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There's a letter telling me report to my faculty adviser in the English Department, Mr. Max Bogart. He says my grades are unsatisfactory, B minus in the History of Education in America and C in Introduction to Literature. I'm supposed to maintain a B average on my year's probation if I want to stay in college. After all, he says, the dean did you a favor letting you in without a high school diploma and now you let her down.
I have to work.
What do you mean you have to work? Everyone has to work.
I have to work nights, sometimes days, on piers, in warehouses.
He says I have to make a decision, work or college. He'll give me a break this time and put me on probation on top of the probation I already have. Next June he wants to see me with a straight B average or better.
I never thought college would be all numbers and letters and grades and averages and people putting me on probation. I thought this would be a place where kindly learned men and women would teach in a warm way and if I didn't understand they'd pause and explain. I didn't know I'd go from course to course with dozens of students, sometimes over a hundred, with professors lecturing and not even looking at you. Some professors look out the window or up at the ceiling and some stick their noses in notebooks and read from paper that is yellow and crumbling with age. If students ask questions they're waved away. In English novels students at Oxford and Cambridge were always meeting in professors' rooms and sipping sherry while discussing Sophocles. I'd like to discuss Sophocles, too, but I'd have to read him first and there's no time after my nights at Merchants Refrigerating.
And if I'm to discuss Sophocles and get gloomy over existentialism and the Camus suicide problem I'll have to give up Merchants Refrigerating. If I didn't have the night job I might be able to sit in the cafeteria and talk about Pierre, or the Ambiguities or Crime and Punishment or Shakespeare in general. There are girls in the cafeteria with names like Rachel and Naomi and they're the ones Mrs. Klein told me about, Jewish girls who are very sensual. I wish I had the courage to talk to them because they're probably like Protestant girls, all in a state of despair over the emptiness of it all, no sense of sin and ready for all kinds of sensuality. (Chapter 27, pgs. 164-165)
The New York Times Magazine
The Architectural Issue Behind Bars ... Sort Of Can a prison have glass walls, balconies, communal cooking spaces and private bathrooms - and still be a prison?
By Jim Lewis
Inside the prison it felt like Sunday afternoon, though in fact it was a Tuesday. There was a glassy brightness over everything, and most surprising, an unbreakable silence. Prisons are usually clamorous places, filled with the sound of metal doors opening and closing, and the general racket that comes with holding large numbers of men in a confined space. Noise is part of the chaos of prison life; (Justice Center) Leoben was serene. I mentioned as much to (architect Josef) Hohensinn, and he smiled and pointed to the whitewashed ceilings. He had taken great care to install soundproofing.
An assistant warden accompanied us on our tour, one of three guards on duty tasked with watching more than 200 inmates. On one side of the prison there was a block of prisoners on remand; on the other side were the convicts, living in units called pods — groups of 15 one-person cells with floor-to-ceiling windows, private lavatories and a common space that includes a small kitchen. We came upon one prisoner cooking a late lunch for a few of his podmates; we stood there for a bit, chatting. They were wearing their own clothes. The utensils on the table were metal. “They are criminals,” Hohensinn said to me, “but they are also human beings. The more normal a life you give them here, the less necessary it is to resocialize them when they leave.” His principle, he said, was simple: “Maximum security outside; maximum freedom inside.” (The bars over the balconies are there to ensure the inmates’ safety, Hohensinn said; the surrounding wall outside is more than enough to make sure no one gets free.)
We walked around some more. There was a gymnasium, a prayer room, a room for conjugal visits. I asked Hohensinn what he would do if, contrary to fact, it were conclusively proved that prisons like his encouraged crime rather than diminished it. Would he renounce the design? He shook his head. “The prisoners’ dignity is all I really care about,” he told me.
Suppose we can’t bring ourselves to be quite so magnanimous. Suppose all we’re interested in is reducing crime. If you trust a criminal with a better environment, will he prove trustworthy? As far as Leoben is concerned, it’s too soon to tell. The place has been open for only four years. But I noticed something as we were leaving, and in the absence of any other data it seemed significant. In the three or four hours we spent roaming all through the place, I hadn’t seen a single example of vandalism. ...
In fact, though most of us are reluctant to admit it, we mainly use prisons as storage containers, putting people there with the hope that, if nothing else, five years behind bars means five years during which they can’t commit more crimes. It’s called warehousing, and we do a lot of it. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, by far — it is more than five times as high as in the U.K. About 1 in every 100 American adults is in federal or state prisons or local jails — 1 in 30 men between 20 and 34, 1 in 9 black men of the same age. All told, we keep about 2.3 million adults behind bars: if the entire prison population were treated as a single city, it would be the fourth-largest in the United States, just behind Chicago and just ahead of Houston. Moreover, our incarceration rate has climbed, or rather rocketed, for the past 30 years: adjusted for population growth, there are about four times as many people in prison this year as there were in 1980. In response, we’ve hastily thrown up hundreds of prisons. But not nearly enough: facilities are strained, units are grotesquely overcrowded and space for medical and psychological services has become profoundly inadequate. We pay lip-service to the idea of rehabilitation, but we do little to make it happen. About 67 percent of the prisoners who are released are arrested again within three years. The result, to borrow a phrase from a Conservative British home secretary, has been “an expensive way of making bad people worse.” (-- pgs. 51-52)
... In other free countries, legislation, social and otherwise, gets made in a fairly straightforward manner. There is an election, in which the voters, having paid attention to the issues for six weeks or so, choose a government. The governing party or coalition then enacts its program, and the voters get a chance to render a verdict on it the next time they go to the polls. Through one or another variation of this process, the people of every other wealthy democracy on earth have obtained for themselves some form of guaranteed health insurance or universal health care.
The way we do it is, shall we say, more exciting. For us, an election is only the opening broadside in a series of protracted political battles of heavy artillery and hand-to-hand fighting. A President may fancy that he has a mandate (and, morally, he may well have one), but the two separately elected, differently constituted, independent legislatures whose acquiescence he needs are under no compulsion to agree. Within those legislatures, a system of overlapping committees dominated by powerful chairmen creates a plethora of veto points where well-organized special interests can smother or distort a bill meant to benefit a large but amorphous public. In the smaller of the two legislatures—which is even more heavily weighted toward conservative rural interests than is the larger one, and where one member may represent as little as one-seventieth as many people as the member in the next seat—an arcane and patently unconstitutional rule, the filibuster, allows a minority of members to block almost any action. The process that results is less like the Roman Senate than like the Roman Games: a sanguinary legislative Colosseum where at any moment some two-bit emperor is apt to signal the thumbs-down.
These perverse (if time-honored) institutional arrangements (and the above accounting only scratches the surface of their perversity) are the principal cause of America’s sad health-care exceptionalism. Americans, polling shows, have long been as receptive as Europeans to the principle of universal health care. Six times since 1948, we have elected Presidents committed, at least on paper, to that principle. There have been gains, small (under Clinton, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP) and not so small (under Johnson, Medicare, for the aged, and Medicaid, for the very poor). Yet forty-six million of us—a number roughly equal to the population of half the states of the Union—have no health insurance at all, and, as President Obama noted during his prime-time press conference last week, fourteen thousand more are losing theirs every day. Many millions of us have coverage that is inadequate, and almost all of us live with the well-founded fear that unemployment, a change of job, or striking out on one’s own to freelance or start a business could cost us our coverage and leave us open to medical and financial catastrophe.
Pretty much everybody who believes that health care should be a human right, not a commercial commodity, and who makes a serious study of the abstract substance of the matter, concludes that the best solution would be (to borrow Obama’s words at the press conference) “what’s called a single-payer system, in which everybody is automatically covered.” But, by the same token, pretty much everybody who believes the same thing, and who makes a serious study of the concrete politics of the matter, concludes that a change so sudden and so wrenching—and so threatening to so many powerful interests—is beyond the capacities of our ramshackle political mechanisms. The American health-care system is bloated, wasteful, and cruel. Under the health-insurance-reform package now being bludgeoned into misshapen shape on Capitol Hill, it will still be bloated, wasteful, and cruel—but markedly less so. The House bill, for example, would make basic coverage available to tens of millions who now have none. It would curb the practice of denying insurance to persons with “preëxisting conditions.” (We’re all born with a preëxisting condition: mortality.) It would make insurance coverage portable, which would be a boon for both individual careers and the wider economy. Even one of these things would be a colossal improvement on the status quo.
The most consequential opposition to the reforms now under consideration is coming from a small group of Blue Dog Democrats, who protest that the plan does too little to control costs. To the extent that their concern is genuine, and not just a reflexive deference to wealth (they vociferously oppose a modest surtax on the top one per cent, whose effective tax rates have dropped by fifteen per cent since 1979, while their after-tax incomes have more than tripled), they have a point. But it’s a minor point. The prospective reform has more cost-containment provisions than past attempts, and, thanks in part to those same Blue Dogs, it is acquiring more such elements by the day—for example, the proposal for an independent commission able to set Medicare payment rates, which Obama has also embraced.
But the Blue Dogs are playing a dangerous game of chicken. Even if they’re right that reform would do too little about costs, the alternative—which, as the President has repeatedly pointed out, is the status quo—would do nothing. Ultimately, real cost control will require a strong push away from fee-for-service medicine. In Massachusetts, which three years ago enacted its own version of near-universal health insurance, the cost of expanded coverage has created pressure for just such a push. That state’s experience suggests that the cost problem, too, will be easier to solve under a reformed system, with all its other benefits, than under the one we have now.
As for the Republican opposition to reform, most of it has been, in a word, nihilistic. William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, last week offered the same advice he did sixteen years ago, when he masterminded the death of the Clinton reform effort: “Go for the kill.” Senator Jim DeMint, of South Carolina, elaborated on the theme. “If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo,” DeMint said. “It will break him.” Obama’s Presidency would survive the murder of health-care reform. But he would be greatly weakened, with dire consequences for his ability to meet many other urgent challenges. Whoever needs to be punished for morbidity, it’s not him. And not the rest of us, either. (-- pgs. 19-20)
In English preparatory and public schools romance is necessarily homosexual. The opposite sex is despised and treated as something obscene. Many boys never recover from this perversion. For ever yone born homosexual, at least ten permanent pseudo-homosexuals are made by the public school system: nine of these ten as honourably chaste and sentimental as I was.
... What surprised me most at this school was when a boy of about twelve, whose father and mother were in India, heard by cable that they had both suddenly died of cholera. We all watched him sympathetically for weeks after, expecting him to die of grief, or turn black in the face, or do something to match the occasion. Yet he seemed entirely unmoved, and because nobody dared discuss the tragedy with him he seemed oblivious of it - playing about and ragging just as he had done bfore. We found that rather monstrous. But he had not seen his parents for two years; and preparatory schoolboys live in a world completely dissociated from home life. They have a different vocabulary, a different moral system, even different voices. On their return to school from the holidays the change-over from home-self to school-self is almost instantaneous, whereas the reverse process takes a fortnight at least. A preparatory schoolboy, when caught off his guard, will call his mother 'Please matron,' and always addresses any male relative or friend of the family as 'Sir', like a master. I used to do it. School life becomes the reality, and home-life the illusion. In England, parents of the governing classes virtually lose all intimate touch with their children from about the age of eight, and any attempts on their parts ot insinuate home feeling into school life are resented. (-- pgs. 17-18)
Still more impossible odds:
... Having a bad head for heights myself, I trained myself deliberately and painfully to overcome it. We used to go climbing in the turrets and towers of Harlech Castle. I have worked hard on myself in defining and dispersing my terrors. The simple fear of heights was the first to be overcome.
... Once I lost my foothold on a ledge and should have been killed; but it seemed as though I improvised a foothold in the air and kicked myself up to safety from it. When I examined the place afterwards, I recalled the Devil's Temptation to Jesus: the freedom to cast onself from the rock and be restored to safety by the angels. Yet such events are not uncommon in mountain climbing. My friend George Mallory, for instance, who later disappeared close to the summit of Mount Everest, once did an inexplicable climb on Snowdon. He had left his pipe on a ledge, half-way down one of the Lliwedd precipices, and scrambled back by a short cut to retrieve it, then up again by the same route. No one saw what route he took, but when they came to examine it the next day for official record, they found an overhang nearly all the way. By a rule of the Climnbers' Club climbs are never named in honour of their inventors, but only describe natural features. An exception was made here. The climb was recorded as follows: 'Mallory's Pipe, a variation on Route 2; see adjoining map. This climb is totally impossible. It has been performed once, in failing light, by Mr. G.H.L. Mallory.'(-- p. 51)
At least one in three of my generation at school died; because they all took commissions as soon as they could, most of them in the infantry and Royal Flying Corps. The average life expectancy of an infantry-subaltern on the Western Front was, at some stages of the war, only about three months; by which time he had been either wounded or killed. The proportions worked out at about four wounded to every one killed. Of these four, one got wounded seriously, and the remaining three more or less lightly. The three lightly-wounded returned to the front after a few weeks or months of absence, and again faced the same odds. Flying casualties were even higher. Since the war lasted for four and a half years, it is easy to see why most of the survivors, if not permanently disabled, got wounded several times. (-- p. 52)
Before Tadeusz Borowski opened the valves of a gas oven in the kitchen of his Warsaw apartment on the night of July 2, 1951, he did his best to ensure that this final gesture in his short life would be final indeed and, at the same time, properly understood. Both ends were served by the fact that he carefully sealed all the windows and ventholes through which the gas could escape. By doing so, he safeguarded his own suicide both against failure and against being misconstrued as an accident. He wanted to put an end to his life, and he wanted others to know that he did.
He left no clue, though, as to why he did. Since that July night in 1951, Borowski's suicide at the age of 29 has never ceased to stir controversy among his biographers and critics. The more we know about his life, the less we are sure of what exactly made him choose death. What was that fina grain of sand that tipped the scale? Was it his extramarital affair, which had put a trivial conclusion to the romantic story of his wartime love for Maria?(She had been snatched away from him by the Gestapo, seen from time to time across the barbed wire in Auschwitz, lost in the vortex of postwar events, and then miraculously found alive in Sweden to be repatriated and finally to become his wife.) Or was it the fact that Maria had just given birth to a child and Borowski could not bear the new sense of responsibility for this tiny life in the world whose evil he knew all too well? Or maybe the reason was the shattering experience he had gone through not long before - the fact that he turned out to be unable to save his longtime friend from the clutches of the secret police of the Communist state of which he was a bard? Was he perhaps, as some claim, himself involved in the murky dealings of the state security apparatus, and he could not sustain his double identity anymore? Or was he simply burned-out, unwilling to cope any longer with the kind of life that Stalinist Poland had to offer? Or perhaps that final straw that broke his back was his realization that he had already killed himself anyway - he had committed suicide as a writer during the last years of his life by hurling himself from the heights of his masterful Auschwitz stories to the depths of his crude propaganda about the nonexistent achievements of People's Poland? (Opening of the Introduction, pgs. 1-2)
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