Category Archives: Trump

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).

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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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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.

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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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Caesarism, Crowds, and Populism

finasteride

When I was doing my MA, I stumbled into taking part in a local production of Julius Caesar. I had a tiny part—literally, about two lines, plus some shouting during the crowd scenes—but because the director had the idea that the Roman mob should double as a sort of chorus and witness, I spent about eighty percent of the play draped around the apron of the thrust stage with the rest of the non-principal cast.

The run was an interminable four weeks; at the time I did not appreciate just how exploitative that is for an amateur show, where the theatre company makes money but none of the actors do. For me it was a lark, and the fact that I managed to get decent grades in all my classes that term still amazes me somewhat. But it did grind on after a time, and to this day I still have most of the text of the play embedded in my unconscious.

One line in particular: the play started with a large mound of people pulsating and chanting “Caesar!” in murmurs as the house lights came slowly up. The actor playing Cassius then boomed “He doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus!” and the people in the heap peeled away in slow, stylized fashion, revealing Caesar, Antony, and the other principals.

Every night I heard that line, and every night it tugged at something in my subconscious, until it suddenly struck me: “He doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus” scans almost exactly the same as Darth Vader’s line to Princess Leia, “You are part of the Rebel Alliance, and a traitor!” And from that point on, I have never heard either line without thinking of the other.

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I’ve been thinking about that production lately, in part because I had the privilege yesterday of organizing and directing a play reading for my good friend and colleague Andrew Loman’s “48 Months of Finasteride.” Andrew, whose encyclopedic knowledge of theatre is truly astonishing, decided that he wanted to publicly read a play for every month of the Trump presidency—selecting politically themed plays dealing in some capacity with fascism or tyranny, political buffoonery, or really anything that could be used to reflect upon the current clusterfuck inhabiting the White House. Months forty-eight and forty-seven featured Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, and A Bright Room Called Day by Tony Kushner, respectively. I suggested that he do the version of Julius Caesar first performed under the direction of Orson Welles at the Mercury Theatre in 1937. Welles, who starred as Brutus as well as directing, made the play explicitly about Nazi Germany—the lighting evoked that of the Nuremberg Rallies, the actors dressed in Gestapo-esque outfits, and pamphlets advertising the play read “JULIUS CAESAR: DEATH OF A DICTATOR!”

Andrew liked the idea, and suggested I direct it. Which I did, and, thanks to a lovely cast of readers, last night it received an enthusiastic response.

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Our lovely cast. Back row: Fionn Shea (Cinna, Cobbler), Olivia Heaney (Flavius, Calphurnia, Publius), Zaren Healey White (Marullus, Portia, Decius, Cinna the Poet); front row: Dean Doyle (Carpenter, Lucius, Casca, Artimedorus, Soothsayer, Ligarius), Luke Ashworth (Julius Caesar), Your Truly (Brutus), Jennifer Lokash (Cassius), Ruth Lawrence (Mark Antony)

I’m always amused and gratified by the little serendipities of life, which seem to appear all the time in my teaching and research—it doesn’t really matter how dissimilar the classes I’m teaching in a given term are, I can be reliably guaranteed to find points of connection in my lectures that are surprising and enlightening (to me, at least). Given that I’ve been expanding research I’ve been doing, on zombie narratives on one hand and militaristic SF on the other, into theories of crowds and mobs (militaristic SF shares a tendency with popular narratives of elite soldiery to depict the enemy as an undifferentiated mass), sitting down to work with Orson Welles’ vision for Julius Caesar was fascinating.

Shakespeare’s Roman plays have long been fecund ground for pointed political stagings, which is entirely unsurprising considering their preoccupation with individual versus collective power, divine right versus egalitarianism, the Great Man versus the mob (and of course, the persistence of ancient Rome in the political memory of the West—no less acute for Shakespeare than it is for us today). At the heart of these plays, especially Coriolanus and Julius Caesar is the spectre of populism and its discontents: Julius Caesar has functioned since its first performance as a cautionary tale about the dangers of the mob, depicting the Roman masses as fickle, dumb, violent, and easily led. Indeed, the manner in which Shakespeare depicts them is almost risible at times. One of my favourite moments is almost Monty Python-esque in how quickly the mob’s attitude turns. Emerging enraged at the assassination of Caesar, they listen to Brutus’ impassioned argument that it was better Caesar was dead than Rome crown him king, and thus sacrifice their native freedoms; so taken is the mob with his words, so happy are they that Brutus saved them from making Caesar king, that they then cry out that Brutus should be crowned.

BRUTUS: With this
I depart—that, as I slew my best lover for the
good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself,
when it shall please my country to need my death.

ALL: Live, Brutus! live, live!

First Citizen: Bring him with triumph home unto his house.

Second Citizen: Give him a statue with his ancestors.

Third Citizen: Let him be Caesar.

Fourth Citizen: Caesar’s better parts
Shall be crown’d in Brutus.

As they say today: <facepalm>.

Such a scene does resonate, however, whether we’re Shakespearean groundlings or 21st-century social media users, for a simple reason helpfully distilled by the British Marxist critic Raymond Williams in his landmark study Culture and Society (1958): “The masses are always the others, whom we don’t know, and can’t know … To other people, we also are masses. Masses are other people.” This basic fact, to my mind, is the contradiction at the heart of both mass culture and populism: we partake but cannot conceive of ourselves as part of the mass, something played for comic effect in The Life of Brian when Brian leads his followers in an affirming chant of “We’re all individuals! We’re all different!”, only to have a small voice pipe up, “I’m not.” As much as I hate explaining a good joke, it’s funny because it’s an unthinkable sentiment, even as it undercuts its own claim of non-individualism by being a lone voice of dissent in a chorus of groupthink.

My own research in this area has been about the critical mass of zombie films, television, and fiction in the past fifteen years—teasing out a sense of the relationship of the undead hordes to our ambivalent relationship to mass culture. In the past two years it has taken on an added resonance with the resurgence of “populism” as a political force. Re-reading Julius Caesar—and this is what I mean by serendipity—touched a nerve, as the ravening crowd, riled to bloodlust by Antony’s oration, sets upon hapless Cinna the Poet and tears him to pieces. To be certain, this is the dystopian view of populism, but then one’s view of populism is entirely based on where one stands. If you’re on the left, Trumpian populism is pernicious, a melding of unreconstructed racism and white resentment, framed in nostalgia for an America that never really existed, whereas the Bernie Sanders version was an organic grass-roots revolt against systemic injustice and a broken political system. And if you’re an Establishment elite, both groups are the Roman mob—your political leaning only changes whether Antony or Brutus is the hero.

Welles as Brutus

Orson Welles as Brutus.

What I loved about sitting down with Welles’ script was seeing how carefully he’d orchestrated the crowd scenes. And I mean “orchestrate” quite literally—he made them much more complex than the original Shakespearean text, arranging the lines on the page in a way that indicated when people should talk over one another or speak in succession. Considering how exacting a director Welles was, I have little doubt he tortured his cast until the scene played symphonically.

Where Shakespeare identifies the crowd-shouters as “First Citizen” and so on, Welles instead just assigned specific lines to specific cast members. This allowed for a more precise allocation of speaking roles, but in reviewing the script, it also individuates the mob—Welles’ Roman masses have more personality, and come across not as a chorus but a series of individual voices. This dramaturgical change is interesting, considering that the overt object of the play’s critique is the terrifying rise of Nazism in Germany. As a friend of mine once drily observed, Nazis make the best villains—for the simple reason that you don’t ever have to explain why they’re villains. But Welles has another object in his sights: not an always-already malleable mass of “gullibility, fickleness, herd-prejudice, lowness of taste and habit” (to again quote Raymond Williams), primed to give in to their basest hatreds at the slightest provocation, but a heterogeneous group of thinking people convinced to throw over their own freedoms by a talented demagogue.

Most tellingly, Welles completely dispenses with the crowd’s sudden eagerness to crown Brutus—they are swayed by his arguments, but understand them enough to not seek a substitute king. Antony’s funeral oration thus becomes that much more masterful, as he leads his initially skeptical audience through four stages of his speech: sarcastic rhetoric (“And Brutus is an honorable man”), pathos (showing them Caesar’s wounds, and pointing out where each conspirator stabbed him), and then to the crowd’s own material self-interests (revealing that Caesar had left every Roman seventy-five drachmas in his will), and then finally riling them up to rage (“there were an Antony / Would ruffle up your spirits, and put a tongue / in every wound of Caesar, that should move / The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny!”).

Also telling is Welles’ stage direction: when Antony reaches the climax of his speech, there is no mad yell from the throng as they charge off to wreak havoc. Rather, the script says “Silence. The lights dim as the mob turns slowly upstage and moves to exit with an increasing tempo and crescendo of footsteps.” Such an exit is not about collective rage but chilling unity of purpose—the suggestion being that this is not a fire that will burn itself out, but a movement. This cold implacability—so different from the more typical raging mobs of Caesar productions—surfaces again immediately in the notorious Cinna the Poet scene. Typically, the hapless Cinna, who has the misfortune of sharing a name with one of Caesar’s murderers, is set upon by the mob and torn apart. Welles’ thugs, however, emerge quietly from the darkness and behave in a specifically Gestapo manner.

In some ways, it is clear that Welles’ Caesar was a pre-war production—it allows for a differentiation amongst the rank and file that would become unthinkable in years after the war when Nazis became synonymous with unthinking evil. But it is for this reason that this production is such a valuable document today, as it offers an unusually nuanced depiction of populism. If the masses, as Raymond Williams says, are always other people, it is always worthwhile to remind ourselves of how we become part of the masses.

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