Fathers, sons, and girlfriends

Parents don’t play the formal role in their children’s love life they once did—arranged marriages are the exception in most industrialized nations, not the rule—although followers of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would argue that parents still exercise “symbolic violence” in making their wishes known about their children’s romances through unspoken cues or body language. (Trust a French intellectual to discover the complex in something that’s actually quite simple.)

Compared to historical practice, parents have little sway, especially when many couples delay marriage until the mid-to-late 20s. Fully independent adults make up their own minds, thank you. That has been a reality since “love matches” became more socially acceptable: 18th century novelist Jane Austen (in Persuasion) observed that the older lovers “…with the advantage of maturity of mind, consciousness of right, and one independent fortune between them” could hardly “fail of bearing down every opposition.” That’s the 21st century reality, as well.

“Asked and answered”

A common assumption is that a mother will be more critical of her son’s romantic choices than a father. That seems generally true. Along with the obvious Freudian implications, a mother may have more emotionally invested in her son, and more to lose if he makes a bad choice. As the poet Robert Frost once ruefully noted: “A mother takes twenty years to make a man of her boy, and another woman makes a fool of him in twenty minutes.”

Fathers generally aren’t as emotionally invested—at least in my experience, and what I’ve seen with my friends.

I give my grown sons the same answer whenever I’m asked to express an opinion on their latest girlfriend: “If she makes you happy, then I’m happy.”

They’ll laugh and accuse me of ducking the question, and when they ask again I either respond “asked and answered” (borrowing from the customary dodge of the British Prime Minister in Commons) or offer a few flattering observations about their girl. That proves I’m paying some attention, that I can also see those qualities which have attracted them.

But I am telling them the truth: in matters of the heart the only real validation should how you feel about your lover—whether he or she makes you happy. It’s tricky, though. What works on paper (similar backgrounds, common values, initial attraction, etc.) may not work in practice—the spark may be missing, or perhaps even worse, what may be lacking is a shared sense of humor.

Of course, I’ve been lucky so far. I have not had to answer the “what do you think of her?” question when there are signs that the relationship may not be a healthy one. I hope I never face that challenge. I’ve debated that one with some of my contemporaries—at what point do you speak up? How certain must you be? Do you risk alienating your child (to say nothing of his or her intended? Is silence the best policy?

There’s a telling scene in the recent film Invincible, where a father blurts out what he really thinks of his daughter-in-law—“I never liked her”—but this admission comes only after the marriage has collapsed.

“In a Father’s Place”

What about a father who cannot stand his son’s choice of girlfriend/fiancee? What then? An intriguing short story by Christopher Tilghman, “In a Father’s Place,” considers this very situation.

A young graduate student, Nick Williams, brings his serious girlfriend, Patty, home to meet his father and his sister, Rachel. The family is traditional, Old American, and the father, Dan, a widower, lives in an historic home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

The visit does not go well. Tilghman stacks the deck against Patty (“this Patty Keith”); she is a bit too controlling, too snoopy, too angry, to be completely believable. That part of Patty’s hold over Nick is sexual is made clear in the story, but the reasons for her emotional dominance, and why Nick is so vulnerable, are only hinted at by Tilghman. It’s clear that the Dan’s relationship with his son has been troubled by questions of control and independence; he muses about the tension between parents and their grown-up children:

It seemed so many of the people he knew were just now learning that their children would never forgive things, momentary failures of affection and pride, mistakes made in the barren ground between trying to keep hands off and the sin of intruding too much, things that seemed so trivial compared to a parent’s embracing love.

Rachel, Nick’s sister, can’t stand Patty (“I think she’s a witch”) and argues for an intervention of some sort—“I believe she’s programming him. I mean it. I think she’s dangerous to him and to us.” Despite Dan’s protestations (“I’m not going to give him reason to hate me by butting into his relationships”), he finds himself agreeing with Rachel, increasingly disturbed by what he sees of Nick and Patty’s relationship. He struggles to accept the situation until finally, he cannot keep his opinions to himself.

At one level, the story seems to suggest that it is “a father’s place” to speak up, but as the story closes the cost of Dan’s uninvited involvement in his son’s personal life isn’t yet know.

Father figures

Even if Tilghman’s protagonist has read the situation correctly—that his son’s lover is dangerously possessive and controlling—Dan isn’t a particularly appealing character: too overbearing and quick to judge in his own way.

A better literary character as model father figure would be Ron Hansen’s hard-bitten rancher, Atticus Cody, the center of Hansen’s 1996 novel Atticus.

Atticus, also a widower, tempers his toughness with an unconditional love for his wayward son, Scott. Atticus doesn’t care for of his son’s messy love life or his flirtation with New Age beliefs and he doesn’t remain silent about his feelings (“Why’s everything you do have to be so different? Wouldn’t it be easier to just do things like they have been done and not fuss so much inventing?”), but he also knows when to back off.

Atticus recognizes that his adult son must make his own way; while disapproving of many of Scott’s choices, he loves his son unconditionally— despite ample reasons not to—and by the close of Atticus we have seen how far he is willing to go to demonstrate that love.

Of course there is no recipe for perfect fathering, or perfect parenting. The best we can do is offer what Tilghman calls “a parent’s embracing love” (without that embrace becoming too tight) and hope for the best.

; ; ; ; ;

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (February 23rd, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

Borrowing a line, once again, from New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon: nobody asked me, but…

AN ASTONISHING QUOTE FROM CHRISTOPHER RUDDY, anti-Clinton conspiracy theorist, surfaced this week in the New York Times. Ruddy, whose “investigations” of alleged “corrupt land deals, sexual affairs, drug running and murder” by Bill and Hillary Clinton were financed in the 1990s by right-wing millionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, now says: “Clinton wasn’t such a bad president. In fact, he was a pretty good president in a lot of ways, and Dick feels that way today.”

Will Ruddy now repudiate his prior mudslinging (including the suggestion that the Clintons were somehow linked to the 1993 suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster, a theory Ruddy floated in The Strange Death of Vincent Foster: An Investigation)? Don’t hold your breath. The reclusive Scaife, whose money kept the “vast right-wing conspiracy” (which wasn’t so vast) afloat during the Clinton Presidency, might think about donating $2 million (the amount reported spent on anti-Clinton activities) to a worthy charity—perhaps to former President Clinton’s efforts to fight AIDS in Africa—as a gesture of contrition.

THE DUKE LACROSSE TEAM IS BACK on the field, defeating Dartmouth, 17-11, in its first game since the Blue Devils’ season was canceled last spring amid rape allegations against three players.

The rape charges have since been dropped, the prosecutor discredited, and questions raised about the accuser’s credibility, but Sports Illustrated found one on-the-scene observer who believes that the case is far from over, with the three accused men still facing sexual offense and kidnapping charges, which are felonies:

“I think the odds are good that it will go to trial,” says N.C. Central law professor Irving Joyner, noting that the less precise legal definition of sexual offense makes it easier to prove than rape. But, he adds, the alleged victim’s ever-shifting version of events could well override any evidence. “I would not be surprised if the attorney general, after looking at everything, says, ‘We can’t convince a jury of their guilt,'” Joyner says. “But I think there is enough to go forward—and I think they will go forward.”

I think Joyner is wrong. Look for all charges to be dropped in the case, which has spurred a national debate over questions of race, class and the workings of our criminal justice system, because of the shifting testimony of the accuser.

THE MILITARY HAS ASKED THE TV SHOW “24” TO STOP GLAMORIZING TORTURE, according to the New Yorker magazine. This bizarre story has American officers complaining to the show’s creative team in November 2006 that U.S. interrogators might be tempted to copy-cat the torture scenes. Further, they argued the constant portrayal of torture on “24” hurting the public image of America. Executive producer Howard Gordon has since announced that “24” will feature less torture in the future (according to the Los Angeles Times), claiming the shift is not due to the complaints, but because the scenes have become “trite.”

What makes the entire episode passing strange is the suggestion that American soldiers could be influenced by a television show to violate military law to say nothing of their personal morality. What about military discipline? And the idea of the fictional Jack Bauer, a cold-blooded killer, as a role model for anyone in uniform? Let’s hope not.

MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR DEVAL PATRICK HAS taken a drubbing in the Boston media for his spending of taxpayers’ money on new office furnishings, a Cadillac DTS lease, and a dedicated scheduling staffer for his wife. Patrick will repay the state for the office redecoration and will contribute to the car lease. The episode led to an amusing correction by the Boston Globe:

Correction: Jeff Jacoby’s column yesterday misstated the number of rooms in Governor Deval Patrick’s vacation home in the Berkshires. The house and a connected carriage house will have 13 rooms and seven bathrooms.

Jacoby, whose column was entitled “Governor Deluxe makes no apologies,” reported that “Cadillac Deval” was building a “24-room mansion.” Did Governor Patrick ask the Globe for the correction? He should have left well enough alone. Learning that the Patrick’s “vacation home” will have 20 rooms, instead of 24 (but include seven bathrooms) hardly makes him look like a man of the people.

COLUMNIST ROBERT NOVAK reports that “Democratic sources believe that the harsh response by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign to criticism by Hollywood producer David Geffen stems from an overreaction by Bill Clinton to any attack on his pardon policy as president.”

Geffen’s support of Sen. Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton apparently stems from Geffen’s anger that President Clinton pardoned financial contributor Marc Rich and not American Indian activist Leonard Peltier (convicted of murdering two FBI agents).

Clinton’s pardon policy as he was leaving office was an embarassment. Pardoning Rich was bad enough, freeing Peltier (whose conviction has been reviewed and upheld numerous times by higher courts through a lengthy appeal process) would have been even worse.

EDWARD JAY EPSTEIN RAISES SOME INTERESTING QUESTIONS about the quality of the intelligence gathered by the CIA in its interrogation of al Qaeda figures after the 9/11 attacks, and whether those detainees lied about links between a Spanish terror cell and the 9/11 attackers.

Epstein’s piece, appearing in the Wall Street Journal, suggests the 9/11 Commission may have been wrong to conclude that al Qaeda engineered 9/11 without outside collaborators (including nation states). Epstein is working on a book on the 9/11 Commission, which will no doubt challenge its conclusions about al Qaeda’s isolation.

ROBOT-DRIVEN CARS WON’T BE WIDESPREAD UNTIL 2030 says Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, when replacing error-prone humans behind the wheel will improve safety. I drive in Boston and I can’t wait that long to see harmonic convergence on the highways.

THE WORDS FOR THE WEEK come from playwright and reluctant statesman, Vaclav Havel: “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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Neither Red nor Blue: an anniversary

One year ago I began writing posts for “Neither Red nor Blue.” This is my 118th post, so I think it is safe to say that I’ve passed the “early abandonment” phase of blogging. An anniversary offers a natural opportunity to reflect, so here goes…

When I launched this blog, I wrote:

I hope to offer a slightly different perspective in my commentary–an independent and authentic one. I hope that what appears here reflects a philosophy of expressing views “without fear or favor of friend or foe,” to quote that marvelous newspaper tagline.

Whether I have succeeded I will leave to my readers to decide.

What I have learned about blogging? I realized fairly quickly that I did not want to become a daily poster—family responsibilities, the exigencies of work and teaching, and the pull of other writing projects made that impossible. So I’ve settled into a once-a-week online column, “Nobody asked me, but…”, and additional musings when the spirit moves me.

To my surprise, I’ve seen heavy reader traffic on matters literary, especially when I’ve written about short fiction. So in Year Two there will be more on short stories and books. I also plan to include some occasional political reportage from the field, especially as the 2008 campaign comes into better focus.

After a year of blogging, I’m reminded what an Internet-savvy friend told me: a blog becomes a Web Rorschach test over time. I look at the most posted categories—politics, writing, journalism, fiction, sports, music—and I have to agree that NRNB is mirroring what I find most intriguing in the human comedy.

To the extent that NRNB offers me an excuse to indulge my curiosity, and to comment on any subject under the sun I care to, it serves as a welcome vehicle for personal discovery. It was Robert Frost, the American poet, who once said: “I talk in order to understand; I teach in order to learn.” I agree. So on we go into Year Two.

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (February 16th, 2007)

As Jimmy Cannon, columnist extraordinaire, used to say, “Nobody asked me, but…”

NEW YORK CITY MAY BE LOSING SOME GROUND TO LONDON as a center for financial markets, but the Big Apple will remain the world’s capital of media, publishing, fashion, art, and pop culture whether or not some investments move from Wall Street to The City. The longer-term threat to New York’s reputation as the Center of the Universe will come not from London, but from Shanghai, another port city with economic vitality, ambitious people, and a long tradition of cosmopolitanism.

YOU CAN GAUGE AL GORE’S HUNGER FOR THE PRESIDENCY by checking out the size of his waistline. If he’s eager to be drafted as a compromise candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination looking as bloated as he did at the Grammy Awards—presenting the “Best Album” award to the Red Hot Chili Peppers along with co-presenter Queen Latifah (a bizarre grouping that could occur only in America)—doesn’t send the appropriately telegenic message that he’s fit, trim and ready to run.

Steve Kornacki of the New York Observer (itself recently trimmed into tabloid format) reports that Gore continues to weigh a 2008 run, but is delaying a decision until September, hoping to remain above the fray, and “…use the time to hit the gym and sweat off some of the weight he piled on the months after he conceded the 2000 race to President Bush.”

Before I face accusations of weightism, I’ll confess that I empathize with Gore on this (weighty) issue—it’s very hard to cut out enough carbs to get the bathroom scale needle headed in the right (and healthier) direction.

Gore will definitely stay in the public eye over the next few months. There is his likely Best Documentary Oscar win for “An Inconvenient Truth” on Feb. 25, and his “Live Earth ” climate change concert (Gore just announced the musical lineup this week) that will be a huge summer event. Meanwhile, long-time Gore backers assemble a draft campaign, and the former Vice President’s Gallup poll numbers swing up. Could it happen? Never say never.

As to the upcoming presidential race, when I recently suggested to a savvy Democratic pollster I know that the Electoral College map looked promising for Sen. Hillary Clinton’s ’08 presidential run, he demurred, arguing that Clinton could run into trouble in heavily Catholic Pennsylvania. He was sandbagging, in my view. With a Democratic governor, two Democrats in the Senate and a congressional delegation tilting blue, the tide is running Mrs. Clinton’s way.

The reality: it’s difficult to imagine Sen. Clinton losing any of the blue states carried by John Kerry in 2004, even if she is facing Rudy Guiliani or John McCain. If she carries Ohio (where the polls show her leading) , or Florida (where her husband is a decided plus in the black and Jewish communities), then Hillary Clinton becomes the first female president of the United States.

SUPPORT AMONG COUNTRY MUSIC ARTISTS FOR THE BUSH ADMINSTRATION’S IRAQ POLICY is waning, a development noted by the Boston Globe editorial board in its commentary “Speak up and sing.”

The Globe points out that the Dixie Chicks, outspoken in their dislike of President Bush, just won five Grammy Awards and that the music of other country singers, like Merle Haggard, Darryl Worley and Trace Adkins is reflecting a growing disillusionment with the Iraq war.

What the Globe editorial obscures, however, is that singers like Toby Keith, with his “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” and Darryl Worley (“Have You Forgotten?”) wrote tough songs in response to the 9/11 attacks. Keith for one, says he opposed the Iraq war.

Country music singers are patriots, not partisans; many are blue-collar Democrats, including Keith, Tim McGraw (who apparently has political ambitions), Hal Ketchum (a member of the Music Row Democrats, along with Emmylou Harris and Nanci Griffith), and Billy Ray Cyrus (whose “We the People” became candidate Bush’s 2000 campaign theme song).

That isn’t to say there are many Nashville pacifists; country music’s roots are in the ballads brought to America by the Scots-Irish settlers of the Appalachian mountains and valleys, known for their sometimes violent frontier culture founded on male honor and religiosity. The Scots-Irish became a willing source of manpower for the American military for centuries.

As Walter Mead Russell pointed out in his 1999 National Interest article “The Jacksonian Tradition,” and James Webb reiterated in his book “Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America,” America’s Scots-Irish have little patience for limited wars: they believe in fighting to win, and winning quickly. That helps explain, in part, why the Bush Administration has seen support for its adventure in Iraq slip in Red States.

PRESIDENTIAL WANNABE JOE BIDEN has provided ample comic relief these past few weeks with his “let Joe Biden be Joe Biden” and “Barack Obama is clean and articulate” riffs. But the Maryland Senator is not always clownish; his op-ed piece in the Miami Herald calling for the immediate opening of the Nazi archives at Bad Arolsen for Holocaust survivors, historians and researchers is public service at its best.

Germany and other European countries are foot-dragging on this because of “privacy concerns, logistical problems associated with making the records widely accessible and fears of new legal claims,” but the real reason, I suspect, is embarrassment over the tale of complicity and inhumanity the files will tell. Biden is right to call for an immediate opening of the records, before it is too late for the many aged survivors.

OUR WORDS FOR THE WEEK come from the great New England poet Robert Frost: “Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee, and I’ll forgive Thy great big joke on me.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (February 9th, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

As the legendary columnist Jimmy Cannon used to say: nobody asked me, but…

NYU’S MITCHELL STEPHENS HAS RE-IMAGINED THE ROLE OF MAINSTREAM JOURNALISM in his provocative Columbia Journalism Review essay “Beyond News.”

Stephens believes that the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle has made obsolete the traditional next-day reporting of newspapers and the broadcast media. He argues for a new approach to avoid irrelevancy:

But the extra value our quality news organizations can and must regularly add is analysis: thoughtful, incisive attempts to divine the significance of events — insights, not just information. What is required — if journalism is to move beyond selling cheap, widely available, staler-than-your-muffin news — is, to choose a not very journalistic-sounding word, wisdom.

Stephens calls for more “analyzing and appraising” by reporters and for “insightful” journalism, where editors and reporters draw conclusions and share them, abandoning their traditional neutral observer role. Stephens at one point in his essay talks about how journalists must “connect the dots” to remain relevant.

There are some intriguing ideas in the Stephens piece. In practice, however, I don’t see how you could keep this aggressive news analysis from sliding into outright opinion or commentary once reporters start drawing conclusions (vide: Lou Dobbs). You can find this sort of journalistic hybrid currently practiced by cable commentators like Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly and while it is entertaining, I’d question whether it provides readers and viewers any “wisdom” per se, or simply serves to confirm partisan prejudices.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t room for Dobbs, Olbermann and O’Reilly’s approach—or for the commentary in the Weekly Standard, New Republic, and The Nation. But, despite the erosion of circulation and audience the mainstream media is experiencing, there remains a strong need for objective-means reporting—“mere journalism“—that offers readers and viewers a balanced account of events, places them in context, and explores their significance, without abandoning impartiality. A journalism based on accuracy, balance and independence still has a lot of mileage left.

NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF HUMAN COMPETITIVENESS, which is why the $25 million “Virgin Challenge” climate prize offered by British entrepreneur Richard Bransonfor anyone who can find a better way to “suck greenhouse gases out of the air” is a very clever idea. Branson knows it’s not just the money that will encourage prize-seekers to pursue innovation in mitigating greenhouse gases—he is counting on our innate drive to finish first in any contest.

And Branson’s no piker when it comes to environmental issues: he’s pledged some $3 billion in fighting global warming. At the same time he is seeking more environmentally-friendly Virgin airplanes, even as he looks to develop space tourism.

CAN IT BE THAT BASEBALL’S SPRING TRAINING OPENS next week? Already? In Florida and Arizona, pitchers and catchers will report for the start of yet another season. Tempus fugit!

THE POLITICO’S ANDREW GLASS has offered advice to new Capitol Hill reporters, including this tip: “When you go after people, do so in a classy way.” The veteran reporter gives an example of his own “kinder and gentler” approach from his days at the old New York Herald, when Glass observed of a “tipsy” Sen. Russell Long that he had “lunched well, but not necessarily wisely.”

ONE OF AMERICA’S LAST WORLD WAR I VETERANS, Antonio Pierro, has died at the age of 110 in Salem, Massachusetts. Pierro once told the Boston Globe“It’s all up to you to do what you want in life. There are pleasant things to do, and there are terrible things not to do, and that’s the way I see it.” Pierro was described by his niece as a “real charmer who lived a wonderful life.”

It’s easy to forget that World War I was seen by its participants as the “war to end all wars.” Unfortunately human spiritual development has lagged behind our technological advances in building and employing weapons; we remained plagued by the “dogs of war.” Is it too much to hope that by the end of the 21st century that war will have the same status as slavery—universally condemned and geographically isolated?

WHAT WOULD MY SWEDISH-AMERICAN GRANDMOTHER, who believed cleanliness was next to Godliness, think of the trendy fascination with dirt floors, reported in the New York Times this week (one of the Grey Lady’s most e-mailed stories)? Not much. And she would have made a few tart comments about the foolishness of rich people.

THIS WEEK’S QUOTE IS FROM English novelist Jane Austen: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors and laugh at them in our turn?”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (February 2nd, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

Borrowing a line, once again, from New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon: nobody asked me, but…

SNOW ON THE BATTLE GREEN, THE TEMPERATURE IN THE TEENS, yet Saturday night (February 3rd) found country music star Hal Ketchum far from his Austin, Texas home, performing in the Joyful Noise Coffeehouse (which borrows the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church for a performance space) in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Accompanied by guitarist Kenny Grimes, Ketchum treated the crowd to many of his hits (“I Know Where Love Lives,” “Past the Point of Rescue,” “Small Town Saturday Night,” and “Stay Forever”) as well as songs from his new, soon-to-be released album (“One More Midnight”) and some of his darker, more-bluesy material, including “Unforgiven,” “I Miss My Mary” and a long ballad, “Poor Lila’s Ghost.”

Ketchum has an amazing voice—with a greater vocal range than he reveals on his albums—and is a solid guitarist (considering that he started as a drummer and had to relearn to play the instrument after a bout with Acute Transverse Myelitis, he is a very solid guitarist). After some three decades on the road, Ketchum is also an accomplished performer in a club setting—giving the audience a taste of his wry humor and personal philosophy.

Ketchum’s opening act: the young singer/songwriter Liz Carlisle, who hails from Montana, holds a degree from Harvard (summa cum laude), and has a clear, distinctive voice.

FOR WHAT IT IS WORTH, here’s my Super Bowl prediction: Colts 34, Bears 17. Of course I also picked the Colts against Joe Namath and the New York Jets in Super Bowl III in 1969 (yet if Baltimore quarterback Earl Morrall throws the damn ball to a wide-open Jimmy Orr in the end zone near the end of the first half, the Colts would likely have won the game, and my prediction would have been right.)

THE RIGHTEOUS URGE TO SILENCE OTHERS isn’t as strong as, say, the urge to merge, but it’s still pretty powerful, especially on America’s college campuses. John Leo has an interesting essay in the City Journal detailing the continuing and disturbing appeal of campus speech codes and other assaults on the First Amendment. Leo notes that the philosophical underpinnings for this suppression emanates from the late Herbert Marcuse (a totalitarian at heart). Also noted by Leo is the American Civil Liberties Union’s silence about the campaign to curb free speech in academe.

THIS WEEK’S QUOTE comes from Edmund Burke’s “A Vindication of Natural Society: A View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind,” published in 1756, and it suggests the enduring existence of the guardians of politically correct expression:

A man is allowed sufficient freedom of thought, provided he knows how to choose his subjects properly. You may criticize freely upon the Chinese constitution, and observe with as much severity as you please upon the absurd tricks or destructive bigotry of the bonzees. But the scene is changed as you come homeward, and atheism or treason may be names given in Britain, to what would be reason and truth if asserted of China.

And didn’t the New Testament conclude that a prophet has no honor in his own country?

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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