Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Years ago, when I first read Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, a passage instantly jumped out at me.
Dostoyevsky tells a fable through the mouth of one of his characters. But it wasn’t just the story itself that struck me. It was also the fact that I had heard it before.
In Dostoyevsky’s telling, the story is of Russian Orthodox origin, and it goes like this:
In 1960, Communist China successfully tested its first ballistic missile. In 1964, it detonated its first atomic bomb. In 1967, it had a thermonuclear bomb. In 1970, China launched its first artificial satellite. Not too bad for an impoverished nation that, from 1959 to 1961, had gone through a famine that killed up to 30 million people.
And none of it would have happened but for an MIT- and Caltech-educated scientist who returned to China in 1956.
Qian Xuesen, or Hsue-Shen Tsien, as his name was spelled when he first arrived in the U.S., was born in Shanghai in 1911 right when the first Chinese Republic overthrew the imperial regime. Ten years before he was born, in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, the imperial court had agreed to pay reparations to numerous Western powers including the United States. Unlike the other recipients, the U.S., in an earlier and wiser time, had used the money to establish a scholarship to help talented Chinese students pursue advanced studies in America.
It is sometimes pointed out that Steve Jobs, American titan, was the son of a Syrian immigrant. It is also often pointed out that the grudging European and American responses to Syrian refugees today parallel the American response to Jewish refugees from Europe on the eve of the Holocaust, down to ships full of desperate men, women, and children being turned away.
But few seem to be recalling that the greatest American (fictional) hero of all, Superman, was conceived as a Jewish refugee. Perhaps doing so would seem to trivialize the very serious public debate. But our imagination, in which we invest our deepest yearnings, is as good a moral compass as any.
Perhaps ironically, Superman’s Judaism is actually well-documented. Several books have been written spelling out the case for Clark Kent as an Ashkenazi Jew, with titles like “Up, Up and Oy Vey,” “From Krakow to Krypton,” and “Superman Is Jewish?” Here, then, are the basic facts:
Over four centuries ago, in 1612, Francis Bacon published his essay “Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates” as part of the enlarged second edition of his “Essayes: Religious Meditations. Places of Perswasion and Disswasion. Seene and Allowed.”
Bacon, first Viscount St. Alban, Lord Chancellor of England, and father of empiricism and the scientific method, was a lawyer, statesman, philosopher, scientist, and author. According to some, including no less than Friedrich Nietzsche, he was even the true writer behind the works of William Shakespeare (although this Stratfordian begs to differ — that’ll have to wait for a later post).
In “Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates,” Bacon made his feelings on the inclusion of outsiders and naturalization of non-citizens very plain: “all states that are liberal of naturalization towards strangers are fit for empire.”
He went on:
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."