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United States and Europe. Rosenthal and me May 11, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, history, media.

I linked to this article about A.M.Rosenthal, the NYTimes Editor who died today. I had heard of him in an Indian context but I wasn’t aware of the many aspects of his life and times at The Times.


I managed to read the whole 7 page article about him. Its quite interesting that this is an article as much about him as it is about the Times during the 55 years he served there and as many as 23 as editor. The one thing that stood out ( apart from his love for India ) was that pattern I am coming across so often.


He is a European of Jewish descent ( Belarus ) whose ancestors migrated in the early 20th century. How often have I come across this – East European Jews, Russian Jews, German, Hungarian, Austrian Jews who escaped persecution only to come to the United States/Canada to make it big here. Its not the physicists, mathematicians and a disproportionate share of the Manhattan project members but just even performers, artists and people in art and humanities. This is one list to savor.


This is probably what makes this such a great country. Its easy to immediately turn to Bush or even earlier US governments who have condoned deaths and ravaged societies in pure national interests. That though is not the issue here – I am talking about the common people – the man on the street who basically is a hard-working immigrant or a descendent of one, who loves this country because it gave him a honest chance. And there are so many of these. What more can a conscientious person ask for other than an honest chance and opportunity at a decent standard of living and the “pursuit of happiness”.


Yes I know that in the last few years, inequality has risen here too. People talk of how the US has one of the lesser intergenerational mobilities compared to the rest of the developed world ( would love to have statistics for India ). But Europe and Japan have the luxury of not having to do with poor immigrants – unskilled immigrants from Central and Latin America and a legacy of centuries on slavery on their land ( European Colonialists did employ slaves on colonial lands but not in Europe – they were bloody smart! ). Interestingly though, Europe and Japan also don’t have the benefit of skilled professionals from China, India, Taiwan, Korea and the like.


This is why I think the US has less of a sharp distribution of a quality I cannot exactly describe – huge variance – we have people at both ends of the spectrum and a sizeable number at that. On the other hand distributions are shaper in Europe – a huge number of them have an excellent standard of living – there is lesser variance. Higher taxes have meant slightly more egalitarian and less ruthless societies than in the United States. But is inequality bad in itself ? Two excellent posts by Nobel Laureate Gary Becker and Judge Posner have this to say. Please do read it !


Europe is more pacifist today than ever – have learnt and over-learnt the lessons of the war. I remember reading somewhere that there is a major war every 80-100 years because that is what it takes to forget the lessons of a last war ! These two cultures with a history of civilizational bonding have been moving apart from each other in every conceivable way – military intervention wise, taxes and fiscal policy wise and lives of people itself with respect to how they react to a globalizing world.


[ At this point I just went back to read what I wrote above – and was shocked to find this – “I think the US has less of a sharp distribution of a quality I cannot exactly describe – huge variance – we have people at both ends of the spectrum and a sizeable number at that.” – Note the pronoun – probably the for the first time ever I have used “we” in referring to the US. Its obviously because the context is a comparison to Europe ( not India ) but interesting nevertheless. I leave it this way anyway. ]


So coming back to Rosenthal, its his last paragraph in the last column he wrote for the Times he wrote on Nov 5, 1999 that set off the tone for this post.

“I cannot promise to change all that. But I can say that I will keep trying and that I thank God for (a) making me an American citizen, (b) giving me that college-boy job on The Times, and (c) handing me the opportunity to make other columnists kick themselves when they see what I am writing, in this fresh start of my life.”


As I read that I asked myself – now which other country can you find a few tens of millions who ( or whose fathers/grandfathers ) will have this to say about their citizenship. Now I am talking about the country that one was born to, but an adopted country. For most of the people in the United States, they are glad they were born here. For the rest, they are glad they got here.


And what about me ? While I may never end up writing a blog entry that says something on the lines of what Rosenthal said, I am glad as hell I got to spend time in this part of the world – there has not been a greater learning experience and I will make the most of this time.



1. aquarianalien - May 18, 2006

hey Sharath… insightful writing …i’m gonna link to you 🙂

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