Babar, the humble crow, and the New York Review

I have never before had a “blog.” But I think I get it.

That said, please know The City Club of San Diego and the Independent Voter Network a working relationship. Part of that relationship involves this blog and online opinion pieces I write for this IVN.US and other publications.

The contents of my blog and opinion pieces are wholly mine and the views expressed are equally and wholly mine.

While I’ve been president of The City Club for 36-years The City Club does not take positions on pubic issues or candidates for public office. Candidates are welcome to express their views and positions before The City Club, and hundreds have over the years, but the opinions expressed, the policies embraced, are theirs – and theirs alone. While I am a self-declared “liberal Kennedy Democrat”, decisions about who speaks to The City Club are never driven by the politics of the speaker – as Newt Gingrich, Darrell Issa, Oliver North, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., Barry Goldwater Jr., Paul Gann, Maureen Reagan, could attest. Moreover, when George Deukmejian was governor of California, he spoke to The City Club five times, without being confused as a liberal Kennedy Democrat. He was neither a “liberal” nor a Kennedy person nor a Democrat. But he was, as he is, a lovely man and an exceptional public servant.

However, in a conservative town like San Diego, a whole lot of people still don’t get it, that The City Club of San Diego is a public forum committed to the dialogue of democracy. It is who we are. It is what we do. And our standing as one of America’s finest public forums – number three in the USA according to Best Practices – should be the only evidence any fair minded person needs to understand we’re serious about our political independence, but then…

My blogs posting, as evidence in this first posting (a letter to The New York Review of Books), will run the gamut, because whatever else I am, I am a person whose range of interests are wholly catholic. Some will be serious, others, not quite, and others purely whimsical. And, because I began at age seven reading sports in our hometown newspaper, sports remain a great interest – not an “obsession”, but an interest. And the majority of people in my life, from San Diego to Denver to Boston to New York to Washington, DC, and back, share similar interests. People interested in only one subject are one-dimensional and one-dimensional people are boring – and I do not easily admit boring people into my life.

I do this, this blog, in part, because Steve Peace and IVN asked me and because I enjoy writing; a statement made absent any pretense of being a “writer.”

Why the disclaimer of “writer?” Because some of America’s greatest writers, novelists, historians, essayists, syndicated columnists, are friends of mine, and I suffer no illusion I belong in their august company; my feelings about this were best expressed by George Plimpton in the title of his book on pitching to a line-up of major league all-stars at Yankee Stadium, “Out of My League.”

Indeed.

Below is a letter sent to The New York Review of Books in 2004. It was occasioned by a long review on books about  Barbar, the elephant king. The review was written by Alison Laurie, a very accomplished writer and critic. I had scant expectations it would be published. The bar is set very high at The Review and I have yet to scale it.

I sent my letter to the attention of Robert Silvers, The Review’s estimable editor, and a person I know ever so slightly through a shared friendship with the great George Plimpton of The Paris Review fame. (Mr. Silvers had interned with Mr. Plimpton.)

As expected, the letter never appeared in print but oddly was sent to Ms. Laurie, who lives in upstate New York. She in turn wrote a rather long letter to me in defense of her claim as to the “humility” of crows. (I have the letter somewhere. “Somewhere” being the operative word.)

Oh my. I had written tongue-in-cheek but it appears people who work at The New York Review of Books have no sense of humor.

That’s the background, here’s the letter:

“The New York Review of Books is often referred to as the premier intellectual journal in America.  I lacked the academic qualifications to judge whether that claim is true, but as a reader of The Review since its inception, I have no occasion to dissent from it. either.

“Well, slightly.

“In Alison Lurie’s “The Royal Family” review of 22 books on Babar, the mythical elephant king, she writes that all animals in fiction stand for human types.  Ms. Lurie then refers to a crow in one of Jean La Fontaine’s Fables that is both vain and easily deceived, but then writes, “real crows are neither conceited nor foolish.”  That’s an interesting claim, particularly since it is offered without supporting proof. One questions how so bold an assertion, sweeping really in its reach and absent supporting ornithological data, slipped by the editors of The Review?   (Intellectual standards must be observed, even if the subject is Babar the elephant king.)

“In my own observation of crows – dozens visit our yard every day – I would disagree with Ms. Lurie.  While I have not challenged the intelligence quotient of our neighborhood crows, it is abundantly evident they are exceedingly vain.  One merely has to observe the manner in which they carry themselves.  They are given to much strutting about, beaks held high and greatly arched, obviously dismissive of other feathery creatures.  To so strut is to see the world with much disdain – and, I would add, no small measure of malevolence.

“However, unlike Ms Lurie, I was unwilling to affirm my own view of crows before seeking expert opinion.  I therefore sought the judgment of one of the nation’s foremost ornithologists, Dr. Joseph Jehl, a Michigan and Cornell man, who has given much of his life to detailing bird behavior in scientific and other journals, not least National Geographic.  Dr. Jehl would not confirm my view on the arrogance of crows, but neither would he risk his considerable reputation by claiming that crows are inherently humble.

“Given Dr. Jehl’s scholarly reluctance to opine on the lack of conceit in crows, I feel warranted in asserting my own claim – crows are arrogant.   Whether the presence of arrogance denotes the absence of being “foolish”, as Ms. Lurie states, I will leave for others to decide.

“Ms. Lurie’s errant view of crows notwithstanding, I enjoyed her essay.  It reminded me that while reading The New York Review of Books is always challenging, it is also often a purely pleasurable experience.”