Category Archives: politics

Revolutionary Thoughts

76 vs. 89

I had an odd thought yesterday morning, apropos of what I’m about to write about in this post, but I thought it was funny enough in the weird connection it makes to lead off with it.

The musicals Hamilton and Rent don’t have very much in common besides being huge Broadway hits and featuring generally attractive, youthful casts. But they do both focus on ensembles of people who fancy themselves revolutionaries: in the first case, the ardent young men who become the United States’ founding fathers; in the second, a ragtag group of bohemian would-be artists who rebel against the suffocating strictures of mainstream culture. The title song of Rent signals their first act of resistance upon receiving an eviction notice. The song agonizes over how they’re “gonna pay last year’s rent,” but by the end resolves:

When they act tough—you call their bluff
We’re not gonna pay
We’re not gonna pay
We’re not gonna pay
Last year’s rent
This year’s rent
Next year’s rent
Rent rent rent rent rent
We’re not gonna pay rent

Whenever I think of Rent or hear its music, it always puts me in mind of the late great David Rakoff’s eviscerating critique of the musical (which you can listen to here), in which he points out that none of the play’s would-be artists seem ever to want to do the work of being artists. But his key bone of contention is: “Well … why won’t you pay your rent?” At the very end of his essay, he recounts, of his agonistic 20s:

There were days when it hardly seemed worth it to live in a horrible part of town just so that I could go daily to a stupid, soul-crushing, low-paying job, especially since, as deeply as I yearned to be creative, for years and years I was too scared to even try. So I did nothing. But here’s something that I did do. I paid my fucking rent.

It occurs to me, perhaps uncharitably, that the Revolutionary War part of Hamilton is basically the founding fathers chanting “We’re not gonna pay rent!—albeit with better songs and a somewhat more nuanced rationale for why they’re not gonna pay rent than their bohemian counterparts.

***

I had this weird thought after reading a column by Bret Stephens, one of the New York Times representative conservatives, titled “Robespierre’s America.” Happily, the TL;DR is in the subtitle: “We need to reclaim the spirit of 1776, not the certitudes of 1789.”

If you’re at all familiar with Stephens’ columns, you probably know what’s coming: an invective against the woke sanctimony of the politically correct left, compared unfavourably with the reason and rationality of the Enlightenment principles on which the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were based. He enumerates a series of excesses—starting with his own victimization at the hands of a Twitter mob for calling Reza Aslan stupid—mostly recounted in the abstract, referring to professors afraid to offend students and publishers dropping books at the first whiff of controversy, comparing the ideological rigidity of the woke left to that of the Jacobins:

“Armed with the ‘truth,’ Jacobins could brand any individuals who dared to disagree with them traitors or fanatics,” historian Susan Dunn wrote of the French Revolution. “Any distinction between their own political adversaries and the people’s ‘enemies’ was obliterated.”

Leaving aside the egregious comparison of Twitter warriors with people who literally decapitated thousands, let’s address the implicit comparison Stephens makes between the American Revolution and the French—implicit, because he never explains what he means by the “spirit of 1776.” One assumes he’s citing the tacit understanding of America’s founding as rooted in and emerging from Enlightenment principles of reason, rationality, and spirited public debate—the very understanding, indeed, that made it possible for Lin-Manuel Miranda to write compelling rap battles about the creation of a national bank and the wisdom of carrying a national debt. Certainly, that’s the implied contrast with the ideological fanaticism of Robespierre and his murderous Jacobin thugs.

Normally, this sort of thing wouldn’t bother me overmuch—I find Bret Stephens’ columns annoying, but predictable and forgettable—but given that yesterday was the Fourth of July, I found myself in a headspace to think about 1776 and the American Revolution, so to me the most glaring aspect of “Robespierre’s America” is the way it so perfectly recapitulates—albeit implicitly—certain fallacies not just about the American Revolution, but revolutions generally.

I tend to be leery of revolutions, given that history teaches us that, the more extreme they are, the more they tend to turn into versions of their own worst selves. Hence, the French Revolution devolves into the Terror; the Russian Revolution turns into Stalinism. The fact that the American Revolution did not transform into something equally pernicious has been cited as evidence of American Exceptionalism, which is at least partially true; but I would argue that the principal reason the American Revolution had a relatively placid aftermath (yes, a lot of Loyalists were persecuted, often egregiously, but that hardly compares to 1790s Paris) is that nothing really changed. The radicalism of 1776 wasn’t that of material effect, but of promise—not what actually changed on the ground, but what could possibly change in the future.

For all intents and purposes, there were no upheavals in American life after the Declaration of Independence (well, aside from the war itself), by which I mean that the people in charge stayed in charge, and the power structures of the new United States were not appreciably different from the power structures of the Colonies. The King was not beheaded; the King was not even dethroned. George III basically had his status as absentee landlord revoked.

Hence my thought about Hamilton and Rent: the Boston Tea Party was basically a defiant gesture saying “We’re not gonna pay rent! Rent rent rent rent rent!”, as was the conflict that followed, and that defiant gesture is celebrated today as it was then. But after turfing the Brits, you bloody well better believe you’re paying your rent to the new owners.

By contrast, the French Revolution was about the radical overthrow of extant power, power so rooted in history, religion, and tradition that it went by the name of the ancien regime. And because of the weight of that history, it took decades to stabilize, something exacerbated by the fact that the rest of Europe was undergoing similar political upheavals. Is it any wonder that, mere years after guillotining the king, France had an Emperor?

(All of this is very broad strokes and probably has my historian friends pulling their hair out.)

As I said above, the true radicalism of 1776 wasn’t about the founding fathers’ present moment, but about the future—about what the principles of the Constitution and Bill of Rights could and can do when they become uncomfortably unavoidable. I’d argue that the true American Revolution—which is to say, the truly revolutionary moment in American history—wasn’t 1776 and the aftermath, but the Civil War. The confederates might have been the rebels, but Lincoln was the revolutionary, insofar as that the abolition of slavery overturned a foundational basis of American society. No such upending occurred in 1776, and the principle of revolutions turning into their worst selves has been painfully present in the U.S. since Andrew Johnson reversed all of the provisions made for newly freed slaves during Reconstruction, and white people in the South embarked on a sustained campaign of terror against them.

(To say nothing of everything that has happened since then, which I can’t do justice to here. If you haven’t already, read Ta-Nehisi Coates landmark essay “The Case for Reparations”).

Stephens’ opposition of “the spirit of 1776” to “the certitudes of 1789” completely glosses the material circumstances of both. The Revolutionary era of America comprises one of the most astounding argumentative ferments of history, with the debates over democracy, individual rights, proper governance, the best ways to defy and prevent tyranny, and myriad other considerations, taking place in taverns, drawing-rooms, the streets, and, most importantly, in print, with pamphlets and newspapers flying back and forth in paper fusillades. It was a period that evinced precisely the kind of civic engagement to which we should aspire, but always with one crucial caveat in mind: it was the provenance of what we today call privilege, and it has largely remained so ever since. The irony of Stephens’ longing for the “spirit of 1776” as inspired by having been savaged on Twitter, is that had the spirit of that era been as inclusive in practice as it was in principle, we might not be experiencing quite the same polarization today. Stephens’ Twitter Jacobins aren’t analogous to Robespierre, but to the citizens who stormed the Bastille: people finding a voice, voice which had previously been denied to them, through newly available means.

Speaking of revolutions that turn into their worst selves: the tech and digital revolution, specifically the rise of the internet, was heralded by many in the early-mid 1990s as a utopian shift in human connection and collective knowledge; quarter of a century later, we can see clearly how, even where some aspects of that dream have been realized, the benefits are ambivalent at best. But one key element of digital culture is that it has eroded the prominence of traditional gatekeepers of public discourse in print and visual media, allowing for a host of other platforms online or in social media. These platforms give voice to people who long went unheard, and it should not come as a huge shock that a lot of these voices are angry. It is difficult to try and make the case for “the spirit of 1776” to groups of people for whom, historically, that place within spirited public debate was never an option.

I have to believe, however, that that particular spirit isn’t dead, and if the Bret Stephens of the world would pay closer attention to the nuanced and thoughtful arguments unfolding both in “legacy” media and the new, insurgent spaces (and less attention to Twitter), they might be less convinced that there’s a tumbrel waiting for them. Of course, that’s likely a futile suggestion: more likely, it is precisely the growing presence of previously marginalized voices that threatens them and gives rise to the spectre of a guillotine with their name on it.

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Ranking the Democratic Candidates. Also, What Job They Should Have.

I cannot watch political debates without playing out in my mind what I would have said. Long before the first debates between the painfully swollen field of Democrats, I’d composed a line in my head that went something like this: “I want to say for the record that everyone here on this stage with me is extraordinary, and it gives me great hope for our future that so many talented, intelligent people are vying for the nomination. And if I may add, I make a promise here: if I am so fortunate as to earn the nomination for the presidency, you can bet that everyone on this stage with me will have a role in my administration.”

Of course, there’s a certain amount of bullshit packed into that platitude: I would be deeply suspicious of anybody, for example, who employed Marianne Williamson. But in broad strokes, I think that sentiment works. What I’ve listed here is my ranking of the Democratic candidates, in order of my preference, but also with the jobs I think they should have going forward.

debate

1. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris: President.

Yup, these two are in a dead heat for me. Prior to the first debates, I was totally Team Warren. I still mostly am, but watching Kamala Harris vivisect Joe Biden was a good reminder of her intellect and, perhaps more importantly, her killer instinct. I’m now of the mindset that, even if Harris doesn’t get the nomination, she should still debate Trump: because that is something we all need to see.

I love Elizabeth Warren and have loved her since the first moment I saw her interviewed. She makes billionaires’ bowels turn to water, and in the present moment, that’s a great thing. She’s fearless, she’s brilliant, and she loves a good fight. I think the most endearing moment for me of Hilary Clinton’s campaign was when Hilary got excited over a question posed during one of the debates, and gave a delighted smile and a little shoulder wiggle. That few seconds is Elizabeth Warren ALL THE TIME. She’s basically Hermione Granger as a presidential candidate.

I do not, however, see them sharing a ticket. I think that if it ends up being President Harris, Elizabeth Warren needs to be either Treasury or Commerce secretary—ideally with the Consumer Protection Bureau once again under her aegis. If it’s President Warren, then Kamala Harris needs to be Attorney General. That’s just science.

2.Pete Buttigieg: Vice President, or, conversely, Governor of Indiana.

Mayor Pete has been a breakout candidate, largely due to the fact that he’s hellishly impressive. He’s also a wee bit callow and unseasoned, and needs time in an office not oval-shaped to grow into his potential. At the age of thirty-seven, he has an awful lot of years to do so. Practically speaking, I’d like to see him parlay his newfound visibility into a gubernatorial run, which would benefit the Democrats more than almost anything else he could do. On the other hand, the prospect of watching him debate Mike Pence almost overrules practical concerns for me.

3. Cory Booker: Attorney General? I guess? Or possibly VP?

Cory Booker’s an odd figure, for me … I always want to be more impressed with him than I am. He’s a compelling person with an inspiring message, but he lapses too often into vague appeals to love. It’s not that I don’t find that inspiring, it just makes me wonder what’s going on behind the curtains. Early on, I thought of him as Barack Obama’s heir apparent—a telegenic African-American man with a general message of positivity, but he lacks Obama’s gravitas, and Obama’s obvious grasp of the more granular aspects of policy and history.

4. Amy Klobuchar: stay in the Senate.

Before his ignominy, I listened to Al Franken’s book Giant of the Senate on audiobook, and one of the key take-aways was just how impressive Klobuchar is. This was well before she was bandied about as a presidential possibility—indeed, at the time Franken was considered a more likely candidate—so when she rose to prominence during the Bret Kavanaugh hearings, I already felt like I had a good sense of who she was. The picture painted in Franken’s book is of a frighteningly competent legislator. I would not object to her nomination as candidate, but my general sense is that she does enormous good where she is (reported temper tantrums with he staff excepted).

5. Julian Castro: Secretary of Homeland Security.

Julian had a good debate night, and I quite like him. I don’t think he has any traction for the big job, but he’s obviously talented, ambitious, and very smart. I’d be happy to see him run for Senate or take on the task of repairing all the damage Ben Carson’s done at his old post as HUD secretary, but his powerful words on immigration during the debate make me think he might be just the right person to fix all the shit perpetrated by the current administration, starting with the radical reformation or outright abolition of ICE.

6. Bernie Sanders: take one for the team and retire.

Left-wing American politics owes a massive debt to Bernie Sanders: his insurgent challenge to Hilary Clinton in 2016 did more to move the center of political gravity leftwards than anything since FDR. Let’s keep in mind that nothing Bernie proposes is genuinely “radical” or even technically socialist, but tends to conform to the status quo of most of the democratic world. He recently outlined the ways in which his self-applied label of “socialist” applies, but ultimately what he described makes it clear he’s really a New Deal liberal. Which is not of course a problem, except that it highlights the degree to which he relishes his outsider status and relies upon a combativeness that he substitutes for policy substance.

He’s a brilliant rabble-rouser, but would make a terrible president.

7. Kirsten Gillibrand: stay in the Senate.

I have always been underwhelmed by Gillibrand, and continue to be. I think her most useful role is to stay right where she is.

8. Joe Biden: respectfully: please just go away. I love you. But seriously.

I was once at the gym, listening to a podcast that replayed, in its entirety, a speech that Biden delivered to an audience of military families who had had relatives killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He went off-script in the first few minutes, sharing with the people there his own story of grief, of how his wife and child were killed in a car crash just after he had been elected to the Senate. Come on, people, he said, his voice getting husky, commiserating with them how useless and impotent others’ expressions of grief—however well-meaning—are in the face of such enormous loss.

As I said, I was at the gym as I listened to this, and had to stop what I was doing and face a wall to hide the fact that tears were streaming down my cheeks. And I thought to myself: this is a politician? I had not understood Obama’s decision to go with Biden until that moment, and I have had an abiding love for the man ever since.

But. He might have been a useful and possibly necessary balance to Obama’s cool, but everything Obama brought to the office (i.e. the main reason Biden is still leading the polls), Biden lacks. Even leaving aside his legislative baggage and lack of message discipline, the very premise of his candidacy—that Trump is an aberration and he can return comity to Congress—is, or should be, disqualifying. For one thing, it suggests he wasn’t paying attention during his eight years as Obama’s VP, when congressional Republicans turned themselves into unrepentant obstructionists. His problematic callbacks to halcyon days of cooperation are bizarrely amnesiac.

His choice to make his campaign all about Trump is similarly obtuse. The biggest threat liberals and leftists face—in terms of their own thinking—is to imagine that any one person is the problem, whether it be Trump in the U.S. or Doug Ford in Ontario. Simply removing Trump from office doesn’t return us to a prelapsarian state of bliss and balance. Anyone who doesn’t grasp the fact that Trump is the symptom and not the disease needs to take a powder.

9. Jay Inslee: Secretary of Climate.

So far there has been distressingly little discussion of the climate crisis among the Democratic candidates. If we’re being charitable, we can chalk that up to the fact that there’s probably a consensus that it is a crisis and requires significant governmental action, and hence the candidates understandably choose to put their focus elsewhere. If we’re being uncharitable—which I think is the wiser choice—they’re avoiding the issue because practical solutions lose traction with voters the moment they understand what the cost will be. People want action on climate in the abstract, but become far more reluctant when it means paying more at the pump.

I like that Jay Inslee is in the race as a single-issue candidate. My sense is that he knows he has no chance, but he’s determined to make everyone pay attention to his issue. Good on him. I hope he sticks it out as long as he can, and forces the front-runners to speak to his issue. Hopefully one upshot is the creation of a new cabinet position: a secretary dedicated to climate solutions.

10. Andrew Yang: Secretary of Tech.

Climate is one issue that deserves its own cabinet enclave; the tech industry is another.

One of the things that has become painfully obvious in the past few years is that the tech industry has completely outstripped government’s capacity to understand it. Some of the most cringe-inducing moments of political theatre in recent memory involved septuagenarian lawmakers asking inane questions of people like Mark Zuckerberg. The key part of the problem is how few people—both within government and without—genuinely understand the nuances of Silicon Valley. Elizabeth Warren’s plan to break up such monoliths as Facebook and Amazon is a pretty good start, but I’d say it’s past time there was a part of government solely dedicated to the tech industry, staffed with people who actually understand its ins and outs, but also—and this is a crucial thing—aren’t acolytes of its utopian promises.

Is Andrew Yang that person? Quite possibly. Whenever I see him interviewed, I find myself nodding along to a lot of what he says, while also thinking to myself that he would be a catastrophic president. Like Jay Inslee, he’s too much of a single-issue guy, but has obviously thought long and in great depth on that issue. He’s a tech dude who’s obviously developed a healthy skepticism about tech, which is the kind of thing the world badly needs.

11. Beto O’Rourke: honestly? I don’t care.

This bit is actually an edit, as I forgot about Beto on my first go-around. I think he’s more impressive than most of the field of bland white guys, but at this point? Not by much. He did a great job campaigning against Ted Cruz, and mobilizing a moribund progressive electorate in Texas, but he hasn’t shown much substance since throwing his hat in the presidential ring.

12. Tulsi Gabbard: Secretary of Defense

Hear me out on this one: she’s a veteran, and made her anti-war sentiments quite plain during the debates. Possibly someone who could shake up the Pentagon in ways it dearly needs. She wouldn’t be my first choice for SecDef, but it would be far preferable to have here there than in the Oval.

13. Miscellaneous white men (Tim Ryan, Bill De Blasio, John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Michael Bennet, Eric Swalwell, Joe Sestak, Steve Bullock, Seth Moulton, Wayne Messam): RUN FOR SOMETHING OTHER THAN PRESIDENT.

I don’t like lumping all of these guys into a single undifferentiated category, as it’s obvious many of them have talents and intelligence not so obviously on display in such a crowded field, but SERIOUSLY. Democrats have been living the nightmare of having focused so specifically on presidential races for too long. Who’s in the Oval Office matters less and less depending on how many senators, House representatives, and governors—to say nothing of the composition of state legislatures—are the opposing party.

 

14. Marianne Williamson: You’re perfect where you are, don’t change.

Honestly, people: can we in all good conscience allow such a sensitive soul to inhabit the punishing office of the presidency?

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The Politics of Meanness

The word “mean” is typical of the glorious clusterfuck that is the English language, insofar as that it wears many hats. Generally speaking, our first encounter with the word was probably to sound a note of wounded complaint: someone was being mean to us. “Stop being mean!” “He’s such a meanie.” And so on. As our vocabularies grew, we developed a more nuanced quiver of words that spelled out the spectrum of what being “mean” might be, distinguishing between thoughtlessness, selfishness, cruelty, spite, or just general assholery.

But “mean” has its own subtleties as well, connoting not just cruelty but a certain kind of small-mindedness. To be a mean person can entail a sense of willful ignorance, especially ignorance of the value of the intangible or ephemeral. It can also connote a lack of generosity or compassion, the short-sightedness of NIMBYism or the inability to see value in anything that does not yield immediate benefit. To be mean is to dislike seeing others benefit. To be mean is to lack empathy.

I’m ruminating on this semantic question because it helps articulate something about our present moment, which is a moment in which the politics of meanness threatens to become the status quo.

doug-ford

I lived in Ontario for the first thirty-three years of my life; I went to university and grad school there, and now work as an educator. Which means that a significant proportion of people with whom I’m friends on social media live in Ontario and work in education at all levels, from grade school through high school, at colleges and universities and in libraries. What this further means is that for the past year my news feed on Facebook has consistently featured friends’ anger, incredulity, and despair at whatever indignities Doug Ford’s government has recently inflicted on Ontario’s education system.

To many who lived through the 1990s, it feels like déjà vu, a terrible throwback to the Mike Harris years and the assault perpetrated on the educational system by his minister of education John Snobelen—a man who had no background in the field, and came into the job determined to “create a crisis in education.” I felt very keenly the effects of Snobelen’s high-handed and contemptuous treatment of teachers and schools, as my father was a grade school principal at the time. What was worst to watch was my father’s mounting bafflement as Harris and Snobelen went through the education budgets like buzzsaws, with little to no concern for the effect their cuts had on students. It was particularly hurtful for my dad because he and my mom had both voted conservative in that election, buying into the rhetoric of Harris’ “Common Sense Revolution” and the promise to right the fiscal ship after what they saw as the New Democrats’ feckless mismanagement. I’m probably cutting myself out of the will by revealing this, as the years of Harris’ regime cured them of their conservative leanings, which had at any rate always been more about financial conservatism. Their conservative party had always been that of Bill Davis and Joe Clark, the sort of avuncular Tories whose politics a left-wing type might disagree with, but whose compassion and public-spiritedness was not in doubt. What my parents didn’t grasp until it was too late—what my father learned particularly acutely—was that Harris and his ilk embodied a politics of meanness. My dad’s bafflement at John Snobelen’s evisceration of the educational system was the confusion of a dedicated educator who could not understand the rationale behind the cruelty of the cuts. It was only after months of the Harris government’s sustained assault that he came to understand that the cruelty was the point. Harris and Snobelen hated teachers, were in fact antagonistic to the very idea of education more broadly, and the “Common Sense Revolution’s” project of budget-slashing austerity was a very blunt tool for carrying out a mean-spirited revenge, and ultimately drove my father into early retirement.

Fast-forward to the present moment. Doug Ford is basically Mike Harris on steroids, but lacks even the patina of ideological veneer that informed Harris. Everything he has done since taking office has had the quality of a bully’s taunt. Like Donald Trump, he revels in being antagonistic, and his most devoted followers love nothing better than enraging liberals, leftists, and “elites”—this last term which has come to connote not social status but a kind of attitude, in which a millennial with an MFA in creative writing earning minimum wage qualifies, but not the premier who was born heir to millions and spent the better part of his professional life in the corridors of political power. Ford and his followers really might as well change his slogan from “For the People” to “NERRRRRRDS!” That would at least be more honest in terms of his policy preoccupations, to say nothing of his general disposition, personality-wise.

Whatever complaints one may have about the Liberals’ long tenure from 2003 to 2018 under Dalton McGuinty and then Kathleen Wynne, the province’s investment in education during this period saw great dividends, with high school graduation rates rising from 68% to 86.5%. That fifteen-year interval tells its own story, namely that these changes take time and diligence, and also that the greater effects are likely always going to be intangible. Speaking as a professor in the humanities, I’m all about the intangibles: getting a degree in English or languages or philosophy or history doesn’t train you for a specific job, necessarily, but there is an innate value to learning to read and write critically. There is an innate value, also, to taking drama in high school, or learning an instrument, exploring your creativity, or just opening your mind up to new ideas and stories.

empty-class

Unfortunately, it is always these programs—music, art, drama—that tend to be the first on the chopping block when budgets are slashed, as they are not seen as “useful” topics. I often ask my students how many of them, when they answer “English” to the question “what are you majoring in?” receive one of two responses: either “what kind of job are you going to get with that?” or “so … you’re going to be a teacher?” The response is pretty much always 100%. Since I first started grad school, there have been more and more articles, columns, and think-pieces by prominent businesspeople, tech moguls, and the like, all pleading with universities to stop cutting humanities programs, as these courses of study produce graduates with precisely the kind of communicative skills and creativity otherwise lacking in industry (most recently it was Mark Cuban, predicting that a degree in philosophy will soon enough be more valuable than one in computer science). And yet the predominant administrative priority, both in secondary and postsecondary education, resides in expanding STEM programs.

Which brings us back to the politics of meanness. Doug Ford and his ilk may be mean in that original sense we all learned as children when someone was cruel to us, but they have also weaponized the sense of the word as “miserly, stingy; not generous” (as denoted in the Oxford English Dictionary), both literally and spiritually. Perhaps the epitome of this sensibility was the absurd claim made by Ford’s education minister Lisa Thompson when she announced that average class sizes in Ontario would increase from 22 to 28. When asked about the deleterious effects of larger classes, Thompson suggested that it would make the students “more resilient,” as if a smaller fraction of the teacher’s attention taught toughness of spirit.

I remember quite vividly a question posed by someone during the worst depredations of Mike Harris’ government: do you remember who your MPP was when you were ten years old? Or do you remember who your teacher was? Our education system isn’t perfect—what would that even look like?—but it has a profound effect on literally everyone. Starving it of resources is, well, mean, both in the sense of being short-sighted, and being and cruel.

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Thoughts on D-Day and Generational Memory

When Tom Lehrer was asked why he quit doing political satire, he famously quipped, “Because Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize.” Translation: where do you go from there? What kind of parody or satire can rise to the level of the architect of Pinochet’s coup in Chile and the secret bombing of Laos and Cambodia being lauded as a peacemaker?

If the years since Lehrer’s quip have taught us anything, it’s that metaphors of bars being lowered and new depths being plumbed no longer work. There is no bottom, and new normals will always provide a basis for ironic, satirical critique—even if that critique comes to feel more and more like affectless laughter in the dark. Since Kissinger’s peace prize, a B-movie actor was elected president, a subsequent president was essentially impeached for getting a blowjob, and the Terminator was elected governor of California … and that only brings us up to 2003. The fact that a critical mass of liberals would probably be happy to swap Donald Trump for either Reagan or Schwarzenegger both speaks to the fact that they had depths belied by the prior entertainment careers, but also how far down the political slope arse-first we’ve slid.

(Just as an aside: I will maintain to my dying day that Saturday Night Live missed a golden comedic opportunity when, apropos of Schwarzenegger’s re-election campaign, they did not stage a skit in which the Governator debated political opponents Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude van Damme).

trump-d-day

All of this is by way of saying that, if Kissinger’s peace prize was what drove Tom Lehrer out of political satire, I wonder what he makes of the spectacle of President Donald Trump, he of the bone spurs and dictator-envy, speaking solemn words on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. The layers of irony are thicker than the Burgess Shale: a president whose slogan “America First” was originally used by isolationists and Nazi sympathizers like Charles Lindbergh, who wanted to keep the U.S. out of the war; a president who has consistently attacked NATO and the European Union, both of which were established with the express purpose of preventing another war in Europe; a president who has refused to condemn neo-Nazis and white nationalists, and whose presidency has indeed proved to be a clarion call emboldening the racist and anti-Semitic right; a president whose racist populism has been mirrored in the rise of comparable alt-right groups in France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and in the viler strains of Brexit rhetoric; a president who loves the idea of military thuggery but seems incapable of recognizing honour and sacrifice, who is so thin-skinned that his aides panicked at the thought of him seeing the name “John McCain” on a ship or its sailors’ uniforms; a president who is even now poised to pardon actual war criminals; a president who, sitting mere feet away from the graves of American war dead, petulantly smears the name of Robert Mueller, a decorated veteran; this president recites the prayer delivered on D-Day by Franklin Roosevelt—a president whose legacy is the antithesis of everything Trump embodies—and speaks some boilerplate platitudes before returning to his golf course in Ireland.

I used to get outraged at George W. Bush’s blithe ignorance, but that was before I knew what was coming: first Sarah Palin as a potential VP, but then Trump himself, someone not just ignorant but functionally illiterate. I’m hardly a monarchist, but I do admire Queen Elizabeth’s capacity to deliver a diplomatic fuck-you, as she did in her choice of gift for Trump: a first edition of Winston Churchill’s history of WWII, something entirely appropriate for the occasion, but also painfully discordant with this president’s aggressive, ahistorical ignorance. Back in the halcyon days of late 2016, such a gift might have encouraged the naively optimistic—those poor souls who fervently wanted to believe that assuming the office would transform Trump—to hope that Trump would read and learn. But that was then and this is now, and so the subtler insult of the gift—the Queen gave him the abridged edition—is lost in the mere fact that simply giving Trump a book, any book, is to draw attention not just to the fact that he doesn’t read, but to his arrogant incuriosity. The Queen could have given him a boxed set of the Harry Potter series and made the same point.

The Queen’s gift and the insult it delivers, sadly, is a potent symbol for the present moment, in which the felt history of WWII and its transformative effects on the 20th century have become abstract and mythologized. I teach a class on American literature after 1945, and I always begin with a lecture on the sea-change wrought by the Second World War. I ask my students: where do you think the U.S. military ranked, globally, in size and strength in 1939? My students are astute enough to recognize that, if I’m asking the question, there’s a trick in there somewhere. But they’ve also grown up in a world in which American military might is indomitable, and if they know anything about WWII, it’s probably through movies like Saving Private Ryan that depict the vastness of the U.S. war machine. So … Fourth? they say, tentatively. Fifth? A more audacious student might suggest tenth.

No, I reply. Nineteenth. And by 1945, a scant four years after Pearl Harbor, they were rivaled only by the Soviet Union. And then went the way of the rest of the century. Without a grasp of the war at mid-century, one cannot properly understand what came next, and indeed what is happening today.

American troops approaching Omaha Beach.

D-Day occurred 75 years ago, which means that the youngest person who stormed those beaches or parachuted in behind German lines would be 93 years old today (assuming they didn’t lie about their age). We’re on the cusp of losing the last of the Greatest Generation, and when the last of those people die, so too does the generational memory they carry. We’re already seeing the effects: there’s an awful lot of reasons for the rise of the alt-right, but baked in there is a cultural amnesia, a collective forgetting that isn’t just about the passing of the generation that fought WWII, but an erosion of historical consciousness. Ask any student of mine and they’ll tell you (presumably with an eye roll) that I reliably harangue pretty much every class I teach at some point about the need to read history. The last few years I’ve taught Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America, an alternative history that imagines what would have happened if Charles Lindbergh, a Nazi sympathizer, had run against FDR in 1940 and won. I taught the novel once before, when I first started my job at Memorial, but it didn’t get much traction with students. Now, however, I assumed it would grip them with its eerie prescience: a story about a populist celebrity with autocratic and racist tendencies upsetting an establishment politician with the message “America First.”

But no. It did resonate with a few students, but overall the reaction was meh. A colleague of mine has also taught the novel a few times in recent years, and he reports much the same response.

In my very first year here at Memorial, I taught Martin Amis’ novel Time’s Arrow in a first year fiction course—a Holocaust novel that takes place with time reversed, the conceit being that only when witnessed backwards can the Holocaust be understandable. Backwards, it becomes a story of German munificence, in which they call down smoke and ash from the sky to create inert bodies, into which they breathe life and send them on trains out into the world. My argument in lecture was that Amis works to defamiliarize the narrative of the Holocaust as a means of combatting the way in which repeatedly hearing a story inures us to it, and reawake the reader to the pure unthinkability of the atrocity. I cited Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus and Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful as texts that perform a similar function, but by that point the blank expressions on my students’ faces made it clear that defamiliarizing the Holocaust was a bridge too far when mere familiarity was lacking.

To be clear, I don’t blame my students. They have grown up in a culture that has de-emphasized history, both within the educational system and without, and terms like “Nazi” and “fascist” have more traction as online insults than as historical actualities. Millennials are understandably more preoccupied with the future, given that the realities of climate change mean they may not have one. But if the future is to be secured, it must needs be with global and internationalist solutions—we’re well past the point when nation-states can turn inward. The European Union was hardly a perfect construct, but it emerged from the recognition that the world would not survive another conflagration like WWII. Now that that memory has faded, the EU looks to be on a knife’s edge, and nativist autocracies have been making a comeback worldwide. We should of course honour the sacrifices made by those who fought and died 75 years ago, but more importantly we should remember the collective sacrifices of nations mobilized to large-scale action, and the ways in which alliances and cooperation made the defeat of Nazism possible.

The generational memory of WWII is fading. Let’s lose the platitudes about freedom and sacrifice and the why of it all, and honour the dead by not forgetting the how.

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Thoughts on the Kavanaugh Thing (part two): A Tale of Two West Wing Episodes

Since Trump’s election, one of the ways I’ve tried to escape daily reality is by rewatching episodes of The West Wing. This is not, from what I have gleaned, an uncommon strategy. I have also rewatched Aaron Sorkin’s proto-West Wing film The American President at least three times, and watched President Andrew Shepherd’s (Michael Douglas) climactic speech more times than I can count.

Since the announcement of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, I’ve been wanting to rewatch what I think is easily the best post-Sorkin episode of The West Wing: season five’s “The Supremes.” Unfortunately, Netflix no longer carries The West Wing, and I only own the first four seasons on DVD (first world problems). But after last Thursday’s testimonial drama, I bought the single episode on iTunes and watched it.

The premise and the resolution is classic West Wing, to the point where it made me wonder when I first watched it if it was an episode Sorkin had written before his exit from the show (it wasn’t). Justice Owen Brady, a young(ish) conservative firebrand, dies suddenly, and so the Bartlett White House is given the gift of replacing a conservative judge with someone more in their wheelhouse. Of course, given the Republican control of Congress, anyone too liberal—or really, liberal at all—is out of the question. But in a bit of theatre to scare conservatives and make their ultimate nomination more palatable, the senior staff make a show of interviewing some liberal firebrands—most specifically, Evelyn Baker Lang (Glenn Close), whose judicial history defending women’s reproductive rights has made her a bête noir of the right. Meanwhile, as her presence in the West Wing causes conservatives to shake in their space boots, the president and senior staff set their sights on moderate Brad Shelton (Robert Picardo), who is pretty much guaranteed not to rock any ideological boats:

supremes - robert picardo

BARTLETT: Affirmative action is going to be back in the next few years. Let’s start there.
SHELTON: What do I know about it?
BARTLETT: What do you think about it?
SHELTON: I don’t know. [pause] Not the answer you were looking for?
BARTLETT: Not really.
SHELTON: Unnerving, isn’t it?
BARTLETT: Is there another topic you’d be more comfortable with?
SHELTON: Nothing comes to mind.
BARTLETT: Perhaps you should make something up.
SHELTON: I’m not trying to be cagey, but I don’t position myself on issues and I don’t know what I think about a case until I hear it. There are moderates who are called that because they are not activists. And there are moderates who are called that because sometimes they wind up on the left and sometimes on the right.

I’ll come back to this passage momentarily, but meanwhile, long story short: the episode is an indictment of moderation, depicting the need to find milquetoast candidates for SCOTUS as a failure of the higher ideals of debate and argument between fiercely opposed but honest camps. A compromise is brokered: Chief Justice Roy Ashland (Milo O’Shea), a brilliant liberal lion suffering from dementia, will step down and be replaced by Evelyn Baker Lang. In exchange, the Republicans get to replace the dead Brady with conservative firebrand Christopher Mulready (William Fichtner), who earlier in the episode articulated the value of having ideologues on the Court.

MULREADY: Who’s at the top of the list? [pause] If I leaked it would they believe me?
BARTLETT: Brad Shelton.
MULREADY: Really?
BARTLETT: You don’t like him?
MULREADY: He’s a fine jurist. And in the event that Charmine, Lafayette, Hoyt, Clarke and Brandagen all drop dead this summer, the center will still be well tended.
BARTLETT: [laughs] You want another Brady?
MULREADY: Sure, just like you’d like another Ashland—who wouldn’t? The court was at its best when Brady was fighting Ashland.
BARTLETT: Plenty of good law written by the voice of moderation.
MULREADY: Who writes the extraordinary dissent? The one man minority opinion whose time hasn’t come, but 20 years later some circuit court clerk digs it up at three in the morning.

This tune wasn’t written by Aaron Sorkin, but sounds like a pretty accomplished Sorkin cover band. The attractive mythos of his work is that all people in the wrong need is one persuasive argument to come around; that, and the depiction of workplaces staffed by intelligent, dedicated, honestly devoted people. My favourite line from his first series Sports Night is when Isaac Jaffe (Robert Guillame) says, “It’s taken me a lot of years, but I’ve come around to this: If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. And if you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.” It’s sentiments like this that make The West Wing and other Sorkin products feel like safe harbour in the present moment of rampant bad faith, hypocrisy, and mendacity.

BUT.

Perhaps you’ve already figured out where I’m going here.

I rewatched “The Supremes,” but it was unsatisfying … even as fantasy. Its principal centerpiece was when Evelyn Baker Lang runs into Christopher Mulready in the West Wing, and the two proceed to have an animated argument about various points of law—ideological enemies who obviously enjoy each other’s company, and enjoy even more the cut and thrust of legal debate.

supremes - close & fichtner

Which, for what it’s worth, I have no doubt happens in the actual SCOTUS. Both Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan have expressed affection for the late Antonin Scalia, someone whose opinions and personality you would think would be anathema to them. But the fact remains that the Court has become almost absolutely polarized in the past few decades; the fact that Anthony Kennedy voted with the liberals on abortion and gay rights made him the sole justice whose vote wasn’t a foregone conclusion. The prospect of a court filled with Brad Sheltons, who might honestly consider cases on their individual merits and whose votes would not be predictable, seems vaguely utopian in the present moment. I suppose that in the imaginary SCOTUS of this West Wing episode, in which, apparently, five out of the nine justices are centrists, a couple of extreme voices would be good for the sake of debate; but that has not been the nature of the Supreme Court for a very long time, if indeed it ever was.

Fortunately, The West Wing boasts more than one episode devoted to nominating a Supreme Court justice. Well … one other episode, from season one, which is actually far more germane to our present situation for a variety of reasons. In “The Short List,” the senior staff plan to nominate a justice who is, to use one of Donald Trump’s favourite expressions, right out of central casting. His name is:

JOSH: Peyton Cabot Harrison III.
DONNA: Yes.
JOSH: Peyton Cabot Harrison III. He sounds like he should be a Supreme Court justice.
DONNA: It’s a good name.
JOSH: Phillips Exeter, Princeton, Rhodes scholar, Harvard Law Review, for which he was, oh yeah, the editor. Did I mention that he was dean of Harvard Law School? Did I mention that his father was attorney general to Eisenhower?
DONNA: Peyton Cabot Harrison III.
JOSH: That’s right.
DONNA: Jewish fellow?
JOSH: You’re not gonna ruin this moment for me, Donna.

(There’s a “Merrick Garland” joke to be made here, but I’m just going to ignore it).

When the President later meets with Justice Joseph Crouch (Mason Adams), whose retirement is opening the seat, the justice takes Bartlet to task for not living up to the promise of his campaign:

CROUCH: You ran great guns in the campaign. It was an insurgency, boy, a sight to see. And then you drove to the middle of the road the moment after you took the oath. Just the middle of the road. Nothing but a long line painted yellow.
BARTLET: Excuse me, sir…
CROUCH: I wanted to retire five years ago. But I waited for a Democrat. I wanted a Democrat. Hmm! And instead I got you.

He also upbraids Bartlet for making such an obvious choice for his replacement, and begs him to reconsider nominating someone else:

CROUCH: You’ve decided on Harrison.
BARTLET: I haven’t made a decision yet, Joseph.
CROUCH: You’ve made the call. [beat] Did you even consider Mendoza?
BARTLET: Mendoza was on the short list.
CROUCH: Mendoza was on the short list so you can show you had an Hispanic on the short list.
BARTLET: That’s not true, Joseph.

Long story short: Bartlet has second thoughts, enough to make him ask his staff to put together some information for him on Mendoza—“I just want to be able to know something. There’s gonna be a lot of questions. I don’t want it to be ‘we had a Hispanic on the short list’”—but not enough to make him change his mind. That is, until Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) uncovers an old article of Judge Harrison’s making the argument that there is no constitutional protection for privacy. Long story even shorter, they throw Harrison out of the boat and bring in Judge Roberto Mendoza (Edward James Olmos) for an interview.

(Full disclosure: I love Edward James Olmos, and would happily watch anything he’s in. He’s one of those actors who brings such immense gravitas to everything he does, and his sole two appearances on The West Wing are no exception).

weat wing - olmos and sheen

Some people in the West Wing are not overly pleased with the change in game plan, however:

MANDY: I’m the one who has to sell this. And he is not exactly America’s idea of Supreme Court justice.
JOSH: Mandy, I don’t…
MANDY: Let’s do a side-by-side comparison. [reads from piece of paper] Harrison went to Walnut Park Country Day, Phillips Exeter, and Princeton undergrad, and Harvard Law. Mendoza attended P.S. 138 in Brooklyn, City University of New York, and the New York Police Department. Harrison clerked for Warren Berger. Mendoza…
JOSH: [off of the top of his head] New York City Police Department ’65 to ’76, Assistant District Attorney Brooklyn ’76 to ’80, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eastern District, Federal District Judge, Eastern District. Let me tell you something, Mendoza went to Law School the hard way. He got shot in the leg, and when they offered him a hundred percent dispensation, he took a desk job instead and went to law school at night. He’s brilliant, decisive, compassionate, and experienced. And if you don’t think that he’s America’s idea of a jurist, then you don’t have enough faith in Americans.

OK—this is where this episode resonates with me in the present moment. My next post in this series will be about the pernicious myth of meritocracy, something present, I’m sorry to say, in almost every other piece of Sorkin property. Generally, The West Wing is obsessed with credentials: Sam’s secret service code name is “Princeton,” C.J. has a Masters from Berkley, Josh was a Fulbright scholar and went to Harvard Law, and the President is a graduate of Notre Dame, has a doctorate from the London School of Economics, and was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics. I’ll talk more about this in my next post, but Brett Kavanaugh’s repeated, plaintive mantra of “I went to Yale!” made me think of this moment in the episode, especially the point at which Peyton Cabot Harrison III, under intense questioning from Sam Seaborn, says

HARRISON: This sideshow is over. With all due respect, Mr. President, I find this kind of questioning very rude.
SAM: Well then, you’re really gonna enjoy meeting the U.S. Senate.
HARRISON: Be that as it may, it’s disgusting. We all know you need me as much as I need you. I read the same polling information you do. Seven to ten point bump, 90 votes, unanimous out of committee, I was courted. Now, you have me taken to school by some kid.

This, of course, is hardly the spittle-flecked rage exhibited by Kavanaugh, but it is a dramatization of the same sense of entitlement. A few moments later, Harrison says, “I am an extremely well credentialed man, Mr. President, and I’m unaccustomed to this sort of questioning.” Again, resonance with the present moment: the anger Kavanaugh exhibited last week was this sort of sentiment cranked up to eleven: anger at the effrontery that you might be denied what you feel you deserve. “The Supremes” is a great episode, and one that articulates an idealized vision of good-faith debate; “The Short List” articulates something more immediate and crucial to our present moment, which I’ll get into in my next post: namely, that diversity isn’t just about race and gender, but also about thought and background. As I said in my previous post, the fulminations from Lindsey Graham et al that these accusations levelled at Kavanaugh will “ruin his life” are just so much horseshit. Kavanaugh’s suggestion that his admission to Yale was due entirely to his own hard work is more of the same.

That said, it’s not hard to understand why he might consider his educational background a defense. Looking at the current SCOTUS, every single justice went to either Harvard or Yale law school; the only sort-of exception is Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who transferred to Columbia from Harvard.

I’m not saying an Ivy League education is a bad thing. What I am saying is that I will address this question in my next post.

To be continued.

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Thoughts on the Kavanaugh Thing (part one)

BK LOSING IT

I spent much of this past weekend watching highlights (and lowlights) of the testimony delivered last Thursday by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh, I think it’s safe to say I have a lot of thoughts about this situation, and after several very long walks and a lot of yelling at my laptop screen, they’re starting to sort themselves into something coherent. So this will be the first of several posts I make on the topic. Hopefully I can contribute something useful to the discussion, but really, after several days of stewing and mulling, the key point here for me is to vent.

Hopefully it’s helpful venting.

The thing I’ve had to remind myself of since Trump’s election is “if you (i.e. me) are so angry and outraged and feel so helpless and afraid, just imagine how people more directly affected by all this feel.” Which is to say: I am white, male, cis, straight, tenured, and not only live in Canada, but have an ocean between myself and Trump’s America. All of which might suggest I don’t have a dog in this hunt and shouldn’t exhaust myself shouting at the TV.

The problem with that is that where I refer above to “all this,” I’m not just referring to Trump and his administration, but to the broader cultural currents that made his election possible; I’m referring also to the license Trump has given for people to indulge racist, sexist, and all other forms of hateful tendencies; I’m referring also to the election of Doug Ford in Ontario, the rise of Rebel Media, and the fact that someone who proved too white supremacist for even the Rebel is running for mayor of Toronto; I’m referring also to the fact that all of the above is fuelled by white male resentment.

And anyone who couldn’t see that white male resentment in Kavanaugh’s testimony on Thursday is either literally or willfully blind.

Watching Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony brought me to tears at several points, and again, I thought how much worse must the experience be for women, especially those who themselves are survivors or harassment, abuse, assault, and worse. And indeed my Facebook feed was full of rage: women with whom I am friends, many of whom are close and dear friends, expressing admiration for Dr. Blasey Ford and anger that her poignant, credible, emotional testimony will almost certainly be for naught. And through it all ran a palpable sense of exhaustion. My girlfriend Stephanie expressed it to me this morning: “I feel like I’ve reached peak anger,” she said. “What else can we do? Where else do we go, emotionally?”

I wish I had an answer to that.

***

Going for a walk this morning, mulling all of this over, it occurred to me that the testimony on Thursday was like the pendulum swing from Obama to Trump writ small.

It was telling just how taken aback Republicans and their media mouthpieces were by the effectiveness of her testimony (even Trump, apparently, berating his staff for not having had any advance sense of how well she’d do). That surprise on their part shouldn’t really be a surprise, however, given the nature of the particular tightrope she had to walk. Any more emotional, and she’d have been dismissed as hysterical; any less emotional, and she’d not have been considered credible, and likely been accused of being a Democratic operative. She combined poise and fragility, humour and gravitas, and could speak to the specifics of memory and trauma from a professional perspective. And of course she is white, and comes from the same sort of privileged background as the man she accused, which made the Republicans on the committee doubly loath to be seen attacking her character.

Barack Obama needed to thread a not dissimilar needle: to be the first Black president, he couldn’t be too Black, or too redolent of Black American culture; he had to have superlative credentials—not just a graduate of Columbia Law School, but the first Black editor of the Harvard Law Review. He had to be the most pristine family man to occupy the White House possibly ever, and could not have had even a whiff of personal scandal attach to him. And on such occasions as the Jeremiah Wright affair, he had to have preternatural oratorical skill to ford those rapids. In his famous 2004 DNC speech, he uttered a line that would become a trope of his later campaign and presidency: “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” In other words, he had to be not just a forceful and eloquent proponent of American Exceptionalism, he had to be its living embodiment.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out at length in The Atlantic, Donald Trump stands as the epitome of white privilege: “It is insufficient to state the obvious of Donald Trump,” he begins, “that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact.” He is in every respect the antithesis of Obama: ignorant, incurious, adulterous, venal, cruel, narcissistic, incoherent. Any one of these qualities attached to Obama would have tanked his presidential chances before leaving the gate. And yet Trump was elected, not least because he told white Americans that they were the victims of history.

When Brett Kavanaugh came out swinging, cranked to eleven in a veritable tantrum of resentful accusation, my initial thought was “He’s done.” But of course I should have known better: whatever good Dr. Blasey Ford had done was, like Obama’s presidency, all but obviated by the bilious rage of a petulant and entitled white man, whose sense of affront that he might have to account for his past behaviour gave license to his peers to harmonize with his aria of wounded privilege.

Since the first moments when it became clear that Dr. Blasey-Ford’s accusations were likely credible and stories of Kavanaugh’s teenage drinking emerged, I’ve wondered why he didn’t nip the thing in the bud with a simple expression of contrition: “I’m deeply ashamed of my behaviour in my youth. I have no memory of the event described by Christine Blasey Ford, but I am horrified at the thought that, in a drunken stupor, I might have done anything that could be construed as assault. I have in the years since those days worked hard to become worthy of my country, my family, and my own conscience.” Even after his initial denials, he could have course-corrected at any time: “I apologize for not being forthcoming before, but you must understand how ashamed I am of my behaviour in those days.”

Of course, this suggestion is entirely disingenuous: what has become clear, especially since his testimony Thursday, is that making such a statement would never occur to him. Bad behaviour, excessive drinking, and a sense of entitlement to the bodies of the girls he knew was a privilege afforded youths like him—it was his birthright, and it is obvious from his testimony that, far from feeling any remorse, he nostalgizes those days, unfolding his memories to the Judiciary Committee like an early 80s frat movie with the sex scenes redacted. The “boys will be boys” attitude of his supporters, along with the sentiment that “why should he be punished for something that happened so long ago?” is consonant with the latitude given the male children of the elite. As Lindsey Graham and others suggest that these accusations have “ruined” Kavanaugh’s life, we really need to remember that even if he doesn’t win the SCOTUS seat, he goes back to a lifetime appointment on the second highest court in the U.S. It’s not as if he’ll be selling cigarettes under a bridge.

We should also keep in mind that, had Kavanaugh and Mark Judge been Black youths attempting to rape a white girl, they’d likely still be in prison today. “Tried as an adult” isn’t really an expression that gets applied to teenagers at Georgetown Prep.

 

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Food, Empathy, and Continuing to Mourn Anthony Bourdain

It strikes me as cruelly serendipitous that three instances of people publicly shaming significant figures of the Trump Administration in the past week took place at restaurants: Kirstjen Nielsen hounded out of a Mexican restaurant, Stephen Miller being heckled and called a fascist, also at a Mexican restaurant, and of course Sarah Huckabee Sanders being asked to leave The Red Hen, a farm-to-table establishment in Virginia. Why was this all serendipitous, and cruelly so? Because it came fairly closely on the heels of the death of Anthony Bourdain.

As may or may not have been obvious from my last post, the past two weeks or so have really gotten to me. Based on the responses I received, I’m not alone. Mostly I use this blog as a means of thinking out loud, but every so often I manage to strike a nerve. Most posts of mine get between fifty and sixty hits; in the forty-hours after I hit the “publish” button, I received over four hundred. Which is, to be certain, exceptionally modest for online writing, but deeply gratifying nonetheless.

In hindsight, it was Bourdain’s death that was something of a tipping-point for me emotionally, and which made everything that followed that much more unbearable to think about. There is comfort to be had in knowing there are rational, humane, deeply intelligent thinkers at large in the world to whom we can reliably turn to for wisdom. Bourdain was just such a person for me, and his loss, apparently, is something I’m still working through.

I have no doubt he’d have had something to say about Nielsen and Miller’s tone-deaf choice of eating establishments, as well as Sanders’ expulsion from the Red Hen. I don’t know whether he’d have agreed with the latter, but I’m confident he would have said his piece with his usual wit and moral acumen; and what’s more, I would have been surprised if he hadn’t reminded us of how the food services industry, more than almost any other, is reliant upon undocumented labour. At the end of Kitchen Confidential, he offers advice to any young person considering a career as a chef. One of the big ones, simply, is learn to speak Spanish: almost everyone working the shit jobs in professional kitchens, from dishwashers to prep cooks, will likely be a recent immigrant from Central or South America. If Slytherin acolyte Stephen Miller could in fact wave a wand and make all eleven million undocumented immigrants disappear, the restaurant industry in America would collapse (as it would anyway, as all the food it might otherwise serve would lie rotting in farmers’ fields around the country for lack of hands to harvest it).

The point here is not so much to make the case for the practical value of undocumented immigrants and their economic contributions, as to look at these incidents as emblematic of cultural divides contrasted with cultural fusions. Bourdain’s transformation from bad-boy chef to food tourist to thoughtful, nuanced cultural critic was not actually that far a trip. French gastronomist Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s directive “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are”—perhaps most famously used as the epigraph for the original Japanese Iron Chef—articulates quite pithily the centrality of food to culture, and that was always the connection Bourdain made, whether he was eating his beloved noodles in Saigon or jig’s dinner in Newfoundland.

bourdain-obama

Remember when we had a president who didn’t tweet pictures of himself with fast food?

As Helen Rosner points out in The New Yorker, given the pervasiveness of Mexican cuisine in the U.S.—comprising an estimated nine percent of all restaurants, “more than the total number of pizzerias”—it “may have been pure statistical inevitability that caused Kirstjen Nielsen … to eat at a Mexican restaurant.” Rosner’s suggestion is made here, presumably, with her tongue in her cheek, but the larger point is more profound: namely, that U.S. culture on its most basic levels is inextricably multi-ethnic. Mexican food’s profusion is emblematic of this reality, especially considering one finds its influence everywhere, not just in Mexican restaurants. As Rosner observes,

… you can find fajitas at Chili’s, guacamole and chips at the Cheesecake Factory, churros at Disney World, quesadillas repurposed into burger buns at Applebee’s, margaritas at LongHorn Steakhouse, Baja-style fish tacos at hipster brunch spots, and nachos at every sports arena in America.

This is at once hopeful and troubling: hopeful, because it suggests a certain success of the American Idea, and thus the impossibility of the white nationalist project; troubling, because it also suggests a disconnection and appropriation. I can completely believe that Stephen Miller chose to dine at a Mexican restaurant specifically to troll people, but I can equally believe that Kirstjen Nielsen was completely oblivious to the idea that being seen at a Mexican restaurant while ICE tore children from families might be seen as being in poor taste. I can believe the latter because a lack of empathy for people can and often does go hand in hand with a callous disregard for people’s contributions to your quotidian reality. It can also tend to reduce those contributions to simplistic end empty signifiers, as when Trump tweeted a picture of himself eating a taco bowl with the caption “I love Hispanics!”—as if the act of eating Mexican-adjacent food gave the lie to his overt racism.

Indeed, it’s hard not to see in Trump’s love of fast food the distillation of many of his worst attributes: ignorance, selfish appetites and their need for instant gratification, self-destructiveness, and a profoundly incurious mind. Corporate fast food like McDonalds and KFC are an embodiment of empathy’s lack, as the entire business model is predicated on divorcing consumers from any sense of the food’s origins, both in terms of the plants and animals from which the food is made, but also its cultural origins, with companies like Taco Bell turning its products into simplistic caricatures that can be replicated quickly and efficiently with a minimum of skill for the lowest cost possible. Michael Pollan’s discussion of McDonald’s fries makes the point more eloquently than I can:

It’s thus easy to understand how the employees of The Red Hen would have found Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ presence in their establishment unbearable. Farm-to-table cuisine is philosophy as much as sustenance, rooted in an awareness of interconnectedness and community, and which advocates sustainable, humane, and organic farming practices. That kind of cuisine does not emerge without empathy and a social conscience, something that, at least in this one instance, proved incompatible with serving food to the unapologetic mouthpiece of an Administration with no empathy and no conscience.

If Nielsen, Miller, and Sanders are going to willingly work for an administration that vilifies cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism, it seems only fair that they should be denied the enjoyment of the benefits of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism.

I’m reasonably certain Anthony Bourdain would have agreed.

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