didn’t work out. Moved back home and met Steve not that long afterwards, in March of 1975. We moved up here to Rogers Park and had a family. We had twins in May of 1977, Andrew Needham and Samuel Richard, born on different days — May 7 and May 8. And then in 1982, in August, we had Philip; and then in 1987, December, we had Clinton. I was working as a floral designer, part-time, in Skokie. Steve was tuning pianos.

Andrew went out to cash a check with his brother and didn’t come back. He was shot by a young man who had easy access to a handgun and who had graduated from high school the day before and was looking to move up in the gang that he was in, the Latin Kings. He shot Andrew, probably because Andrew didn’t back down with his mouth. He knew that gang members were idiots and didn’t mind telling them what he thought of them when they made signs at him. He was in our car.

When I got to the hospital and found out that he was gone, and I asked the boys what happened and they told me, I said, “Well, you know what? There’ll be no retaliation for this. I just want to make that clear.” Men usually want revenge; women, too, but men usually much quicker. Women will stew for a while. I knew that revenge was wrong, but I also knew that I hated what these kids had done and knew that they deserved to be punished. I pulled out some old journals from that time. These notebooks. Here’s an entry that I wrote July 13th of 1996. Andrew was murdered June 10th of 1996. It reads: “It’s been sixty days since Andrew left us. Forced out of his body by Mario and Roberto. Please, Lord, let justice be served. Plus, punish them. Let them not have a free life.” That’s how I felt. I did not want them to be free, and I was real glad that the police had seen what had happened.

I’m going to backtrack a tiny bit. My twins were three months old. I was sitting on the beach with them. Somebody came up to me and said, “Could we talk to you about Jesus?” And I said, “It’s a public park, it’s a free country, you can sit down.” So they started talking to me about Jesus. This lady turns to me and she says, “So how’s your life?” And her words shot into my chest like a sword. I’m thinking, Oh my God, what does she know? I had just had the twins. I was not coping. I was smoking massive amounts of marijuana. I was up twenty-four hours a day, not knowing how to keep these little babies on a schedule. I was fantasizing throwing one of them out the window. I was having what now I understand to be severe post-partum psychosis. I didn’t have any help. I was really just trying to hold on… So I began to tell this lady and her friends how poorly I was doing. She said, “Would you like to commit your life to Christ again?” And I said, “I really would. Because I realize I’m not doing very well by myself. Something is missing.” So I did that and I prayed that day. Since that day, I’ve been learning how to parent, and to let God love me, and to love and forgive others.

Nineteen years later, when this happened with Andrew being murdered, I said, “OK, I know who I’m following.” What would Jesus do? It was pretty clear. He says: Love your enemies — I consider these little guys my enemies that killed my son. Pray for those who use you, forgive as God has forgiven you. So I thought, OK, what does that mean? Looking back at another journal… this is from January of 1997. I wrote: “What are the obstacles to forgiveness? How can forgiveness free us? How can it free me? Well, first I needed to know that I must face my own pain and grieve. And not keep anger on, sort of as a suit of armor. Admit the wrong that was done to me and experience the rage. But be honest with God about my pain and why. Releasing my anger to him and pardoning the offender makes me feel vulnerable, even out of control. But what’s my choice? If I hold my anger, it will destroy me.” And then I also wrote, “It’s OK to be afraid of being hurt again.” So, obviously, the whole idea of forgiveness was there in the back of my mind the whole time, and I kept thinking: I want to kill them, I want to see them fry. But God says forgive… And I kept going back and forth thinking, How do you do this? Scratching my head. Then I realized I could make the choice and trust that the power to do it would be there. Because I know that my faith, which is just my yes, is the glue that holds God’s power to his promises. And He’s promised that He would do what I ask, He would do the right thing in my life. I’m going to have the faith and forgive and trust that He’s going to take care of it all. So I finally did that about July of 1997, about six months after what I just read to you. I forgave and wrote Mario in prison a letter. He was eighteen, my son was nineteen. I told him about my life. I just wanted him to know how I was raised, and that I had done plenty of things that needed forgiving and God forgave me. So how could I withhold forgiveness from him? I couldn’t. That I love him and God loves him and I forgave him.

I didn’t know that at the same time, he was writing me a letter. As I remember, he was begging forgiveness, saying how sorry he was, how he wished he could bring Andrew back, even trade places. And I believed his letter was sincere. But his letter was unnecessary for my forgiveness. I had been asking to see him.

It’s one thing to write to someone and say you forgive them — it’s another to physically touch them and say you forgive them. It would help me in my healing and him in his, I knew. I felt compelled to do it. I had been asking through his priest when was a good time. Mario kept saying, “I’m not ready. Mrs. Young is pushing too much. I’m not ready.” He was terrified. He thought I might hit him or something. He was not ready to face me. That was July of 1997. I didn’t get to see him until December 17th of 1998. So it took more than a year and a half before he was ready. And I waited. We did correspond. And then I went to visit him with Father Oldershaw, and a retired schoolteacher by the name of Arlene Bozack. She had been visiting him.

When we first got there, the assistant warden, who was Hispanic, was crying. He said, “Mrs. Young, why are you here?” I said, “Well, I’m here to offer forgiveness to the young man who killed my son.” And he said, “Why?” And I said, “Because I care about him, I love him. It’s the right thing to do. I want to do it in person.” He said, “In all my years, this is the first time I’ve ever seen this happen. I really commend what you’re doing.” He was this big, tough-looking Hispanic warden.

I see Mario for the first time. He couldn’t look at me. He had his head hanging down. They sat us around a small round table with four attached seats, told us where to sit. Everybody kept looking at me very suspiciously, like I was going to just jump on this kid and beat the hell out of him. Mario’s got his head hanging down, and all of a sudden he kind of looks, and he can’t make eye contact. I saw that his whole body was starting to shake. All four of us prayed. It was me, Father Oldershaw on my right, Mario was across from me, and Arlene Bozack was to his right.

I grabbed both Mario’s hands from across the table, and I looked at him in the eye, and I said, “I just want you to know that I’m glad to be here.” I knew I had to go first. He just shook his head. Slowly, but surely, the conversation started. Little chitchat, we all took turns talking. I wanted to know about his family and how they were doing. Because the shame that he brought on them — especially being an Hispanic family — that’s so important. And then the conversation changed a bit because I felt like, OK, it’s time for this little guy to hear what he’s done to us. The consequences of his actions. I began to tell him the difficulties that each of our family members was having. As I went through, person by person, saying, one young man’s suicidal, the other one can’t focus, or whatever the problems were for each of us, he listened. He held Arlene’s hand and he trembled and he wept, but he listened.

At some point in the conversation I said, “I love you like you’re my son, like you’re one of mine.” And I was like, “I can’t figure out how this happened!” [Laughs] I thought I was nuts. I didn’t tell him that. I was thinking, I gotta be crazy. So I said, “I love you like you’re my own son. You got into my heart violently, but you’re there. So this has to be a miracle. God did this. Because I didn’t do this. But, as a son, you have responsibilities to know what’s going on and to pray for us, to communicate with us regularly. You’re part of the family now.” Then he pulled out his Bible. I said, “Mario, there’s a Scripture that meant a lot to me and helped me take this step. I wanted to tell you what it is. It’s in Romans, in the twelfth chapter. It says, ‘Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.’” I said, “My reaching out and extending and forgiving was my responsibility, and it didn’t depend on whether or not you accepted that forgiveness. I had to do that.” It also says, “Never take your own revenge, but leave room for the wrath of God.” Then I said what was really important was when I got to verse 21. It says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” I said, “Mario, that really meant a lot to me. Because I wanted to win. I did not want this evil thing that you and Roberto did to us to win. I wanted good to win. So that’s why I forgave you and that’s why I love you.”

He was speechless. He looked at me like I had two heads. [She roars with laughter.] He stared at me like: I don’t know what she’s talking about — she’s from another planet. It wasn’t quite sinking in. But he was listening. I heard later that he was confused and didn’t understand it, but it was beginning to make sense. He was actually holding his Bible open to this spot, looking at it over and over and over again. We talked, and then I got to hold him. That was really, really special. Here’s another reason I thought I was crazy: I’m sitting across this little table from him, and it’s all I can do to stay in my seat. I’m thinking: What’s wrong with me? Am I having a nervous breakdown? Everything in me wanted to leap over the table, grab hold of this kid, and rock him like a baby, just hold him. The urge was so overwhelming. The compulsion was so overwhelming, I was afraid that if I couldn’t keep control, I’d be in really big trouble with the guards and the warden. So I resisted that urge the whole time.

On the way back home, I was thinking about it, and then I talked to Arlene and Father Oldershaw. I said, “I’ve got it! I know what was happening. I was getting a taste in my body of how much God loves us. He loves us so much that He wants to leap over the table, grab hold of us, and just rock us because we’re his children.” That love, that forgiveness — I got a taste of what it must have been like for Jesus when he was here and walked the Earth among people that he loved so desperately, so wonderfully. I got a taste of it!

As time went on and we kept corresponding, I did go see him again there, and it was good. I really began to see him maturing, through his letters and through visiting him. I was training him, I was mentoring him — to help him to grow up, to help him in his spiritual walk. His letters changed. They became clearer, he became more willing to take total responsibility. I saw no excuses anymore, I saw a person that was squarely saying: This is where I am and this is where I should be, and God’s changing me right here, and probably being here saved my life. He’s working as a chaplain’s assistant now… [Sighs]… I’m convinced that if I did not forgive and I held on to my anger, that I probably would have become mentally ill. Maybe killed myself, maybe hurt someone else. I felt like God’s hand was on me and he was squashing me into a pancake: You gotta do this — this is the right thing.

I knew that there were great things ahead, although they terrified me, the thought of going out into new territory. Because, I’ll tell ya, I was not a very forgiving person most of my life. I used to hold things against whoever did what to me. It really took the murder of my son and the forgiving of his killer to teach me how to forgive everybody around me. I began to realize: My husband’s not going to be Mr. Perfect. My parents haven’t been perfect parents. My children are not perfect children. My friends are going to let me down. That’s a given. Because they’re human, like I am. There is one perfect, that is God, and He loves me. And that’s good enough for me. So, by forgiving them, like I did Mario, it freed me to really love. My love was, like, stopped up in a bottle or something. It came out in little bits. But for the most part, it was stopped up until I forgave this kid. And then it was like whoosh — this is what I’ve been missing my whole life. [Belly laugh]

I saw Mario just this last month. I’ve met his mom and his dad. They don’t speak any English, but usually one of his sisters is there to interpret. Most of the time, all his mother can do is hold on to me and cry. She’s a very sweet person.


Did warn you about being very moved!

Written by Paul Handover

November 12, 2014 at 00:00


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