“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.” – Hannah Arendt
With the already-widely-read 1984 shooting up the bestseller charts, I can't help wondering if It Can't Happen Here and The Plot Against America will enjoy similar revivals. I'd say Roth is the much better bet - he's still alive and popular, which is far more than can be said for Sinclair Lewis.
"One is reminded once again to be wary of moments when racism 'ends' in a sudden thunderclap of progress." - Leonard Pitts, Jr.
The Charisma Theory
I wish with all my heart that this theory had failed during the most recent election, but unfortunately it held true. A year or two ago it occurred to me that the more charismatic presidential candidate often wins. But once I started thinking about it further, I realized that the theory was true for every election (with the possible exception of 1988, which was a tossup in terms of the candidates' charisma) since 1976:
1976: Carter over Ford
1980: Reagan over Carter
1984: Reagan over Mondale
1988: Bush over Dukakis
1992: Clinton over Bush
1996: Clinton over Dole
2000: Bush over Gore
2004: Bush over Kerry
2008: Obama over McCain
2012: Obama over Romney
2016: Trump over Clinton
Being ignorant of politics prior to 1976, I can't really weigh in on earlier elections. But this trend (though it may just be a fluke) over the past forty years makes me wonder how much charisma, personality, likability etc. (even more so than a candidate's experience and policy positions) influences voters - especially moderate/independent voters who usually end up being the group that decides elections. Something to ponder, at least.
Farewell, Barack Obama
With this being the last day in office for Barack Obama - the greatest president of my lifetime - I will honor the man by reprising a clerihew I wrote about him back in 2006, when he was still a U.S. Senator:
With Barack Obama,
Each word and each comma
Is perfectly placed. But what sets him apart?
The depth of his mind and the depth of his heart.
During the next four years I will fight every day to withstand the mindlessness and heartlessness of our national leadership. Yes, we can.
“Reckless audacity came to be understood as the courage of a loyal supporter; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice. In this contest the blunter wits were most successful."
"The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." - H.L. Mencken
As I've mentioned here previously, I share a birthday and many attitudes (the better ones, of course) with Mencken. (I would have loved to hear his thoughts on our incoming president. I imagine he would have been particularly horrified by Trump's diction.) I've thoroughly enjoyed most of the Mencken I've read - the strength of his prose and boldness of his personality more than offsets the dated and now-obscure subject matter - and hope to read his "Days Trilogy" next.
"The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere they can be quiet, alone with heavens, nature, and God." - Anne Frank
Maddie, my outspoken 16-year-old, remains incredulous that I still haven't read Frank's Diary. I will rectify this omission in the coming year. I'm prepared for tears.
Hoping for a selfish oligarch
Felix Salmon absolutely nails it:
Trump is, however, motivated by self-interest. And in a world where the choice is between appalling and disastrous, this weirdly counts as good news. His voters voted for a chaos monkey who would deport millions of immigrants, start a war with Iran, decimate global trade, and make America unspeakably racist again. A vote for Trump, in other words, was a vote against freedom and prosperity and equality.
Trump is capable of implementing all of those policies, should he want to. But he is also an extremely rich man who is in the process of putting together a cabinet of unprecedented wealth, from Betsy DeVos to Steven Mnuchin to Wilbur Ross and Todd Ricketts. For these people–and for Trump himself–a global descent into protectionist chaos would be, let’s say, suboptimal: They would lose not only vast amounts of money, but also much of the status they so expensively enjoy.
In this sense, Trump’s multitudinous global conflicts are the main thing keeping him from going completely off the rails.
You know, maybe Trump's refusal to divest his business holdings, or put them into a blind trust, is the only thing preventing him from obliterating the world. If he approaches every presidential decision with consideration for how it could damage his financial net worth, we might actually be saved. I just wish he had hotels in Syria and Iran.
"...giving a boundary to all of that..."
From Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness:
How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing.
I admire Le Guin's thoughts on the arbitrariness of borders and states (and, in this woeful election season, legislative districts). I also just finished her The Lathe of Heaven. Fascinating premise, and thought-provoking throughout. I've read very little sci-fi or fantasy during my long reading life (much to Julie's disbelief), but Le Guin is one writer I think I could take to.
(Via Austin Kleon.)
"There’s too much at stake now to pretend that everything is okay."
Dan Piepenbring, at The Paris Review:
If you aspire to write, put aside all the niceties and sureties about what art should be and write something that makes the scales fall from our eyes. Forget the tired axioms about showing and telling, about sense of place—any possible obstruction—and write to destroy complacency, to rattle people, to help people, first and foremost yourself. Lodge your ideas like glass shards in the minds of everyone who would have you believe there’s no hope. And read, as often and as violently as you can.
Come to think of it, I was probably most productive as a writer during the Bush Administration, especially the second term when times seemed at their darkest. Creative ferment, or something like that.
Debs for President
Always nice to see a modern reference to Eugene Debs. Roll Call's Walter Shapiro:
During the same answer, Trump rediscovered his authoritarian side by dramatically announcing that his Democratic opponent “shouldn’t be allowed to run. It’s crooked.” That’s right — because of charges about her homebrew email server that the FBI director said did not warrant prosecution — Trump would have banned Hillary Clinton from the ballot.
It is worth recalling that in 1920, Eugene Debs, as the Socialist candidate for president, received nearly 1 million votes while serving as Prisoner 9653 in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. Debs’ conviction for opposing American entry into World War I was unjust. But back in 1920, no one suggested that he should be banned from the ballot in a democracy.
"A letter to my father, who has just killed himself"The Guardian has a weekly feature called "A letter to..." which publishes anonymously-written letters in which the writers express what they've longed to say to someone but have never found the strength to do so. The letters are all remarkable for their naked honesty, but this one, "A letter to my father, who has just killed himself", is particularly devastating - yet somehow beautiful.
When I win the lotteryKim Phillips-Fein, from her essay "Lotteryville USA", which appeared in the June 1995 issue of The Baffler:
If the model for the lottery isn’t Robin Hood, it’s not quite Ronald Reagan either—it robs the poor to give to the school system. That it goes to the state is perhaps a sign of how desperate state governments are for revenue, but for the players it’s no different than other systems that suck their money away. To refer to the lottery as a swindle or a cheat on the poor ignores the basic truth about being poor, which is that you get cheated all the time.I have a short stack of Bafflers from the 1990s that I dip back into now and then. The journal was revived a few years ago, and I've been thinking about subscribing. In the old days I bought them off the newsstand, but I don't think their distribution is as widespread now as it was back then. Subscribing would be my most reliable source.
Quote“In the little time that’s left to me – and I hope it will be months rather than years – I just cling to the hope that the world doesn’t turn upside down again as it did then, though there have been some ghastly developments, haven’t there? I’m relieved I never had any children that I have to worry about.” - Brunhilde Pomsel, the 105-year-old former secretary to Joseph Goebbels
Wishful thinking, Holmes...
Basil Rathbone, in the 1943 film Sherlock Holmes Faces Death :
"There’s a new spirit abroad in the land. The old days of grab and greed are on their way out...The time is coming, Watson, when we cannot fill our bellies in comfort while the other fellow goes hungry, or sleep in warm beds while others shiver in the cold...And God willing, we’ll live to see that day, Watson."
The days of grab and greed are still very much with us. The Republican Party has even nominated the very embodiment of that ethos as its presidential candidate.
Despite loving the Holmes stories from a young age, and being a fan of the TV adaptations starring Jeremy Brett and (to a lesser extent) Benedict Cumberbatch, I've actually never seen any of the Rathbone films. I should try to catch a few of those one of these days.
 Based on the Conan Doyle story "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual", which I think is a much better title than that of the film version.
(Via The Ploughshares Blog.)
"He is a black soul.""Two things are absolutely necessary in any leader or any person that aspires, wishes to be a leader. That is moral compass and, second, is empathy. This candidate is void of both traits that are necessary for the stewardship of this country. He is a black soul. And this is totally unfit for the leadership of this beautiful country." - Khizr Khan
Expect this to be the first of many political posts here between now and November. Given the deplorable candidate the Republicans have chosen, this will probably be the most important election of my lifetime.
Quote“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere." - Elie Wiesel
Quote"I think art has a right — not an obligation — to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification." - Geoffrey Hill
Speaking of, have you ever read the transcript of a Trump speech? It reads like the diction of a moderately-literate fourth grader. Talk about simplification.
Quote"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind." - Thomas Jefferson
Quote"I honestly think that if you put Trump in a novel before last year, it wouldn’t work. It would seem too far-fetched. You would be accused of writing farce; you would be accused of being condescending about the American people. You’d also be criticised as a novelist for not coming up with a more beguiling demagogue. This guy is crude, he’s a buffoon, he can’t string a grammatical sentence together, he’s unappealing. I can just hear the editorial lunch now: 'You’ve got to do something about this guy, there has to be something appealing about him otherwise he wouldn’t have this constituency.'" - Lionel Shriver
"...in the bloodpot of human hearts..."Like father, like son.
Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
he stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed
That color line
Here at his
Eighteen hundred family project...
- Woody Guthrie
Quote"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was 'well timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.' We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.'" - Martin Luther King, Jr.
Quote"As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background. We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want, or the security we want, but most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world." - Barack Obama
Quote"In our society there are two paths to success: One is to be good at computers and the other is to be a sociopath." - Jaron Lanier
Quote"When Barack Obama does hipster things in public, it's amazing to see how a politician at his level of importance manages to "get the joke" so profoundly. When Hillary Clinton does hipster things in public, it's like watching that suburban mom who's embarrassing the hell out of her teenage daughters." - Jason Pettus
Quote"I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here for some time and may have entered illegally." - Ronald Reagan
"The powerful man who matches insolence with glibness is worse than a fool. He is a public danger."
What bothers me about Scalia is less his strongly held views than his blindness to his own inconsistencies. He has no problem with overruling Congress’s Voting Rights Act or its limits on campaign contributions (in Citizens United). This Supreme Court has been more activist than any we have seen in decades, but Scalia regards it as a usurping power only when the vote doesn’t go his way.Robin Bates on Antonin Scalia and his alter ego, Pentheus from The Bacchae.
Not your grandfather's cocktail
At Inlander, Samuel Ligon writes about booze and the commodification of cool. On the one hand, it's intriguing to sip a cocktail while browsing a boutique so overpriced that you'll never buy anything there. But then, alas, it's not really a cocktail, but an artisanal creation.
On the booze table is a recipe on distressed paper for a cocktail called a Grandfather's Boil, written by Dexter Fontaine, Seattle's preeminent artisanal craft cocktail mixologist. But the list of ingredients has you wondering if Dexter Fontaine cares about booze at all.
First there's .3 ounces of green chartreuse. You figure maybe you can skip that ingredient, but next it's two spritzes of velvet falernum, which sounds kind of sexy, kind of filthy, and then nine drops of rosewater and a jigger of Lillet. A dude in a Civil War beard sighs behind you, waiting to mix his Grandfather's Boil. You scan the recipe for something you can just pour into a glass. The three stalks of pre-measured powdered Palouse wheat can't possibly be real. Same for the freshly raked leaf garnish. Looks like everything's going to have to be left out of this cocktail. But then you find it. Actual booze! Only it's cinnamon and apple-infused. Don't ask why.
You can just keep your artisanal craft cocktail mixologists, Seattle (and Chicago, and other big cities); I'll be more than happy being served by a bartender named George at the corner tavern (or serving myself, at home). I don't drink Manhattans because they're trendy, but because they're simple and my common-sense dad drank them, and with every sip I feel almost a communion with him.
This might be the greatest spam email ever.hi love,
My name is Margret Williams,I have an urgent and
beneficial information to
share with you.reply immediately for dull details.
with love from
The doll at the window in Janesville, Minnesota
"I mistrust words, but I say the Agricultural Revolution took thousands of years; the Industrial Revolution took hundreds of years; the Information Revolution is taking only decades. If we use it, and use the brains God gave us, we may be able to pull this world together before the weapons (which foolish scientists have made possible) put an end to the human race."
- Pete Seeger (more Seeger postcards here)
Happy New Year!
Death of a thief
Until this morning, I had never heard of Ronnie Biggs and knew almost nothing about the Great Train Robbery, in which a gang of seventeen thieves robbed a British mail train in 1963 of £2.6 million (over $50 million in current dollars). But then a news story on NPR reported on his death, at age 84, which lead me to this article at The Guardian along with a string of related pieces. Without at all glorifying his crime (the train's engineer ultimately died from his injuries), I'm marveling at what a fascinating life this man had: he was involved in the heist; was arrested, convicted and sentenced to thirty years in prison; broke out of prison; fled to South America and lived the good life there for thirty-six years; was abducted in 1981 by bounty hunters who took him to Barbados, which refused to extradite him; finally surrendered to British authorities in 2001 and imprisoned; and was released in 2009 due to poor health. Along the way he seems to have become some sort of folk hero, and even recorded a record with the Sex Pistols.
It seems to me that Biggs' life is the stuff of great fiction; in fact, if a crime novelist wrote something comparable, it might even be criticized as being too audacious and unreal. Still, I like to imagine writing a fugitive character like Biggs. The thought of him sitting in a bar, regaling paying listeners with his implausible story after his heist money finally ran out, is both intriguingly arrogant and poignant to me. I wouldn't write the story as explicitly about Biggs, but instead with him as inspiration. I'm filing that away in the Tenuous Concept corner of my brain.
Quote"Crimes can be redeemed, but nothing saves you from mediocrity."
- Juan Villoro
Goodbye, Google Reader
Today is the final day of Google Reader, which I've been using every day for the past seven years to read blogs and other rss-delivered content. Google didn't offer much of a reason for Reader's demise, though my guess is that Google never quite figured out how to make good money off of it, and so it had to go. It's hard to believe that I once bookmarked each favorite site individually, and loaded them one by one from the pulldown menu of Internet Explorer, which I did every day before becoming a Reader convert.
I'm migrating to Feedly, which has both pluses and minuses: I greatly prefer the thumb-swipe navigation between posts on my phone, instead of clicking Reader's tiny button, but Feedly isn't available for Explorer, which means I can no longer read my blogs while eating my lunch at my desk at work. I would guess my volume of blog-reading will decline significantly after this point. It seems like blogs have declined in popularity during the last few years, especially with the rise of Facebook, Twitter, etc., and I can't help thinking that the disappearance of Reader will accelerate the trend even further. Sad, but I'm not about to complain about the loss of a free product.
Rantoul Fisher, meet Onarga RobertsDriving down Interstate 57 from Chicago to Champaign-Urbana, the countryside is sparsely populated, and each exit sign shows the names of two towns. The towns are usually connected by whatever highway is at the exit, but are often so far away that they can't be seen from the interstate. This invisibility gives the towns an air of mystery that always appeals to me. Years ago, it also occurred to me that the paired town names could be interpreted as being the name of a single person. After realizing this, I pondered what each of these people did for a living. Here's what I came up with:
Bradley Bourbonnais: male stripper
Monee Manhattan: female stripper
Gilman Chatsworth: trust fund baby/playboy
Rantoul Fisher: environmentalist
Onarga Roberts: NFL nose tackle
Next time you're driving through farm country on an interstate, give this a try.
"If the intention was to further divide people, this attack failed because it has achieved the opposite."
The anonymous writer behind Spitalfields Life posts a report on the aftermath of the firebombing of London anarchist publisher The Freedom Press.
"It might be disheartening, if it were not for the flood of well-wishing and offers of help we have received from all over the world. Disparate groups in the radical hinterland have laid aside their differences and come together in solidarity."I certainly hope the perpetrators never invoke the right to freedom of speech or expression to justify any of their actions.
Happy New Year!
I hope your 2013 is as happy and pleasant as this fine couple. With libations, of course.
HangoverWhat it is: Merriam-Webster Word of the Day
What to do about it: "How To Ease That Hangover"
You're welcome. Happy New Year.
"Plenty of photographs, but no record of the sound of his voice."In the NYT, Verlyn Klinkenborg writes a thoughtful piece on the scarcity of recorded voices, particularly those of our loved ones.
I remember the regret I felt after my mom died, years ago, that we had no recording of her voice on tape. And yet when my dad died in 2008 — same thing. Plenty of photographs, but no record of the sound of his voice. I’m glad to have the photos, but I miss the immediacy of those voices, the way that even a recorded voice captures the movement of time and the resonance of the body with extraordinary intimacy.One of my most cherished mementos is a cassette recording of my dad and I singing a karaoke duet of "New York, New York" at a family gathering during the 1990s. The singing is comical, of course, but what I love most is hearing his handful of spoken words and especially his laughter. Whenever I hear those words and laughter, I see his face, once again beaming and full of life.
Beginning of the endHerald News Office to Close as Sun-Times Targets 'Inefficiencies'
When it's no longer efficient to report local news from its source - the Joliet area - it no longer makes sense to keep the newspaper going as a discrete publication. Start saying your goodbyes to the Herald-News.
"We're not moving an inch. It's the world that's moved."I really enjoyed revisiting this fascinating 1994 article from the Chicago Reader on the House of David religious colony in Benton Harbor, Michigan, which I first read in print at its original publication. But not until I found the article in the paper's online archive did I realize the author was Adam Langer, a native Chicagoan who subsequently became a well-received novelist (Crossing California, The Washington Story, etc.). At the time of Langer's writing, the House of David and City of David colonies had only twenty-six members remaining, with the youngest being 47-year-old Ron Taylor.
"We at one time could have a moral code and tell unmarried people that we weren't going to rent to them. But as we approach the mid-90s, that's not only a lawsuit but that's a major problem because who do you rent to? There's so much of that going on that you have to rent to some of them in order to maintain a business. People come in, unmarried. Or maybe they are married. They'll tell you one thing. They'll tell you another thing. Sometimes one person moves in and then their boyfriend or girlfriend moves in with them. That instability isn't ours. It's the world's. We're the same people we started as. We still stand by the things we've started with. We're not moving an inch. It's the world that's moved."The "Israelites" (as colony members refer to themselves) not only practice celibacy, but also haven't actively recruited new members since the 1930s, so the colonies have steadily diminished over the decades as older members died and only a few new members joined. Based on this 2012 report, it looks like only five members remain today, including Taylor (who is now 65). Though my religious days are long past, I find it touching that Taylor, despite the Second Coming not happening in 2000 as it was originally prophesied, is still hoping it will happen soon.
"...a turgid chowder of Phi Beta Kappas, Delta Kappa Epsilons, and members of Skull and Bones..."As part of Melville House's Presidents series, my best buddy Ben Tanzer pens an excellent first-person narrative in the voice of George H.W. Bush, as the former president addresses the graduating class at Yale, his alma mater.
You have to care about others, and not just your family and neighbors, but the less fortunate too. You also have to recognize that when it comes to the less fortunate, Harvard grads for example, you have to care enough to let them help themselves.Bush the Elder goes on to muse, of course, about his three sons. But I'm surprised at how lenient Ben was with regards to Dubya - I guess that would have been too easy of a target. Fish in a tiny barrel.
Excellent work, Tribune
This graphic appears this morning on the front page of the Chicago Tribune website. Though I haven't scrutinized all of the nationwide election results from last night, I assume this means that Montana passed a referendum for annexing part of Canada.
Quote"Government is a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction in stolen goods."
- H.L. Mencken (with whom I share a birthday but not, thankfully, extreme cynicism).
(Via Tim Brown.)
The only election that matters.
Twain the CandidateIn honor of Election Day, the Library of America has republished Mark Twain's very funny piece, "Running for Governor", which details his fictional electoral travails at the hands of a merciless yellow-journalism press:
I got to picking up papers apprehensively - much as one would lift a desired blanket which he had some idea might have a rattlesnake under it.Just as funny as the piece itself is the idea that our now-toothless newspapers once regularly engaged in such controversy, enough so for Twain to convincingly lampoon the practice. LoA also provides a preface that provides helpful context.
Why I am voting for Barack ObamaSo many reasons: because he inherited the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and has guided the economy back to stability and modest growth. Because the Affordable Care Act, his signature legislation, is the first significant step toward universal health care and needs to be continued. Because Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are critical toward reining in the excesses of Wall Street and other dubious financial players that caused the recession, and need to be continued. Because he ended the war in Iraq and is committed to ending the war in Afghanistan, greatly weakened Al-Qaeda through the elimination of Osama bin Laden, and restored America's respect and reputation throughout the world. Because he proved his commitment to the middle class with the bailout of the U.S. auto industry, which has come roaring back and generated hundreds of thousands of jobs. Because he needs more time to work on his other major goals, including immigration reform, energy independence and fighting climate change, in the face of Congressional obstruction. And because America can't afford the reactionary, regressive and delusional policies of his opponent.
Yes, I realize that it wasn't actually Obama that accomplished all these things; instead, his subordinates and allies did the actual work. But he was the leader behind all of it, setting the tone, providing guidance and vision. Which is what leaders do. And he certainly is a leader. I am proud to support him, and look forward to our continued progress toward a more equitable, tolerant and forward-looking nation during his next four years as president.
QuoteAttributed (by Kurt Vonnegut) to Joseph Heller:
"I’ve got something he (a billionaire) can never have...The knowledge that I’ve got enough."I read this terrific quote from Robin Bates (at Better Living Through Beowulf), who muses on how, despite ever-worsening income inequality, the wealthy are dissatisfied and feel they're both unappreciated and already paying more than their fair share.
I wonder if those wealthy Americans who believe they are not properly appreciated feel a sense of guilt at being so much more privileged than the rest of America. Or maybe, because they have more, they are more worried about losing it. Or maybe they are restless and dissatisfied because they are discovering that money isn’t providing the fulfillment they thought it would.And well-chosen excerpts from The Grapes Of Wrath and Paul Krugman bolster Bates' argument even further. Vonnegut, Heller, Steinbeck, Krugman...heroes all.
"...it is not our blood that is being shed..."The late George McGovern, in 1970:
"Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land — young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes. There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us."Sadly, our so-called leaders remain endlessly eager to declare damnable wars and ship out young men (and women) as cannon fodder.