Monday, May 27, 2013


….We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that
 “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

….I know the politics are hard. But history will cast a harsh
judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those
of us who fail to end it. Imagine a future — 10 years from now or
20 years from now — when the United States of America is still
holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece
of land that is not part of our country. Look at the current
situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being
held on a hunger strike. I’m willing to cut the young lady who
interrupted me some slack because it’s worth being passionate
about. Is this who we are? Is that something our Founders
foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our
children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that.

President Obama’s speech at the National Defense University is worth very serious and critical reading. It’s long, but fascinating and asks a deeply disturbing question: “IS THIS WHO WE ARE?”

The speech argues for a pull back from the perpetual state of war and the most obvious violations of human rights inherent in the “Global War On Terror”. That would be quite a departure from the actions and rhetoric of the last ten destructive years, not only during the Bush presidency. While Obama has criticized some of the worst of those policies before, and has sought to reduce the direct commitment of US troops to land wars, some of the worst abuses of civil liberties have continued and the abomination of drone strikes and assassinations has been greatly expanded.

Obama’s arguments against the very concept of the Global War on Terror and its domestic and international consequences are highly significant. Some points are expressed in a language and with a logic rare for a president of the United States.

I know, it’s a speech: Obama’s speeches always raise expectations and then are nullified in the course of events, ending in disappointment. It’s fashionable to view this contradiction between aspirations and reality as a reflection of Obama himself, his style and personality or, according to critics on the Right and some on the Left, his ideology. Many of his supporters blame the gap between theory and practice entirely on GOP obstruction and sabotage — not without a mountain of evidence to that effect.

It’s inevitable that much of the focus is on Obama himself, for blame or praise, but a narrow focus can obscure what’s driving events. Unlike conservative NY Times columnist, Ross Douthat, I choose not to believe that Obama’s anguish over unending war and the state of civil liberties is insincere. On the other hand, I don’t doubt his allegiance to the basic features of US economic, military and imperial power. That, too, is clear in his speech and in what his Administration does.

Leaving “Obama analysis” behind, the significance of his challenge to unsustainable war is that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have failed, the Global War on Terror has created serious problems at home and abroad, and the switch to expanded drone warfare has ignited more hatred and worldwide condemnation. The speech also acknowledged domestic criticism and defection of support for war, citing lives lost and ruined as well as trillions of dollars wasted.

So, it’s more than a speech. There is an objective basis for a change away from unending wars and gambles that could ignite new wars.

Of course, not everyone agrees. John McCain and Lindsey Graham cry that it’s surrender and, shamefully, Congress passes a bipartisan resolution promising full support to Israel if it strikes Iran.

That brings us to Obama’s question: “Is this who we are?” Unfortunately, most of our wars end only after the public sees that they can’t be won and that further costs and sacrifices are unsustainable. At the onset of wars, moral questions are raised by a minority, but cruel reality eventually brings them to the fore. Obama’s speech raised some serious moral questions, and his respectful comments in response to Medea Benjamin’s protest were a rarity indeed for a powerful politician.

But we might ask, who is the “we” in ‘who we are’? Some Americans profit greatly at the expense of others; some benefit from war. That’s a small, though very powerful minority. Most often, the “we” who are the rest simply are subsumed as “USA” when “US interests” frequently mean the interests of the powerful who establish military bases and economic control wherever possible.

When we say who we are, most of us refer proudly to the best of our democratic traditions. That’s as it should be. But that’s only part of the story. We can be proud of who “we” are when we say “enough” to war, when we reject the powerful who lord it over other people in our name.

There’s nothing exclusively “American” about virtue and commitment to humane values. Likewise, being American doesn’t provide immunity to responsibility for acts of brutality. Every day the blight of Gitmo continues, or a drone assault descends on a village, becomes part of “who we are” as a nation.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


PAST 90 (2)

Eighteen years ago, I published a memoir titled Looking for the Future*. This time around, I simply intend to write little vignettes of memory and reflection as they occur to me, not in chronological order or in any overall design. I may retell a few stories that were in my memoir — people don’t usually remember someone else’s stories as the years go by.

Inevitably, in the stretch of time between memoirs, my life has changed drastically. The biggest changes are those of loss, although change also evokes gain through new experience. Our daughter Carla was lost to breast cancer in 2003. Roz, my wife for 67 years, died in 2009 after a long ordeal of illness and physical disability. More than other ghosts of dear departed, Roz and Carla come back to me often in dreams and loving memory.

My new life is good, better than I could have imagined in my sad and loneliest days. Gail and I are married. We share a new love and ways of living that are different for each of us than in our past experience (more about that in later installments).

What I never expected was that my retirement years would stretch out as long as they have. 1984-1987 was transition time to full retirement, first giving up teaching and then winding down my research program and closing my laboratory. My active faculty career at the University of California lasted 26 years, beginning at UC San Diego and continuing as Professor of Molecular Biology/Immunology at Berkeley. Now it’s 29 years since I gave my last class lecture in Immunology.

Why did I retire when so many good and healthy years were still ahead? Does what I’ve done with my retirement years justify that choice?

Tough questions.

Of course Roz’s medical problems  — she had five back and hip surgeries in the 1980s — pressed me to an early decision. She had to retire from her long career of leadership in the field of developmental disabilities. I made her care my priority and took on cooking and housekeeping, even with a bit of enthusiasm. None of that do I regret, up to and including pushing the wheel chair in her last couple of years.

Still, that’s not the whole story. I guess I longed for a change of intellectual pace. I was very unhappy over growing commercialization and intrusive corporate influence that are the downside of astonishing advances in science and technology. Still, I could have adjusted to rapid changes in my field and in academia. But something else also kicked in, a current that remains a constant through all the choices, hopes (and wishful thinking) that have shaped me. I wanted to devote more time to political thinking, to try to better understand and write about social change.

How can I answer whether retiring when I did was right or wrong for me? I can’t. If I knew how long the last chapter would be, I might have made different arrangements. It’s something perhaps to think about once in a while, not to worry over.

*Click on the link and the book can be read on line. If you want your own copy, email your address to me at and I'll mail it to you.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

PAST 90 (1) : Looking Anew Through Eyes Grown Old

From here on my blog switches gears back and forth between memoir (“Past 90”) and OpEds on current happenings. “New Post” announcements will usually be sent out for OpEds, not memoir entries — just an occasional reminder invitation to visit me at this site if you have the time and inclination.


There was an article recently about a woman of 104 years busily engaged in writing a book that is eagerly awaited by scholars acquainted with her earlier writings. That’s beyond remarkable. She still has her marbles and memory (at least enough of them) and the work habits to carry on.

I’m “only” 91 and in pretty good shape for my age, so I feel obliged (to myself) once more to reflect in writing on my life and times. Years ago I would have thought such ambition remarkable for a nonagenarian. Now, however, it’s nothing to brag about. Being over 90 is almost unthinkable for me, but the put-downs greet me: ‘Oh, someone I know is 98 and still playing tennis, or 93 and jogging around Lake Merritt!’

Though the last of Shakespeare’s seven stages may come later than it used to, it still looms over our vanishing years.

Aging is full of surprises. They start appearing early. It was a shock, when playing pick-up basketball into my late 40s, I suddenly discovered I could no longer leap high enough to reach the rim of the basket. I felt I was jumping as always, only the results were different. Not long after, an opposing team assigned a 12 year old to guard me. It was past time for me to give up.

That was long, long ago. Getting back to surprises of the present, particularly the ones that may impinge on my writing ambitions: I get very sleepy throughout the day. I doze briefly but repeatedly when I read, go to a play or a concert or watch tv (I avoid lectures altogether). Even news of great interest — in newspapers, on the internet or tv — is not sure to keep my eyes open without cat naps. I still manage to take things in and I’m passionate about what goes on in the world, about books and music as well as politics, but it’s a constant challenge of will.

Then there’s the memory problem. A lot is remembered, even details, but the wheels turn very slowly to churn up what’s there. A serious surprise is the deficit in concentration. I used to be able to keep more than one thing in mind at a time, to hang on to thoughts and call them up as I wished. I even remembered dreams and ideas that came to me as I lay in bed. Now nighttime thoughts mysteriously disappear in seconds — something seems very clear and important and a moment later I can’t even recall the subject.

I think this “concentration” problem — difficulty with multi-tasking or multi-thinking, the tendency to be easily distracted — is a common and serious aging affliction. At least it is for me. Maybe that’s what makes driving somewhat riskier for old folk. My reflexes are good and I drive well, but I have to focus with determination and avoid being distracted by conversation.

Here I am, on the high end of physical condition and mental health compared to most people past 80 years of age, but I now have a different grasp of “dementia” than when I first heard that jarring term. For most people, aging doesn’t bring a drastic loss of mental function as with Alzheimer’s or anything like it. But things are not what they used to be. How could they be? Even though I still walk the three miles around Lake Merritt with friends, as I have for more than 20 years, I puff and wheeze on small inclines or stairs. How could my old mind not do some wheezing of its own? 

Of course the marvelous brain, even an old brain, is much more malleable and capable of adapting to new challenges than an old knee or hip. I’m counting on that.

Anyway, on with my journey. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013


With unintended help from a stumbling Administration, the GOP seems to be succeeding in changing the subject. There ought to be outrage over the GOP’s extreme attack on the people, its total blockade against anything and everything government should be doing in critical times.  Instead, it’s Darrell Issa time, time to go for blood against Obama.

It’s not beside the point that the Administration has made itself vulnerable. Still it’s the people who suffer the consequences if the GOP can call the shots, shifting public attention away from the most urgent problems and from its obvious commitment to political sabotage.

Obama’s vulnerability stems in part from his loyalty to the “national security” state. He has failed to challenge effectively past violations of civil liberties and international law made in the name of “homeland security”. In the main, his administration has carried those policies forward, claiming executive powers to cover unlawful detentions, illegal surveillance, and even targeted assassinations. As in the past, government conceals inconvenient facts; secrecy prevails over the public’s right to know. (Look what’s happening to Private Manning who dared to blow the whistle.)

Of course, these are not the things Darrell Issa and John Boehner want to investigate. It seems the IRS’s selective and stupid offense to the Tea Party is what matters, not exemptions granted wholesale to superPACs to legitimate their money laundering scam.

Discredited as the rightist Congress and the GOP have become, they see witch hunts and obstruction as the tested way to force the Administration into unending crisis and collapse. If Obama only plays defense and appeasement in the face of “scandal”, inflated or not, the glimmers of remaining hope in his presidency may be overwhelmed. But the people and the country will suffer the heaviest defeat if the fight against the “sequester” and the austerity disaster is derailed.

We’ve seen this sort of thing before, but the stakes get higher all the time. Corrupt and racist political demagogues have been thwarted and beaten back many times in our history, often when expectations were dire. 

Huge majorities of Americans want gun control, oppose the “sequester”, and distrust war mongers; still Congress says “No”. It should be possible, with struggle, to bring things into better balance.