Trump, the Democrats and the Khans / Bush and Sheehan

The exploitation of grief in the age of celebrity

There is a paradoxical tendency wired into the American ethos to venerate sacrifice, loss, and grief and yet, in the end, to exploit it, often to dubious ends.

The myriad victims of war too often provide a catalyst for the cultural and political phenonomena that distract us. And it’s not a great insight to note that these currents in the national continuum are now cojoined, almost indistinguishably: in our ordinary lives, we are, in fact, hardly touched by the touchstones and personalities of our culture and its actors and enactors, no more than we are in any direct way by our politicians; yet our discourse and preoccupations are pervaded by them.

The latest, and unexpectedly long-lived, focal point has been the appearance of the Khans at the DNC convention last week. Their comments, offered civilly and yet forcefully, made emphatic by the silent mournful presence of Mrs. Khan, were made to protest and highlight the insensitivity of the Republican nominee and its inherent defilement of the death of the Khans heroic son in the Iraq War ten years ago. Their point was about Trump’s vile degradation of a whole people, believers in a religion, but the issue has become utterly something else because of the typically maladroit narcissistic reaction of the offensive mogul. We cannot ignore either the contributory efforts of the media, the established political apparatus, and the chattering masses to amplify the increasingly garbled points of conflict and to feed the flames that have now engulfed a full week’s worth of daily news cycles.

It hasn’t been lost on the reporting machine, or those jaundiced observers of the sordid machinations of the entire political apparatus the similarities, though there are vast differences as well, between the current unfolding situation, and the efforts of Cindy Sheehan, also a Gold Star parent, who lost a son in Iraq, and used her status as an enabling tactic to attract more attention to her efforts as a full-time anti-war activist, camped on the Bush ranch in Texas, where the President at the time, would repair as a retreat and a respite from the increasingly restive public and media as the war dragged on long past his “Mission Accomplished” aria as alleged coda to that conflict.

One difference is, of course, that President Bush had already successfully run for re-election a year before, and Cindy Sheehan, collaborating with the Democratic establishment, is alleged to have been promised an end to the war if she agreed to work on behalf of the party in its pursuit of regaining the House in 2006.

There is obscurity of motives and duplicity going all around in both stories, and doubtless others, though none spring to mind as prominently as these most recent events centering on the status of ordinary American citizens who have made what many consider the ultimate sacrifice of life in terms of the loss of a loved one.

I suggested that this is an endemic feature of our culture, and indeed it seems to be, but I would guess as well that it has its roots in other cultures, other contries, other civilizations in history, if it is not, in fact, an intrinsic and unresolved potential tragedy in every family. The very first story in the Bible, after that of the expulsion from Eden, is of Cain and Abel, and the murder of Abel by his brother in his wrath. We can only infer the immensity of the impact on the original mythic parents of all of mankind, as it is not described, and the ensuing chapter in the Bible, an account of the “line” of Adam, begins with his son Seth—whose birth was a divine grant clearly in compensation for the loss of Abel.

There is no such silent solemnity as a mute regard for the grief of parents losing a child in our culture.

We, at our worst, tend to spotlight such mourning, no doubt, in some perverse way to show our reverence, but as well, and inevitably, to exploit it one way or another.

The novelist Philip Roth, with a sensitivity and a sensibiity at once grim and mocking—how else can we react sometimes to such monstrous behavior as we see regularly, but with humor to penetrate and dispel our dumb horror?—alluded to the phenomenon. He did so first, in an extended satiric introduction to a speech he gave in 1960 he called “Writing American Fiction,” in which he mainly spoke of the challenge to the imagination of any fiction writer by reality itself, as evidenced in the kind of story that graced every tabloid newspaper, even as it still does today, and the way it is treated by sordid attentions paid by that press and its readers.

He did so again, en passant, with a passage in his infamous novel that showcased and lampooned the psychopathology of American life, Portnoy’s Complaint, published in 1969. Here is a passage. The stakes have gotten higher, clearly, than the award of kitchen appliances to this most shameful category of exploited victims—their possible willing and mindful participation notwithstanding.

‘“A Gold Star Mom,” says Ralph Edwards, solemnly introducing a contestant on “Truth or Consequences,” who in just two minutes is going to get a bottle of seltzer squirted at her snatch, followed by a brand-new refrigerator for her kitchen … A Gold Star Mom is what my Aunt Clara upstairs is too, except here is the difference—she has no gold star in her window, for a dead son doesn’t leave her feeling proud or noble, or feeling anything, for that matter. It seems instead to have turned her, in my father’s words, into “a nervous case” for life. Not a day has passed since Heshie was killed in the Normandy invasion that Aunt Clara has not spent most of it in bed, and sobbing so badly that Doctor Izzie has sometimes to come and give her a shot to calm her hysteria down…’
—Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint, 1969

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Why not Who is the Question for voting

Let’s face it. Those of us concerned about the prospect of a Trump presidency are making him the target of our worry, fear, and anger (that combination of feelings may have a familiar ring to it). Heedless of what feelings we may have, attention is first of all what Trump wants. He’ll talk about himself endlessly whatever the reason: defensive and bullying if he’s offended, bragging and strutting if he thinks he’s heard praise. And let’s not forget he often mistakes astonishment and disbelief for admiration.

However, accurate renditions of who he is and what he is aside — and he’s a shape-shifter deliberately; those who don’t want to be pinned down are never wholly committed to a point of view; his entire view is himself regardless of all others — Trump himself is not the thing to be worried about. It’s natural to ask, “who would vote for such a man?” As if supporting him were an aberration in the voter. There is even a concession of sorts to the inadequacies of rational judgment for voting for someone so clearly unqualified for the office when supporters of his are asked calmly what it is that makes them think he deserves their vote with regard to specific substantive matters. To a person, they can’t do it.

Rather, I suggest that we are closer to the relevant issues in this election by asking the question no one likes, “why?” Why vote for him? Account for your reasons. Even if indirection must be employed to elicit an honest answer, it’s evident clearly enough.

We have to face the fact, for one, that whatever their reasons or what they think those are, and whatever the absence of sense in doing so, a significantly large number of people will vote for Donald Trump in November. However, even if an even larger number vote for Hillary Clinton and she wins the electoral college vote, even if Trump thereupon goes away — or at worst lingers, like Ann Coulter, as a lunatic fringe icon (and don’t kid yourself, the very day after Election Day, some reptilian impresario will already have a way to cash in on exploiting Trump’s continued presence on “reality” media) — the people who voted for him, our fellow citizens, will not have gone away. Rather, in addition to continuing to simmer with the entirely legitimate corrosive feelings they have about their lives, they will feel betrayed and further disenfranchised as well.

What we should be thinking beforehand, that is, before the election, is the most productive way of getting out a vote in favor of Hillary Clinton. Notice I said, “in favor of.” A vote for anyone else, or not to vote, will not get her elected. Flawed or not, and of course she’s flawed, as was every other president who has served, some more so, some less — and many of them more so, without one-tenth the venomous mendacious opposition she suffers, purely against her person, not her qualifications — she is the only hope of having someone in the White House who will not be an existential threat, not only to abstractions like democracy, order, lawfulness, justice, and equality (in as bad a condition as some of those may be at the moment, we have them) but to real people. To you and to me.

We can begin immediately with the next thing we must do well before election day. However, there are barely more than three months before that day, and it will be a big enough task getting out the sane vote for a sane president and sane productive members of Congress. We can begin now to do the even harder job of learning to understand that as wayward as their choice of savior might be, that there is legitimacy to the complaints of Trump supporters. Assuming he does go away, not only the grievances, but the legitimacy of those grievances will not go away.

The only candidate who spoke consistently and even possibly monotonously, though surely single-mindedly, about those grievances, or a large bloc of them, and their legitimacy was Bernie Sanders. He wasn’t making a strict political appeal. He wanted the support of everyone disenfranchised, despite affiliation, despite any demographic variable, despite gender, color, religion. People in one segment or another, because of the prejudices of other sub-groups and because of the stubborn persistence of fear and subjugation of the other, may suffer more from injustice in society than others. However, it’s clear that save for a very very tiny sliver of our population, we all suffer in some way from the severe imbalance of societal and cultural factors and the administration of justice and the enforcement of the law.

It’s beyond me exactly how we reach the people that otherwise seem so unreachable. Reasoned debate and discussion, however much patience is required on both sides, seems impossible. Even further out of at least my reach is, having reasoned together, how we get the vast majority of all citizens to understand what the best course is to erect a vessel of true equality for all. I was tempted to say “restore,” but I’d have to be partly delusional to think that such a vessel had ever sailed. If I thought I knew how, I wouldn’t be shy in telling, and hoping people would listen.

However, if I did know, or were capable of knowing, likely I would have been in a different line of work for most of my life. Most likely I would still be in it.

I think, in fact, any true success in such a quest lies not with a single individual. Bernie Sanders can tell you. Or Barack Obama. Or, yes, even Hillary Clinton can tell you, there is no single person, or even a handful with that competence or capacity. The almost insurmountable task is going to require most of us. And we will have to participate in some way in excess of our efforts until now.

We start by accepting there are a lot of injured people out there. They are people who will, in other superficial regards, never be like you or me. You don’t have to live like them. You don’t have to accept their taste in the quotidian aspects of life. But you and I, just as they, must accept that there is some common ground that must determine how we regard each other. We must respect each other’s common rights. We must conduct ourselves in a fair and equitable way with respect to those simple, if profound, rights that defined our establishment as a nation. In some ways, some large, some small, those rights have been impeached and stepped on, and they must be resurrected and restored and preserved.

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Nice — The City Where Nothing Happens

It lives for tourism

Written in August, 2005, and since published as a chapter in my book, Same Difference, published by Bertha Books (available on Amazon). Obviously, without having to say too much, things eventually do happen in Nice, making it impossible to write like this again.

The streets in the Old Town are worn along the paths the visitors take, in packs, in groups, couples and singletons. This wear is most evident where the streets are paved in stone, whether cobbles or whole slabs. The stone has taken on a patina that can only result from untold short lashes from strips of leather the size and shape of, well, the sole of a shoe. Sidewalks have the contours of old river banks or natural terraces on hillsides, stone as smooth as pebbles rinsed by a million tides.

Watching visitors walk is the lowest common entertainment. We in the United States have either lost the ability, or never yet discovered it, to simply sit and watch our fellow humans move about, irrespective of caste, class, social advantage. To the European it is the basic social pastime. In this way, life as a passing parade is metaphor made real.

The modern city of Nice is founded, in many respects, on this notion. Tobias Smollett discovered Nice, its climate, and its Italianate ways, for all intents and purposes, as a potential benefit to the northern sensibility—the hardest to please at that—Smollett’s sensibility: that of the dyspeptic curmudgeon. He unleashed, from the instant of his publication at the end of the 18th century, a torrent of humanity that ran through the streets of Nice, even through different sovereignties, until today.

Since the turn of the nineteenth century, except for the World Wars—especially at critical times, for example, those times when the Axis and the Allies decided to bomb the shit out of each other, going and coming, retreating or advancing, the SS taking particular care to burn bridges, and barns, etc.—Nice has rarely seen a significant drop in tourism.

The longest decline was a kind of interregnum, between the nineteenth century and the twentieth. Nice converted itself from a winter resort to one of the most popular summer destinations for Europeans. First it was Western Europe. Now the Eastern Europeans are beginning to make up for shortfalls in tourist business, especially since the advent of September 11, 2001. The better part of half of the Americans who used to come to France simply stopped coming. The American wave began in the 1920s, and with the inflated economy of that period came the sybarites, the sophisticates and the cinéastes. The depression put a temporary end to it. And then the war, of course.

Nice and the Riviera were occupied by the Italians, until they surrendered in 1943 to the dismay of the Nazis, who then had to divert what were dwindling resources to contain the bumptious and unruly French of this quarter. At the end of the war, even with the destruction wrought by the retreating Germans, who plundered and ruined what they couldn’t carry out, tourism began to pick up almost immediately.

The film festival at Cannes, started before the war, established itself quickly as an institution. Thereby the romantic allure of the Côte d’Azur was extended even to the movie-going bourgeois masses of the United States. Reconstruction instigated development, and a boom in housing and tourist destinations attracted more and more Americans (and other Europeans of course). Fact: in the late 50s, the airport at Nice processed barely 495 thousand passengers a year; by 2003 this figure had swelled (along with the facilities) to over nine million annually. It’s the second busiest airport in France, but these numbers stagnated just as the 2000s began.

The denizens of Niçois tourism began wringing their hands publicly about two years later, when they sat up and noticed that the declines had not abated, but were worsening. The vaunted 35-hour work week mandated as strict law eroded even the strictly French portion of the annual summer invasion from the north. With shorter weeks, and with the famous Monday holidays, generously distributed throughout the official state calendar, more and more citizens have elected to take many very long weekends—four day workweeks, and four day weekends. People still have six weeks of vacation, but the four weeks in summer? They stay home, or they indulge in ever greater numbers in another French pastime, little known to the rest of the world. Americans in general, if they have any picture in their minds at all about the stereotypical Frenchman, it is either of the city-wise, ill-bathed, cologne-sprayed sophisticate, or of the peasant farmer, redolent for other reasons; either image is a profoundly ill-informed fantasy about the “other,” but that’s a subject for another chapter, if not a book. The French now go camping. Or, as they say in French, le camping.

Back in Nice, in broader terms, the most conspicuous living remnant of the impact of foreign tourism is one of the most beautiful seaside boulevards, dedicated to the pedestrian, on the planet: the Promenade des Anglais (yeah, the English, that great nation of dapper boulevardiers…), and devoted entirely to watching, if not other people, then the great Mediterranean Ocean as respite. Incidentally, in one of those curious linguistic notes, and despite my parenthetical cynicism just above, I should make clear that for many years “Anglais” was used as a generic term, like Kleenex® for facial wipes, for “tourist,” no matter what their nationality. In this regard, given the mutual antipathy of the British and the French, Promenade des Anglais may be less an honorific distinction than a caution. Sometimes it seems, from the behavior in some establishments in Nice, tourists, especially non-Francophones, are viewed as being about as disposable as Kleenex.  I leave the broader implications of the simile to the reader.

The Promenade is seven kilometers long, well over four miles, and crowded every summer day, and even more so at night. All for the sheer pleasure of watching and communing with, though always at some distance, other creatures. That is unless you are the victim of a near miss by a rocketing and barely clad roller-blader. For all that, recall that when the British discovered and, inevitably, overran Nice (at least so it seemed to the neither fully-French-and-only-barely-Italian natives), they positioned the enclave as a winter resort. Nice, in other words, has proven itself the year round as a sanctuary for people-watching.

One of the great time-killers still, and more precisely, is woman-watching, and more particularly in summer when there are more women in the streets and they are bereft of layers of clothes.

The commonplace to the point of truism—and beyond to cliché—is that French women seem to know innately how to present themselves. It may be true. It is true, of course, but it is no more informative to observe and articulate the thought than it is to observe similarly that French restaurants with any number of Michelin stars (and many with none) know how to make a satisfying presentation of any part of the bill of fare. [American restaurants of a certain caliber imitate this tradition; they will always be followers, as the French precede them by decades, if not centuries.] And as any restaurateur, chef, or woman can tell you, presentation is the main part of the effort. We must work with the meat the lord gives us; how it looks after being prepared is another discipline in art.

The strongest evidence of the innate sensibility of French feminine esthetic is in the young women, who, of course, have the bodies one might expect would best express it. Rather they have the bodies that require the least nuance, artifice or attention. This merely saves them time, I imagine. It makes them absolutely no more and no less alluring than older women even as they enter adulthood, then a certain age, and then well into the late middle years. The inculcated sense of themselves that the culture breeds in French women renders them alluring well into what in other white-skinned countries would be a sloppy nonage. In France, it seems to me, seniors (despicable word) and the elderly (how did an adjective become a mass noun like “cattle?”) are largely undetectable as such.

To digress, I’ll say also: in this context—the hegemony of the white-skinned tribes­—Nice stands as a symbol of a state. It is technically still the Comté de Nice [we tend to forget in daily discourse that a “county,” a political division, derives from the differentiation of one tract, ruled by a count, from another, ruled perhaps by another count, or a duke, or an ancient invention of the chief ruling agent of federation, a king or other national head; thereby we perpetuate largely political distinctions of what we superciliously call “the dark ages”—some 1400 years ago; and we wonder why our politics don’t seem up to the times; I’ll mention further that the term from which “count” is derived, comes, is actually Roman, and so even older]. Nice has seen periodic changes of leadership, rulership, or political affiliation for centuries. Allied to the dukedom of Savoy, and later to the nation-state of Piedmont, and other times to other Italian nation-states. I don’t know if the urge to “present” herself derives from more northerly habits among the gentry, or if women just generally have this instinct.

Nowadays in Nice, the more well-to-do women do serve as a largely unconscious source of humor, at least to these easily amused eyes, and that’s despite the age of any of them. Anyone wise enough to visit Nice in the winter, of which company I count myself, sees a different city. No less the resort—Nice weather is always temperate, if only just so, at its worst. Snow is incredibly rare. The coldest daytime temperatures in winter are in the 50s (Fahrenheit).

Nevertheless, and especially, it seems, on sunny winter days the haute bourgeois sisterhood takes the air, but never without an ankle-length fur, and spike-heeled pumps. Outside of Gstaad, where else and for what reason would they get the chance?


Lunch.

By five minutes to noon tables full of Asians at the most bald-faced of tourist restaurants along the Cours Saleya have tucked into their mid-day meal—half-consumed. Even as the produce vendors of the daily marché make brisk final sales to the natives, so all of the fish portion is gone from the salades Niçoises of bus loads of citizens of Japan, gustily consumed while staff still set banks of surrounding tables with place mats, silver, and salt and pepper service. They have plenty of time to prepare for the noon rush, and can handle getting slammed by a mini-tidal wave of Japanese with a hunger for Italian canned tuna on a bed of mesclun.

God bless the Japanese. They’ll be finished and back to patinating the pavement or filing into their mammoth tour buses long before the city crews have begun to use high-pressure water hoses to clean the marketplace pavement after marché at 1pm. And the rest of us, enjoying a leisurely Provençal meal, will check our pants cuffs to see if we’re getting splashed. We never are.

So, as lunch hour begins, the produce market ends. Throughout the course of the Cours Saleya, lining both sides of the broad courtyard for a distance of perhaps 300 meters (three American football fields plus the distance from home plate to first base), jowl-by-jowl, are restaurants. They alternately offer much the same fare. It’s either seafood, or Italian food, or Italian seafood (to differentiate it from Provençal styles of cooking, which predominate, understandably, no matter what the ingredients).

The nearer the Opera House, at the western end of the Cours, the greater the chance that there is, in the style of clothing stores on New York’s lower east side, “pullers-in.” They carry a stack of cartes, in American, “menus,” somewhat redundantly, as the way is festooned with stanchions and tent cards displaying the bill of fare, and often, if not invariably, in six languages—and if so, it’s a good indicator not to take a table, not because the food is not good, but because it’s only not bad. The translations can be a good laugh, however, though they degrade your perception of the generally commendable food. You won’t likely ever be disappointed in a meal in such places, especially if you make no pretensions to having a fine palate, but you are guaranteed never to be impressed.

Variously, these sidewalk promoters are either the patrons, the owners or, at least, the bosses, invariably men, or they’re comely young women. I always presume the latter are related to the proprietors, nieces, daughters, granddaughters or cousins. I do know their smiles end at their teeth, and they seem, predominantly, to be ill at ease. The men wear impeccably clean shirts, blue or white, opened two or three buttons at the neck, black trousers, sincere hostly smiles, and they are sometimes festooned themselves with what appears to be at least half their net worth in gold, in the form of chains, and rings, and bracelets. What we call “bling.” The women often display, unself-consciously, décolletage. I have never really gotten beyond this to notice if there is a complement of metal adornments.

Another rule of thumb: the less bling, or the less visible cleavage, the better the experience. If the patron is wearing a suit, it’s a white cloth restaurant, and you won’t get away for less than 80 euros for lunch. Though you also will not be exposed to an attempt, however gentle or subtly seductive, to pull you in from the pavement.

The best of these restaurants is perhaps 100 feet from the end of the Cours, which ends at the base of the hill at whose top is Le Chateau, whose presence and grounds are a signature landmark not only of the Old Town, but of the whole city—antedating by some centuries Mr. Tobias Smollett. The restaurant, with no one outside to pull you in, is called Le Safari—the exotic name being, somehow, characteristic. It suggests you will have a different experience, and you do, not merely because of the quality of the food (though it is mainly the quality of the food) and the air of jocularity and camaraderie of the staff, mainly men, and, almost to a man, lifelong professionals. In over ten years of regular periodic visits, and many meals, I have seen few faces change. Perhaps it suggests that the hunt is over. Or, of course, it serves adequately merely as a hip name—nothing about the place suggests even remotely the dark continent, wild felines, elephants, giraffes, or swift-footed cousins to the deer. And particularly not on the menu, which is strictly Niçoise.

I am safe, I think, in my estimation of the place as the best, and not only because of a native presumption. The magazine Saveur thinks so also, having cited the restaurant several times, and naming its pizza as “the second best in the world.” I don’t know whose they consider the best, but I know the pizza at Le Safari, among its many Provençal specialties, is really very good, and I’m not afraid to dispute Saveur were they wrong. I offer no cavil over first and second place.

It also seems a matter of proof of the proposition that Le Safari shows no signs of any consciousness of this designation, though there are framed copies of accolades and encomiums they have received in print. There are also, even more numerous, works of art.

Le Safari is also invariably mentioned in the guides of any worth as one of the places worth a stop in Nice, which is a major restaurant city—as one would expect in a city of 400,000 or so, whose main commerce is tourism. Not a starred restaurant mind you. Not even a restaurant to take note of because of the inventiveness or finesse of the chef. It is merely a place that has very good cooks in the kitchen, very good service staff, and a reliable and invariable menu of Niçois and a smaller number of Provençal classics, wood-grilled fish, and pizza baked in a wood-fired oven (a pizza one of whose secrets is the use of a cheese called cantal, from the Auvergne, as opposed to mozzarella).

Not to expound a formal theory, but perhaps to draft a note or two towards such a thing, I think there are maybe three modes of judging what a restaurant is up to, in culinary terms. There are restaurants whose aim is to show distinction through innovation—invariably the chef has a reputation and it is a reputation for concocting new dishes, discovering new ways of combining familiar ingredients, or for merging the techniques and ingredients of cuisines otherwise foreign to one another—so-called fusion cuisines are the latest example of the latter. This is a style particularly prevalent in the United States, where we now see Asian tapas, and where we will no doubt someday see Swedish-Polynesian specialties on offer. More prosaically, perhaps, there are restaurants who offer exemplars (or such is the usual goal) of classic dishes whatever the cuisine—once again, it’s an American type, the steak house, that’s a prime example. Another is, of course, the classic French bistro, whose bill of fare was memorialized long since: beef bourguignon, coq au vin, etc.

Finally, there is the restaurant that cleaves to a cuisine, more in terms of technique than in terms of a fixed menu of classic dishes. Hence we have Mexican, or Japanese, or even French restaurants with a revolving bill of fare. No set list of dishes, but a carte that varies with the season or the source of supply.

In France you often see the phrase on the menu of more serious restaurants, “selon arrivage,” which means, essentially, according to what’s arrived—it could refer to what’s at the market, but often as not it means at the dock. Fish are the least predictable of stocks, and some fish, especially on the Mediterranean, and especially according to the season, are expensive not because they are rare, but because they are particularly elusive and fishermen bring in what they catch. The result in a restaurant is that you will be offered this fish or that, cooked in a manner determined as suitable by the chef or the cook (in concert with the patron) or cooked according to the manner dictated by the design of the kitchen. At Le Safari, which features signs that announce you are dealing with wood-fired grills, to complement those wood-fired ovens, what you get is grilled fish.

It’s only right, as the easiest way to cook a fish, or any piece of meat, is on a grill over an open flame. If you have ever grilled fish, and in particular the whole fish (merely gutted and scaled), you know this is a deceptively simple operation. And so, what is right, in this case, is not always great. At Le Safari, and not in any singular way as I speak of it at such length as an exemplum—as well as speaking of it as the best of breed of the kind of restaurants you find along the Cours Saleya—you get great fish, usually grilled, but often prepared well in other ways. For example the fritto misto (Italian for “mixed fried”), consisting of slices of squid, several shrimp, with heads and tails (and small enough to eat them whole) and a huge mound of what is unfortunately called in the ‘States, “white bait” (that is, the fry of ocean fish, also eaten whole, because the entire thing is no more than an inch and-a-half from head to tail), comprising a tiny masterpiece, and served in a manner that is just short of kitsch. It’s in a scalloped bowl fashioned of a deep-fried crêpe, and garnished with slivers of marinated hot pepper and garlic.

I’ve also had at Le Safari an excellent mille feuille de morue, characteristically Mediterranean. Mille feuille is a term usually reserved to pastry, as it refers to a kind of dough, called pâte feuilletée, wherein the dough is repeatedly folded over on itself and rolled flat again, creating many layers or “leaves” (feuille is a leaf, a mille is a thousand). It is also a generic culinary term, meaning any layered dish. As a dessert, mille feuille is specifically layers of flaky pastry and cream or custard.

Morue is French for cod. However, you will discover that cod is also cabillaud. The same fish. Except for reasons that in some ways take a book to explain the fresh caught fish is cabillaud, and generally it’s the version that’s dried, or dried and salted (like the staple of many Spanish, Portuguese and Italian dishes) and referred to by some version of the Spanish word “bacalao” that the French call morue. Another Provençal classic dish, brandade de morue (also served at Le Safari, but of course) is a divine melange of revived salt cod, garlic, olive oil, and milk, all of which is creamed together to the consistency of very finely mashed potatoes. Brandade de morue is spread on thin toast while still warm and is the food of the gods of the big waters.

Mille feuille de Morue is the same, but re-engineered, and built from many of the same ingredients, yet whole, without the milk, as a short stack of slices of potato interspersed with large flakes of the cod. Simple, toothsome, yet engrossing, and a lesson in the ways that a basic list of components can be combined, and recombined, to bespeak, as I say, an entire cuisine.

Le Safari, though it has its adherents and admirers (and more importantly for the patron, it usually fills up both for lunch and dinner, except in the winter months when, admittedly, sitting outdoors, even in Nice, is not always inviting, though it is entirely possible), and has received its share of favorable reviews, is not in the league of restaurants that garner stars from Michelin, toques from Gault-Millau, and possibly not even olive branches from Guide Gantié. There are several places in Nice that attract the attention of those who have appointed themselves guardians of the French culinary firmament and the constellations therein.

One place in particular is sui generis. Not touristic at all, indeed, it may be anti-touristic, it has an interesting history that is not only, to me, characteristically French for its detailed idiosyncrasies, but generically Niçois. It’s worth the telling.

The name of the place is La Merenda. Merenda is itself a nonce word, a Provençal term, as it is speculated by Jacques Gantié in his guide (elsewhere it is asserted with certitude to be Italian), for another native term: casse-croûte, which in an English-French dictionary means “snack.” You mainly see it on roadside signs, possibly hand-painted, near nondescript places that are often deceptively unnoticeable; you learn which ones to take note of. It’s usually not about snacks at all, as Americans understand them, but about going native to eat. In short, casse-croûte is a wholly informal way of saying, “good eats here.” The word literally means “broken crust” as in, I break bread in this joint with my nearest and dearest; my friends any day of the week, and my whole family in the shade of an oak or a plane tree or an elm (hard durable woods all of them, from long-lived trees giving plenty of shade) on a Sunday afternoon for the big meal of the day.

The reputation of La Merenda was established by the couple who founded it, M. & Mme. Jean and Christiane Giusti. He was a man obsessed with making perfectly a very short list of Niçois classic dishes, all of them concocted of the humblest ingredients: the freshest vegetables (but only certain ones, like squash, tomato, eggplant, onion—the staples of a Mediterranean diet), garlic, lots of garlic, and not just the fruit of the squash vine, but the flower—a bright yellow trumpet with petals of tenacious integrity that stands up to stuffing and frying, salt fish, which is called not morue (though brandade de morue is eminently Niçois), but stockfish—and that’s French, pronounced exactly as it’s spelled in English, and so forth, and I may or may not get to the “and so forth.” There are other dishes, and, true to form when that form is the preconceived notion we have of the French and their willingness to consume with gusto all parts of an animal, these dishes constitute for the American palate adventures in dining. These include the parts at the opposing ends of a beast—calf’s head cheese (not to be outdone in the United States, where this delicacy is shaped around the head of a hog), for which see any compendious cookbook, the feet of young sheep, as well as the lining of their stomachs (known more prosaically as tripe, and better known in Italian recipes as built around the tripes of the cow), though the feet come into play in a dish that finds its roots in Marseilles; in Nice they serve, obviously enough, “tripes à la Niçoise.” To make it succinct, we speak here of the cuisine (if you are still comfortable with this designation of close encounters with ingredients of the third kind) of poor people.

On the other hand, let me just say that the rule of thumb these days (six years into the third millennium) is that you should expect to spend 65 euros per person for a meal and wine at La Merenda. And remember, they don’t take checks or credit cards. The cooking had better be good.

When it came time for M. Giusti to retire he found the perfectly unlikely successor. Dominique LeStanc, as a very young man, had already scaled the Matterhorn of culinary challenges. He wore the toque of executive chef of the kitchen at the most revered of rooms in the most revered of Niçois old guard hotels—the Negresco, in all its fin de siècle splendor (and a landmark on the Promenade des Anglais for its instantly recognizable Moorish turret atop the corner entry). The Chantecler (literally “rooster,” which happens to be as well the avian symbol of France) was then a two-star Michelin restaurant (gaining as well, it almost goes without saying, three Gantié olive branches, and as many symbolic toques from Gault-Millau). No one, but no one, would say Chantecler was, and is, not a great restaurant or that LeStanc was not at the top of his particular game or would not stay there indefinitely, given his tender years—he was 36 in 1996 when La Merenda changed hands).

To make a long story short, he threw all this over for a tiny restaurant with barely 24 seats (more precisely stools, not chairs—you fit more people in that way) packed like grilled sardines on too small a plate, on a side street off a side street in the old town, at the gateway to the long stretch of tourist traps. He threw it over to offer, without many variants at his disposal, such refinements as pissaladiére, the Niçois pizza whose topping consists only of what can be best described as a marmalade of onions, cooked so slowly as not to color, and garnished with black olives. So pure is the LeStanc version of this ageless dish it dispenses with the ingredient that gave it its name. Pissala is Provençal (if it is not, in fact, Ligurian, or older) for fish, that is, more specifically, fish sauce, manufactured from fermented fish, anchovies usually. And the pissaladiére at La Merenda has none, no fish sauce, no anchovies—hence it is, in fact, a tourte de Menton. One could go through every dish ever served, through a rotating menu on which only a few of these dishes are mainstays, and describe an equal purity, or a level of fastidiousness and exactitude, not to mention art, in its preparation, as to produce, dish after dish and day after day, the ur specimen of such a dish.

These include head cheese in gribiche sauce, beignets de fleurs des courgettes, pâtes au pistou (or, quite simply, pasta in pesto sauce, except, of course, pistou is pesto on this side of the French/Italian frontier and so it consists solely of basil, olive oil (though the oil for La Merenda is brought in from Liguria, two hours away across that frontier) and garlic: no nuts and no cheese. Shall I continue? I’ll continue.

This concentration on poor people’s food (which happens, at its best, to cost what a corrupt lobbyist can afford to drop for lunch) derives from the characterization universally applied to the “native” cuisine of this modern city-state. All of Provence pretends it is a region of poor people and paysans, farmers or, as the word suggests, peasants (whereas it truly refers only to a native of the many pays that have always comprised the expansive collection of hundreds of them that we call France—pays is usually translated in French 101 as “country,” but it’s mainly one community, possibly a borough or commune, a town, a village or even a hamlet, culturally or geographically distinguished from any other, by language, custom, cuisine, dress—and so a paysan is more accurately a “homie”).

Unemployment is high in France (as it is in all the de facto socialist democracies of western Europe: specifically Germany, France, and Spain, among the most productive economically), and I am sure many people suffer some deprivation.

However, in Nice, for all the well-worn streets and the superficial dinginess that it actually shares with all but the most luxe of communities and towns that make up the Côte d’Azur—amusingly always understood as the playground of the wealthy, especially foreigners, if not in particular the celebrities, the players, and the hordes of essentially anonymous stinking rich—with all the great food, with the fur-clad gentry, the banks of hotels cheek-by-jowl, and the perpetual slow crawl of well-maintained vehicles along the Promenade des Anglais, no one ever appears particularly to be suffering.  But then, how can one suffer in a place where nothing ever really happens?

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I’m Not Walter Benjamin, but Neither is He.

still looking for permission to write after all these years

Walter Benjamin passport photo

Passport photo [courtesy Walter Benjamin Archiv, Berlin.]

I’m too long in the tooth, which ones I have left, to be coming to these realizations, but I do have to keep reminding myself of certain things. Whenever I feel doubts and uncertainty, which is not a fugitive condition, but a constant presence it seems, it’s always in comparison to the known existence, that is, known to me, of any number of figures in history and the present time—figures I have no particular reason to which to compare myself, suffering as they do so much greater familiarity, if not fame, among a so much greater number of people.

However, what I have always *not* borne in mind, and more recently, having realized for the first time previously and not that long ago, but long enough, that it was so, I remember that in most instances (Mozart is a standout, except possibly in those difficult years when he labored in utter obscurity before he turned six) neither were any of them, I hope, at least not to themselves. When Walter Benjamin wrote or spoke I have no doubt he did so because of the particular ferment of his feelings about having something to say. It’s a condition, variously and infinitely variably experienced no doubt, that any creator, whether thinker, writer, artist, composer, to name just a few, has to be referring to in answering the question, “Why do you create?” The answer virtually invariably is, “because I have to.”

Nothing else has to be said by the likes of me to validate the common wisdom that there’s plenty of stuff that gets done “because it has to” that will never see much of the light of day. A glimpse here and there kindly given by dear ones and friends. The accidental glance by roving interested parties. The demi-perusal by the flaneurs of our culture, always looking for what’s new and engaging—not to mention the hordes who are looking, always looking, merely for something to stave off the lurking beasts of boredom and ennui.

Let’s say Walter Benjamin sat down to write, well, name your pick of what he wrote, and I’ll pick, almost arbitrarily (I just spent a whole four minutes looking it up) an essay, considered one of his more seminal, entitled, tellingly, “The Author as Producer.” However, let me say, I am more interested in his mere writing of it, not, at this time, precisely in what he wrote. It was originally a lecture to a body in Paris, typical of the 30s, called The Institute for the Study of Fascism. He gave it in 1934 when, admittedly, he had already gained some notice and attention for his efforts at assiduous and repeated and frequent publication. That he was interested in gaining a permanent position on the faculty of any institution in Europe, but none was to be given for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the unhappy coincidence in time of his roots producing him when the tide of European anti-Semitism was at increasing flow. However, his prolific outpouring and industrious inquiries were into all manner of what we now call cultural studies, when it was not merely pure philosophy dressed in some vernacular raiment. Neither here nor there in the end. He had to look, to inquire, to think, and finally to write and to speak.

He may have had intimations of the greatness of mind with which he was blessed, and then, as far as I know, he may not. Only Benjamin scholars and biographers would know, or maybe someday will know if they don’t. But if I had to guess, I would guess he suffered in his own way the same doubts and suspicions of self that many of us—I’ll speak, however, only for myself. What I’m driving at, to arrive, finally, at what I’m talking about here, is the matter of allowing himself the permission to continue, to plug, to, in that expression with great currency that to me has grown from being mildly humorous to being loathesome, “power through.”

He never stopped. That is, he didn’t, until he famously did stop, literally, killing himself at the frontier with Spain, in 1940, mid-route on what would likely have been a successful escape from Nazi Europe to the United States. We don’t know why, as far as I know. He had somehow bridged that murky body of water between the living if unconscious need to go forward and the dark shores of hopeless despair. However, I prefer to concentrate on his legacy, and take account of what he wrote in the simple facet of not having stopped himself from writing it because of any other sort of misgivings—if anything they validate the idea there is value in life, and repudiate, or at least turn away from the notion of existential futility and lack of meaning. What we will almost certainly never know if he had in mind specifically the prospect of not being allowed to do what he so clearly was compelled to do.

So, I try to inspire myself by bearing in mind, more and more consciously (until, I hope, it become an unconscious part of me, some species of belief), that I am as free to say what I think and to imagine it has worth of some kind, for me for a start, or why bother, and for others, because there is no sense in imagining that there is no value in anything unshared.

Whatever is done with, and finally thought of, whatever I create, especially whatever I write, is not for me to say, even with the vagaries of testamentary dictates on my part. It’s not within my power, even with the collective acceptance of the constraints of the law and the wishes of the departed, to control whether anything that I assume regularly, day to day, if not minute to minute, to be mine and to be disposed of or preserved as I see fit, will continue in a similar or better state of preservation after I’m gone. Writers have dictated that their work summarily be destroyed on their death (in many instances, already knowing in their lives they have gone unsung and unpublished) and have had these last wishes defied—to our benefit and pleasure. And writers have struggled for recognition, or let recognition and the necessary effort to attain it (as a general rule) go unattended in their lives, only to have their deaths herald an era of widespread if not universal exposure of their work, accompanied with great acclaim and even broader dissemination.

My thoughts are not about longevity or perpetuation, but about the legitimacy of my efforts now, today, and tomorrow, especially if I am inclined to make invidious comparisons—accurate or not is immaterial—with the work of others I admire who I know quite well did, at the time, expect or foresee exposure to a wider audience and studied appreciation. They may have wished for it, hoped for it, despaired over the lack of it, but it never kept them from carrying on, writing and continuing to write.

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Camille Paglia on Lena Dunham

Camille Paglia broke on the national public scene with the publication of her magnum opus Sexual Personae back in 1990. It was originally her weighty and quite serious doctoral thesis, at Yale University, some 20 years previously. Since its commercial release, I have had the guarded ambiguity-laden relationship with her we all like to place under the heading of “love/hate.” Ever wary of Paglia’s inevitably brash, seemingly liberal pronunciamentos, always to my ear, as well, vaguely self-congratulatory, what I brace for, always, are crypto-fascist eruptions.

These days she seems to have found at least one rhetorical nesting place in which to opine regularly, that is, with the National Enquirer of the proto-progressive left, “Salon.” Indeed, she falls well into line, as she puts it, with her “perspective as a fervent supporter of the ruggedly honest and principled Bernie Sanders.” Unhappily (in the French sense), she says so even as she steps without a skosh of trepidation and embarassment away from her prior position towards Donald Trump. He was a “carnival barker.” Now, she thrusts toward a much more accommodating stance, in a paroxysm of self-revision (perhaps in fear—and I say this knowing that la bohème de l’académie springs with predatory zeal when so accused—of not having gotten on board soon enough to embrace the inexorability of The Donald’s earth-scorching march on Philadelphia this summer). It seems now, conversely to mere weeks ago, he (or should we be considering any reference or adversion with an upper case pronoun, usually reserved for kings, God, and Jesus or Mohammed, and call Him “He?”… I would prefer Trump, or His Trumpness, or Trumper, or El Trumperino) is to be viewed differently. According to a reassuring la Paglia, as she informs her public that “[his] fearless candor and brash energy feel like a great gust of fresh air, sweeping the tedious clichés and constant guilt-tripping of political correctness out to sea….Trump is his own man, with a steely ‘damn the torpedoes’ attitude.” And she does so with an equal insouciance to the appearance of a public reversal, like any seasoned pol intent on righting the meaning of truth.

However, I am not here to challenge her on what was, indeed, a refreshing and validating expression of opinion by she who must be heard in the very same column in today’s Salon (I Was Wrong About Donald Trump). Though, briefly I have to admit it is inviting to point out the myriad aspects of Trump’s public persona that are signifiers of a wholly insupportable inhumane tendency—qualities the foremost diva of the academy elects to overlook in her 180-degree reassessment.

By David Shankbone - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19316880

Lena Dunham, by David Shankbone – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19316880

Rather I am here to take what is to me a godsend of an opportunity to quote her on another curious phenomenon in this day of grotesque judgments by the establishment as to what constitutes newsworthiness. Never mind as to what constitutes worth of any sort that is substantiated by reality, and validated by any kind of rigororous epistemological scrutiny. I speak of one of my personal bêtes noires, Ms. Lena Dunham.

Quite simply, let me quote Camille without comment. I could not have said it better. Having observed that Ms. Paglia has seemed to have overlooked Ms. Dunham while doing a “superb job of analyzing contemporary figures,” one of the professor’s admirers ask her point blank for her “thoughts on this young woman who fancies herself The Voice of her generation:”

On the one hand, I believe that each generation has the unchallengeable right to create its own aesthetic and to carve its own idols. On the other hand, as Gwendolen Fairfax darkly remarks to Cecily Cardew in the great tea-table confrontation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, “On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one’s mind. It becomes a pleasure.”

Lena Dunham belongs to the exhibitionistic Andrea Dworkin school of banner-waving neurotic masochism. The body is the enemy, a tainted lump whose limitations and afflictions the public must be forced to contemplate in grisly detail. We must also witness, like hapless medieval bystanders at a procession of flagellants, just how unappetizingly pallid Caucasian flesh can be made to be without cracking the camera lens. The torpid banality of Dunham’s utterances (reverently accorded scriptural status by the New York Times) is yet another matter. I am woman–hear me kvetch!

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Progress is Our Most Important Product

I’ll go out on the proverbial limb, the one I hate being on the end of, and state what some of you may tell me is the obvious.

In 35 short years, we’ve gone from “The Great Communicator” to, well, hmmm, “The Great Reality Show Host?” This pathetic slog we all endure (apparently; our existences are beset and so many of us have persevered through genuine trauma, nay tragedy, and death awaits us all, it’s true, but still, there are iDevices and a new Tesla model coming out…, but except for the whatever percentage it is, what is it anyway? 99% 98% as little as 95% Here on Amazon marked down for you today only to 78% I mean how many people are really truly and honestly suffering daily, fighting for subsistence, strung out, addled, stricken with stubborn and unresponsive diseases, living in poverty… well not here on Facebook, nay nay, we just come here to have shpilkes about all the actual people who do, of which any number is too many, and rail and get snarky with one another, and sling vulgarities or bloat ourselves in a superior way because those inferior specimens running for President are just, I mean, de trop when it comes to vulgarity; I even heard a joke, pretty lame, about how if he’s elected Bernie Sanders will be the first President to sign significant legislation into law or more likely yet another Executive Order that will go nowhere with a mustard stain on his shirt… where was I ? oh, at the pathetic slog we all endure), this “life” as we call it, is no longer what has always been understood by serfs and philosophers alike is no longer that, but a big reality show in which we’re all extras, with feature parts that are archived for as many people as you’ve indulgently allowed yourself to have as friends on your social medium of choice with photos, videos, and bad audio, some of which has probably been illegally pirated.

And reality tv was not really a genre until the 70s (discounting Allen Funt’s initial efforts with Candid Camera, which dates to 1948, when the number of tv sets could still be numbered in the thousands). PBS aired the groundbreaking An American Family, which let it all hang out, including the outing of their adolescent son, in 1973. Regularly scheduled prime time programming that falls solidly under the rubric began in 1979 and 1980 with the airing of “Real People” and “That’s Incredible” which, as the Writer’s Guild of America puts it, “took the camera fully out of the studio to capture people in their real-life settings.”

I’ll remind you at this point that Ronald Reagan had already been Governor of California, with his first term beginning in 1967, serving two terms. And more than a “great communicator” he had been and was, in actuality, a great huckster, being advertising spokesman for a number of brands, but most notably the major brands of Chesterfield cigarettes (back in the 50s, when smoking was still safe) and then, more famously, because he did it on television, for GE—kind of forming a complete circle, from the products that could give you lung cancer to the company that made the x-ray machines that could detect it in your body.

The Republicans invoke Reagan’s name with reverence, as if he did not do the things he did (raise taxes, legalized immigrants, and suborned illegal gun traffic, with some drug trade thrown in, with known terrorists), but did set a model for the modern major Republican candidate. And they repudiate Trump, because he is an enormous vulgarian—indisputably, and without mussing a hair on his lacquered head—as if that were not the cause of the reverence in which he is held by the “rank and file” (the term applied, in a headline, by the NYTimes, probably with a big grin on the face of the editor who cooked up that particular combination of words) despite the imprecations of titular head of the party until they settle on a nominee, Mitt Romney.

All this by way of solving the challenge of what do we do with a problem like The Donald. And all this, I would suggest—here I am, fully out on the end of that limb—in actuality a mere evolutionary cycle, kind of an attenuated one if you ask me, given that most politicians are ready to flip on their steadfast positions in as little as a 24-hour period since last asked to state that position for the record.

History is fun, so let’s backtrack a little further, a small bit of evidence to further anchor my indubitably trivial and unaccountable point.

I’ve seen no mention of it, as, I mean, it is four years ago after all, and who can remember what happened four days ago any longer—I mean long term memory is so yesterday, you know what I mean—but recall for a moment Mitt Romney’s “presidential” excursion to our closest ally (measured in terms of countries predominantly white, Christian, Anglophone, and of which we used to be a colony), and he proceeded to tick off the British hoi polloi, amuse the gentry and the establishment over just how “American” he revealed himself to be, and was suitably otherwise snubbed by the UK media. No one mentions that, and yet we have progressed. The British (I mean the people… apparently, who really knows?) have decided that it would be best if the UK immigration control simply didn’t even allow Donald Trump to cross the border (and that was long before the current cascade of vulgar trumpery).

It’s not a new era at all my friends, it’s what we like to call in the United States progress. Let’s just not call it Progressive shall we, otherwise both Bernie and Hillary might start getting some really bad ideas to try out.

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When Did You Stop Beating Hillary Clinton?

[Please note the date on this entry to my journal of several years. In a month, it will be eight years that I wrote this. How much has changed in the passage of the preponderance of two presidential terms. Barack Obama did go on to win the nomination of the Democrats and proceeded to win in the general election. He cannot, alas, run again. As it has always been in the nature of these things, some things, as much as they change, remain the same. A lot of the other faces have changed, but not so in the case of one famous face, that of Hillary Clinton. She faces yet again, with the same air at once wistful and challenging of inevitability, another contest for the nomination, with the added weight of potential historic precedence the greater stake (in many ways—the present contest, as fraught as it is with aspects of surreality, is really not of significantly different historical import; there have been despots and demagogues, barons and brigands aplenty in our political history). I cannot say I’d make exactly the same arguments now I would have made with my aggressive friends back then, as described here, and I certainly don’t wish it to be inferred that what I said then constitutes my personal endorsement—given the worth of that, I can’t make too much of this; better to make nothing of it at all—of any other candidate now.

For me this passage of roiling thoughts has, as I hope it has for you as well, mainly historical interest, and gives not so much perspective as a tiny tiny insight into human nature.]

2008April04 11:28 AM

It is now a few weeks ago, over dinner at Casablanca [a now defunct Harvard Square restaurant/bar and an institution] after a matinee at the A.R.T. [American Repertory Theater, on the Harvard campus], when the conversation inevitably, and regrettably, turned to the ongoing campaign for the Democratic Party candidacy for President. We were a party of eight, waiting for a ninth, and nevertheless into our appetizers when an inevitable, and regrettable, chorus arose from the rest of the party—ostensibly, or at least apparently, all liberal of mind, if not merely Democrat of mind. The only solidarity seemed to be an understood antipathy for and opposition to the presumptive Republican candidate, Mr. John McCain.

Most of the party, save for my wife [now deceased—she died six weeks after the dinner party described here], are my elders I believe. I know that my two dearest friends among them, 68 and 72 respectively, are. The relevance of this slight difference in age may be non-existent. I do know that what was shared, and ultimately articulated as the discussion progressed, was that all members of the party, save for my wife, was a vocal and adamant belief, that, whether for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama regardless, any individual (and presumably this would include as well any absent representative advocates for the candidacy of McCain) in the United States, if not the world, must accept the existence of an innate misogyny. It was neither clear, nor necessary to delineate, the importance of the gender of any such individual. There seemed to be a tacit assumption that the propensity towards such an anti-female bias would be stronger in the male, but the relevance of this, too, is likely non-consequential.

My opposition to, nay, my repugnance for, as opposition is too neutral a descriptor, has been vociferous whenever the occasion has arisen. My predisposition is well known to my friends, as, indeed, the most heated discussions on this very subject—my repugnance and consequent opposition, for cause, to her candidacy—have occurred among us, usually on social occasions. Three times, at three other meals, as it happens (two breakfasts, in the kitchen of my house in Provence, and a dinner, in their dining room) the topic, which seems inescapable of late in their company, erupted into a rare heated argument.

In short order, it became clear that the wife of this couple of friends felt I was being not just unfair, but without cause entirely. Indeed, the argument was that, being a man, I found it repugnant to consider that a woman was fit to govern in the highest office. Nothing being further from the truth, indeed, I do wonder sometimes that we’d be better off with the lopsided balance of power, in terms of gender of our lawmakers and those who execute those laws, tipped entirely in the other direction—with a significant majority among the women of our society.

To put it most simply, I just can’t stand Hillary Clinton’s politics, wihch are of the order of opportunism and casuistry. She is inveterately a politician. This is, in itself, not a deficiency, as all those who run for office must practice politics, which to state it as simply as I can, consists in the ability to reconcile a statutory advantage in seeking to gain office with the will of the people being governed in the larger context of some mutually agreeable ethical framework. It is when politics becomes an end in itself, politics being the means of effecting good governance, usually through the imposition of rules that are not onerous or inhumane, and the enforcement of those rules, and leaving politics strictly to the process of shaping those means—through laws and rules and mandates and statutes and imposts—and not using politics as a lever for aggrandizement, material gain, or entitlement of those in the vocation of the exercise of poitical activities. At some point, even the most canny, wily or even-handed of successful politicians should put the process aside, and attend to the legislation of the codes that govern us, or to the execution of one’s duties in a post to which one has been elected or appointed—with no prejudice or favoritism determined by one’s personal ideological bent, especially not with the objective in mind of the attainment of wealth or power or privilege in excess of any existing societal mandate.

And again, quite simply, I am not sure and have never been that Hillary Clinton (or her husband for that matter, to bring up an operative irrelevancy) is sufficiently pure in this admittedly flawless conceptualization of what politics is about. I am not sure, indeed, that she is anything approaching purity as a political creature. For me politics is about winning, but without shedding the prior mantle of one’s humanity. It is winning, but not at any cost, or by any means.

Yet, it would seem, her gender trumps any inherent argument based merely on what is accessible in the public record and in the archives of the news of public media. There seems to be an argument based solely on the presumption that for women we are long past some appointed hour wherein, in the words of a song by Stephem Sondheim, “It’s our time, breathe it in/Worlds to change and worlds to win./Our turn, we’re what’s new,/Me and you, pal,/Me and you!” It’s a kind of expectant feminist manifest destiny, sometimes with little or no regard for the character of those who will enact the transition to the better future envisioned. Rather, I get the sense, even among the most realistic critics of seemingly gender-tainted opponents of this particular woman for this particular nomination, that gender trumps all other criteria, including ethics, and purely on the grounds of it’s being “our time” it’s better to have a woman than a man if there is otherwise no other discernible difference in their political character.

Naturally, I repudiate such an assumption, and see any critique not as sound argument, but an attack, and it is of the order, in this case, with the indictment ringingly (sometimes—if there are enough empty wine glasses on the table) delivered in mixed company, of a variation of a classic interrogative, the question impossible to answer convincingly in a court of law, “Oh! So when did you stop beating Hillary Clinton?”

Never, of course, is the answer, because I never started. It is for her opponent to beat her, strictly speaking, in the political arena. And with any luck, he will.

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Trump: What A Nomination Means

To me it means simply that if the American people who bother to vote in primary elections and caucuses choose him before other candidates, he should be the nominee. In the end, it has nothing to do with my preferences.

In most instances, if the President was selected on the criterion of personal preference, there would be, as there has been in totalitarian countries historically, only one nominee, and voting would be pro forma, when it isn’t—as well—mandatory (it was Donald Trump, incidentally, who pointed out recently that he is not sure he is for the health care “mandate” as it would mean that having insurance would be mandatory—he can be faulted for many things, but a very small kudo to him for his sensitivity to the language as the general populace should understand it). I get the impression, especially when paying heed to the most vociferous of Hillary Clinton opponents, who are not necessarily feeling the Bern, which seems to aggravate the effects of the Hill venom, or the most ardent of Tea Party endorsers, that this is precisely what they would prefer. And that preference for one candidate, one vote, clearly is heedless of the meaning of that foundation of the system of government called democracy.

Personally I would naturally be most comfortable, which means in my case that I would be most free of anxiety and worry, if the person I thought most appropriate for the office of President of the United States were simply appointed to office. However, I find myself questioning the intent of anyone who becomes a drummer for a candidate, and closes himself or herself off from even the simple request that “enough is enough” already, and to let the cards play as the players see fit to bid or bet on them.

There is no lack of passionate intensity among the acolytes and partisans of any one candidate. All have at least some.

In the social media, arguments fly like bees sensing pollen in the next field over swollen with herbage, but disoriented by the nerve toxins in the herbicides that abound invisibly in the air. No matter the candidate, commentators with the deliberate mien of their sagacity or merely outrageous in their certitude find platforms and are quoted ad nauseam in the feeds of the broadcast media, the ones that measure their subscribers in the hundreds of millions. Where individuals measure their self-worth on the volume of their followers or their connected relations with others, all of whom are “friends.” Permission to believe is found, refreshed daily, in virtual venues with names like Alternews and USUncut. The channels of information are chock full of truth, unsluiced because of the freedom of speech, all speech, any speech.

The bottom line for me, more than ever, and all thanks to the general air of mass hysteria that has taken over the land of netizens and tv watchers, is that this is a democracy. Every citizen is entitled to his or her vote. Everyone is entitled to his or her preferences.

In an odd sort of way, and I can imagine whatever I may about what is really going on the heads of people I don’t know in the least, but in the end I still have no idea, they accept with perfect equanimity my views. My views, which when we get down to cases (or at least I do in those occasional bouts of honesty I impose upon myself), are fairly predictable for my socio-economic set and background and my history as a resident of the rabidly liberal northeast corridor localized in eastern Massachusetts and particularly in that citadel of progressive mania, Cambridge, home of Harvard and MIT, and one of the biggest bubbles on the continent.

I am well-off, and socially minded. I am highly educated and likely in a tiny minority at the upper reaches of some scale of measurable intellectual capacity. I believe in reason more than I believe in faith. I believe in that which is called Natural Law, more than I believe in the possibility of being saved personally. I believe humans should live ethically, and that ethics are, in a sense, not so much a solipsism as self-evident and derivative of natural law.

I believe we are not so much an accident on the planet as the result of perfectly deducible sets of determinable, but hardly determinative combinations and recombinations of organic molecules and genetic signalling. And I believe we are as likely to evolve into some other life forms in the fullness of time, as likely as it would have been to anticipate that we would make an appearance on the planet’s surface in the fullness of time were we to go back far enough prior to our emergence on the stage of the grand selective lottery.

And I believe that Donald Trump has the same potential inevitability as any other candidate who, by accident or design, for a lark or for some nefarious purpose unknown even to himself or herself, who, for all we know, had no motive for running that he or she is at all aware of consciously. Indeed, in the case of Donald Trump, I believe it’s possible he, in bare acuality, has not an idea or even an atom of a kernel of a concept as to what makes him do anything. And all that being said, is to say not very much more than we can say about any of his supporters. And as for other candidates and their supporters, I’m not sure that because we can delineate a cogent argument that seems to posit in a thesis and at once to constitute a proof as to its coherency as logic, that such arguments, in a democracy, are worth any more than a feeling deep in one’s heart that the other guy or gal is the right one, not when the curtains close behind the voter in the ballot booth.

I believe there are far fewer chips than one would infer from the aggregate energy of all the handwringing arguments and all the casuistry, all the passionate invective, all the frustrated anguish and all the anger. The country is young, but still old enough to have gone through this closing in on half a hundred times over our history that began in a period set three centuries ago, when life was profoundly different in terms of the nature of the quotidian and the sophistication and leverage provided by the prevailing technologies of the time. We will still elect a president and what chips there are, however many there are, will fall where they may, as they always have fallen.

Fact is, the country was founded, in terms of principles of the structure of government with a sharply divided, largely dualistic and dueling set of theories. We are still divided, though along different lines. We shed blood periodically as parties on either side of whatever divide defines our present epoch—and as it has repeatedly in all previously discernible epochs. And perhaps, there will be blood. Yet again.

But, despite the dire sense of both sides that there is some Manichean division that with victory for one side of the other will mean that white will prevail over black, or black over white, or red over blue, or vice versa, or, using whatever semiotic figures you like, that there will be a prevailing order—even though there is none now, and has not been for some time, if ever, perhaps even when we separated ourselves from England and struck out into the world, no longer a colony, for sure, but a sovereign nation, which we remain—and that the other side will lose, our side or theirs no matter. As if the outcome will mean the extinction of roughly half the populace of a profoundly large country with not a small number of citizens, with no clear majority holding an unequivocally clear position standing on undisputed ground.

We live in a time of political paralysis, of stymied hopes, of dashed plans, and unbalanced forces pitted increasingly against one another. We’ve lived in such a time before. Before we always suffered the torment of the irresolution that follows when the great engine of compromise, which assures that progress will occur, however slowly and incrementally—or we would not be where we are now, which is no longer, and mainly for good and not for ill, were that engine not in a state of ready revival as it has always proven to be. We are poised on a tipping point, as it has become stylish to call it, though I mean it in a much more mundane and less precipitous, hence less dramatic, sense. Once we tip into that necessary realm of painstaking—in few other contexts does the word assume literal meaning so forcefully—compromise. It will happen as it has always happened. It even happened under the “impossible” circumstances of most of the tenure of President Obama. It will happen, or not, of course, under a President Trump, or a President Clinton. And it will likely be no less difficult than it would be under a Rubio or a Sanders.

Here are the bare facts, at least insofar as they pertain to me. This I know for sure. If you feel you are in a different position, and there’s reason to think that attaining such a position is possible through a duplicable process, you have a responsibility to share the algorithm, as they say. But for now, I manage to live, more and more readily each day, knowing that there is not a thing I can do, not a word I can say, and not a dollar I can spend that will alter the selection of delegates to represent this or that candidate come convention time in any state in which I am not a resident. I could not alter the outcome in South Carolina for either party in South Carolina, no matter how much I might have wanted to, which was not at all. Any more than I can do so in the thirteen states (and one territory) of Super Tuesday casting their ballots even as I sit here typing.

It must be enough to accept that however you vote, whatever your reasons for doing so, it will have an impact on the outcome, however infinitesmal that impact, though it will not measurably change the outcome that results from all the votes of all the voters, on whom you can have no impact whatsoever. I get no solace knowing that whatever the range of emotions that rise within me—usually uncontrollably, as I’d just as soon pay no attention whatsoever to this race or to any of the candidates, and even less so to their supporters (who are the agents of encouragement to behave in such provocative or egregious or predictable ways)—they will not determine who is President on January 20, 2017. The great test is not accepting the panoply of feelings that are inevitable, and good or bad, from hearing the results on election day this November. The great test is merely accepting the result. It is part of the experience of being a citizen. And if that isn’t a conscious choice, given the state of affairs as they have been, not for the past ten months, or even ten years, but likely for your entire life, you have no reason to complain at all. It certainly won’t matter to President Trump, if that’s who we get.

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What is is—Annals of Rhetoric

[The original dateline of this post is August 15, 2007; I would have been in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I lived at the time and had been for 22 years at that point. I have changed only one word, the penultimate one, to bring this up to date.]

It used to be schoolboys, well, my schoolmates—boys and girls—knew. Back in the 50s and 60s, they knew how to understand diplomatic language, as far as the news brought it to our ears. Somehow we had absorbed a lesson in rhetoric for our time.

Between the Cold War—largely pitting the U.S. against the Soviet Union—and the war of words that was its chief manifestation, the air (and the newspapers and the broadcast media—no ‘net back then, no Web, no blogosphere) was filled with reports about meetings between diplomats from both camps. Walter Cronkite did not have to catch his breath to explain what “full and frank” discussions meant, as the most high ranking of the government representatives present engaged the press after sessions had ended. It meant long boring talk fests between white men in suits that boiled down in plain language to, “We mainly told each other, ‘You’re basically full of shit.'” After the United States (France, Great Britain, Portugal, and a few other sovereign camp followers) “opened” Japan in the middle of the nineteenth century, these discussions could and did increasingly involve men, also in suits, whose complexions were various shades of what Caucasians took to calling “yellow,” until this became politically untenable.

There were hot components of that odd encompassing state of armed conflict, “Cold War,” an Orwellian oxymoron universally applied wherein men (few women then) actually shot weapons at and bombed and gassed and napalmed each other. In fact, we were at perpetual war—we of course still are, or why would I even mention this? in which we found ourselves with unseen enemies, save for low resolution monochromatic moving images on our primitive tv screens. These episodes, prolonged or sporadic, famously occurred between principals of one side and surrogates of the other, or, at a lower order of implementation of world policy, between surrogates of each side, with no principal involvement. Unless the latter was covert, of course, which meant that the public could not learn of it, by law of the land, until 40 or 50 years had passed after the termination of the specific unpleasantness, or the present presidential regime had ended. Unlike the meaning of “full and frank,” however, we were in the dark on this one. In those days we still believed in rules of engagement—another tortuous linguistic formulation, generally applied when humans were engaged, in fact, in the simple objective of making the other guy dead. And the rules said, we civilized nations would not do nasty things covertly to any other nation, and we trusted in God that such was the case.

We didn’t stop to think about the basic absurdity of agreeing to the limits of the methods we would use when engaged hand-to-hand, sometimes literally, in a fight to the death, assuming one of us captured one of you. There was no Emily Post of the Rules of Engagement, but there were such rules, and in those days, we didn’t think about it either (about the absurdity), and we carried our disgraceful detachment further by putting faith in our government that, when it spoke to us, it told the truth. Sometimes couched in the language of diplomacy, but, as I started to say, we understood what that meant.

Every word was studied, for as much as the English language is capable of nuance, the spare vocabulary of diplomacy, spare because specialized, a language that nations could agree was the appropriate way for all—even enemies—to muffle the truth, without abandoning it altogether. As long as we were talking, we were less likely to bomb the bejesus out of each other wholesale. Sometimes we went retail, but there were always trends, never sustained styles that created a legacy. Somehow, World War II early on became the last good war. Which leaves a lot of bad wars, before and since.

And what Americans came to realize, yet again, is that they don’t like war. It doesn’t matter to which specific realization I may be referring, we came to that conclusion repeatedly for as long as I’ve been alive, which is three-score and ten. Years.

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