Since I was a boy I’ve wondered at the ability of people to own up, or not, to their failings and mistakes. Somehow I grew to expect that this is what responsible humans did, usually adults, and I understood it was at great personal cost at times, often in terms of humiliation, shame, and what required many more years of maturity and experience on my part to understand was a painful rendering of one’s personal sense of worth and esteem.
What took me considerably longer to understand – my earlier apprehensions about confessing one’s fault and conscious assumption of responsibility having been more of an intuitive perception, subject to the invisible hand of my parents’ moral suasion (if not, in retrospect, as well, in seemingly inconsequential episodes from time to time in my childhood, the more palpable stern upbraiding I took from my mother) – were the ways in which cultural forces have reshaped the methods and the narratives by which we remove ourselves from the forum of social engagement. We never openly admit guilt, and certainly not in some earnest and transparent heartfelt rendering of such feelings, but we take actions that are signals, or perhaps even more formally signifiers of our acknowledgement of that desultory state of conscience that itself signifies dishonor and mortifying embarrassment.
In the current climate of daily broadcasts of the untoward behavior of male authority figures toward their female subordinates – in plain language the constant stream of accusations of sexual harassment, abuse, if not outright violation, which justifiably goes largely unchallenged as to veracity, because there are inevitably multiple victims testifying – the inevitable response, the usual one, the one that seems almost autonomic in its spontaneity and lack of reflection, is denial of all charges. Inevitably the miscreant attests to his utter lack of such debased character as to behave in a matter contradictory to his innate respect and support of women and his lifelong championship of feminist causes, in spirit, if not in name. Given the preponderance of evidence that is all but sanctioned by the gravity of the charges even in the absence of formal testamentary oath-taking by the victims, there is a farcical quality to the defense offered by the offender. It would, indeed, be funny, if the circumstances and the repercussions of the prior acts did not redound so disastrously on the victims, while perpetrators too often retain their powerful tenure.
In the fullness of time, there are never worse repercussions, despite allegedly exhaustive inquiries and what is lamely often put under the rubric, as it is here, of “full and fair process of review.” Severe penalties are defined. If they are ever imposed, they seem never to hit the headlines with the same force as the original exposure, which usually is the culmination of years, if not decades, as in this case, of abuse and concealment (if not outright contemporaneous dismissal or minimalization, in those rare instances that victims brave the virtual institutional skepticism of accusations made at the time of the violation). As the promised new order of better vigilance and active fostering of an atmosphere and environment of safety and protection of the interests of vulnerable populations, but especially women who remain largely in positions of subordination and powerlessness, has yet to be established, the question remains about how seriously society is willing to punish, never mind speak of the remote potentiality of reform and rehabilitation, and vilify offenders in such a way that the prospect of the depth and extent of humiliation once publicly exposed will be sufficient to deter the behavior that occasions it.
Doesn’t “compute:” The apparent perception that the shutdown of government is either a viable political tactic or, more importantly, part of some larger political strategy – especially by the party not in power in any sane and predictable course toward overturning the present ratio of power in an election ten months hence. The plight of the Dreamers is now going on 20 years. The crippling of liberal, never mind progressive, objectives is an ongoing current crisis, in which the left continues to be at a disadvantage.
Makes no sense: The expectation that officeholders, especially congressional Democrats with seats in peril in the next national election, should vote along ideological lines for positions they know do not square with their constituencies. And that they should do so at peril of being challenged for those seats by more hardline partisans of progressive principles in a primary. If I were an incumbent trying to reconcile a successful campaign strategy for reelection with my own sense of adherence to principles, I’d say to challengers, bring it on. Either one argument will win the nomination or the other will – presumably the incumbent knows more about holding onto the seat. When did the electoral process get subverted with a preference for brinksmanship in legislative standoffs?
The New York Times today reports this:
“The grass-roots are rightly furious with a slew of elected Democrats,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director of MoveOn.org. “In the Obama years, Republicans learned to be more afraid of primary challenges than general elections. But Democrats are still operating as though the Tea Party is more powerful than The Resistance.”
What I’d like to know is, how did the Times know that “The Resistance” was in upper case capitals? And whatever the case, what exactly is “the resistance?” To what? Who comprises it? How large a percentage of the electorate is it? This sounds discouragingly like propagandistic rhetoric of the left. MoveOn has a not too unblemished history of its own.
from today’s NYTimes:
Senate Democrats’ Vote to End Shutdown Infuriates Some on the Left
So, given the vagaries of surfing on the web (yes, I’ve been doing it that long that I still call it that… I started doing it in 1994; when did you start?) I ended up reading filtered accounts of the new Michael Wolff sensation of a book. I am speaking, of course, of Fire and Fury, just published, filled with “insider” revelations of the true tenor of life not only in the Trump White House, but the inner workings of his campaign leading up to the election. I’m not here to flog those confidences, though. There’s enough of that still going on.
I’m not even here to flog the reputation and working methods of Michael Wolff, whose reputation as a professional journalist among those who know his work long precedes him apparently. I am not ashamed to admit that I didn’t know his work. However, his reputation is not so great, especially among his presumptive colleagues, one would gather in the cataractous light of hindsight. His fellow scribblers had pretty much been keeping mum about his flagrant breaches of decorum, to hear them tell it, until he, in effect, opened his mouth with what is turning out to be a red-hot bestseller—no thanks to them and their overwrought efforts to subdue their anguish, especially once the president’s Tweets hit the fan. American journalists are particularly adept at not sounding like they’re choking, as they contort themselves into strangulated postures to retain their air of restrained dispassion. What they love to call the hard won perspective of “objectivity.”
Even as Wolff has been branded now variously a “liar,” “unprofessional,” “devious,” “mendacious,” etc. etc., there is a still barely audible counterpoint, call it a trickle of true neutral observation, that one must accept that book, having come through the apparatus of established publishing protocols by a reputed, if not an esteemed, publisher, has been vetted as far as a rushed account can be (it is still, after all, less than a year, if only barely, since the inauguration of our 45th chief executive). Presumably, and no doubt as will turn out reliably, it has been largely fact checked, gone over for the legal niceties that publishers – especially – worry about, and edited as well as a substantial book of nonfiction, 335 pages of it, can be in what is relatively short order, especially given its topicality and even more given the slipperiness, shall we say, of the sources.
Rather, my subject, as little attention as it deserves in this specific instance, is the attitude evinced by that aforementioned establishment press, especially in Washington, and in particular the so-called White House press corps – let’s face it, the heart of the monster that Trump has anointed with the epithet, used as much as an abstract noun as anything more precise, of “fake news.” Let me just observe for a moment here that, in the latest figures I can find from what I am satisfied is a more than reasonably reliable source, the U.S. adult public, with regard to the information they get, wrings this level of trust out of themselves for “national news organizations” as determined in a survey by the Pew Research Center in March, 2017 by political affiliation:
It should only be noted, and I add this significant detail somewhat bemusedly, that the question posited the level of trust being queried as “a lot.” There was no indication of what amount a “lot” is in either relative or absolute terms. The only sources that fared worse on this question of trusting the information to be derived “a lot” were “friends, family, and acquaintances” and “social networking sites.”
It is clear enough from the remarks I have seen in the casual conversation pits that form on Facebook of working journalists, past and still working, including many who worked national and international beats, including the Washington DC bureaus of their organizations, with a sprinkling assigned to the White House itself (I have not personally seen any remarks from present members of the Washington press corps) that Wolff has evoked a lot of feeling among his putative colleagues. Not a few people, and most of them are men, have had not merely exposure to the dispatches of Michael Wolff in the past, and not merely immersion in the gossip and scuttlebutt about his work, his methods, and the arc of his career, but had some acquaintance, most of it nodding or purely transitory, with the man himself. And very little of the first person accounts of any of the substance of these points of contact with either the person himself, or merely his work, and certainly of the unsubstantiated remarks shared about his character or his modus operandi, indeed possibly none, were what I would characterize as commendatory.
Few of these critics, as there’s nothing else to call them, have anything really revelatory to say that would represent a concrete argument for refuting the assertions of the book, as they’ve been reported in summary in the first news reports from leaked copies or as the actual text quoted in the usual places online or in print, sometimes at length. Rather, the remarks hint vaguely, I would call them rumblings of disquiet clearly meant to discredit without actually venturing into the territory of bald accusation and condemnation. His would-be censors apparently feel free to call him a “known liar,” but stop way short of calling any of what is in the book outright fabrication. Whereas, of course, the president himself and his usual corps of defenders have no problem concentrating their wrath on the veracity of the published accounts, rather than worrying the character of the author of them. Curiously, of course, and this is duly noted by the “fake news” sources, very few, possibly none, of the sources quoted in Wolff’s book have denied what was said.
The New York Times published one account that opined there was nothing particularly original about either the book or its purport – suggesting that it conforms readily to a genre of political confession that is not new, except to the extent that one would expect such embarrassing revelations to see print years after the first inauguration of a sitting president. In the case of George Bush one such book by an insider in his White House was published not too far into his second term. Thereby such books, meant to provoke readers at least to the level of fueling significant sales figures, but not to stir its most invested publics up to the pitch of kicking a hornets’ nest. Hence, Wolff has not so much created a new game, as he’s moved the goal posts – however one might state the objectives, beyond the realm of moving the book into the status of bestseller strictly for the financial rewards entailed – a lot lot closer.
However obscure the objectives of Mr. Wolff, his agent, his publisher, et alia, it is more fun, though admittedly no less unexplained, to speculate on the state of mind, at least, of his apparent detractors.
They all don the tone and demeanor, as I hope I’ve suggested, of the sang-froid for which the most trusted newscasters and reporters of our cultural past as a nation were always praised. Through blitzes (literally), through battle, through disasters, through political debacles, American reporters and the later phenomenon of the news anchor (who came to prove his –usually “his” – or her mettle by unchaining from the news center desk and going into the field, even unto the mouth of hell) were always expected in a stalwart way to appear imperturbable. Further, in a way that is uniquely American in terms of the canons of neutrality and objectivity that are the core of curricula in professional schools of journalism, at least through the 20th century, that imperturbability extended to an ethos of never revealing either a bias, never mind an opinion. I, never bound by such constraints, am willing to venture the observation that it was not until the advent of a Trump presidency, first in prospect as his candidacy became legitimate and then in fact, as it became, well, a fact, one that cannot be denied by a sane person, that any visible cracks appeared in the cloak of neutrality donned most steadfastly by the foremost adherents of the papers of record—it has always been papers, specifically newspapers, the only surviving artifacts of our national cultural history that constitute their own fully anachronistic existence. Something cracked, for sure, when the grimly determined policies enrobing the grey lady were loosened sufficiently that the most exalted of poobahs of the press, the editors, permitted in print (and, for sure, in pixels) and not merely buried below interior “folds,” but emblazoned in headlines on the front page, that the lies of our president be labelled as such.
It is in the same spirit of impartiality that, in time, rendered the practitioners of this noble craft (to paraphrase Fielding, one may say that the professional pursuit of truth fills a person with nobility, and it does, as long as it’s filling a noble person… it’s an ocean away, but we should remember that Grub Street is readily the counterpart to Times Square) susceptible to a tendency to tendentiousness, and hence, given any bona fides as a reliable practitioner, being halfway there, an inclination to suffer the pangs of sanctimony. It’s a danger in those of weak character, in that it becomes sometimes impossible to keep mum about one’s own purity, if not piety—which leads to the intriguing possibility, which I will just hang out here and move on, that perhaps, like conjoined twins, perfecting the pose of utter neutrality can so easily be mistaken for having attained to a purely pious nature.
I say all this, because I am reminded of nothing so much as what follows below when I read the twisted impostures of writing with utter coolness and a disinterested air – a hard thing to do in the cramped confines of a Facebook comment, which, after all, has an optimum length, short enough, for effective impact – even clearly while seething with contempt, and stewing in the juices of sanctimoniousness.
I am left with no other impression than this: on two counts, Wolff has made myriad enemies among his brethren (again, I have to say, though without trying to be definitive or absolute, that it seems mainly to be men; men of a certain age, some retired, some about to be, some still in harness, so to speak, with equally notable but unremarkable careers until now). First he has, to use the lingo, scooped a great many people trying to report, and somewhat fitfully and fragmentarily so, dating from the beginning of the Trump tenure, about the internal mayhem of the administration. Second, he has done so, clearly, by winning the trust of those whose mouths should have never opened in his presence, especially given the presumed tenor of his prior reputation—assuming you accept that he is nothing but a mountebank himself, a sensationalist, and a liar, and no journalist. Even as he presents no outward signs, in any event, of the same piety, if not sanctimony, in which they have wrapped themselves, like judicial or academic or liturgical robes (is there any other gowned profession I am forgetting whose stature is so entwined with its relation to defining the nature of truth?).
What I am finally reminded of – to tell the truth, and now that I’ve introduced the clergy to the discussion, however slyly – is the satirical rage of a hero of the Age of Narcissus, specifically of the 60s in the United States, Alexander Portnoy, created by a master vocalist of satire and rage in virtuoso recitals, Philip Roth. At a certain point, stuck on the hypocrisy of his boyhood rabbi, Warshaw, who shepherded our hero through his triumph (to hear him tell it) of a bar mitzvah, as a first step on a path to the glory of exalting justice and truth in a career in law, Portnoy lets loose. I hope my pulling together so many seeming disparate strands here is not irrelevant to what I have chosen to comment on, from here in the bleachers, looking down on the spectacle occurring at this moment with such topicality – and whose freshness is no doubt as fragile and evanescent as a perfectly ripe berry. I am sure what I’m trying to convey here concerns a fruit of somewhat greater longevity, paradoxically durable, given that it’s borne by the trees of one of the orchards we call knowledge.
I am no less passionate about not abandoning the quest for truth in our very misshapen times, even as the pathways to it become more twisted and convoluted, than Portnoy is about he has discovered in his tortured dismay—that surrendering to anxiety or wallowing in a narcissistic pool are no means of shelter. Finally, I’ll leave you with this anguished, if comic, condemnation in absentia of the rabbi, from Portnoy’s prolonged monolog to the ever silent Dr. Spielvogel. Read it slowly, as it’s filled with resonant allusion to matters that are proving, minute by minute literally, in these first few days of the new year to be the stuff that will prove, ultimately, to be either some kind of dreadful apocalypse or of some kind of redemptive salvation:
Ah-hah, I knew it. It’s no Devil in the proper sense, it’s Fat Warshaw, the Reb. My stout and pompous spiritual leader! He of the sumptuous enunciation and the Pall Mall breath! Rabbi Re-ver-ed! It is the occasion of my bar mitzvah, and I stand shyly at his side, sopping it up like gravy, getting quite a little kick out of being sanctified, I’ll tell you. Alexander Portnoy-this and Alexander Portnoy-that, and to tell you the absolute truth, that he talks in syllables, and turns little words into big ones, and big ones into whole sentences by themselves, to be frank, it doesn’t seem to bother me as much as it would ordinarily. Oh, the sunny Saturday morning meanders slowly along as he lists my virtues and accomplishments to the assembled relatives and friends, syllable by syllable. Lay it on them, Warshaw, blow my horn, don’t hurry yourself on my account, please. I’m young, I can stand here all day, if that’s what has to be. “… devoted son, loving brother, fantastic honor student, avid newspaper reader (up on every current event, knows the full names of each and every Supreme Court justice and Cabinet member, also the minority and majority leaders of both Houses of Congress, also the chairmen of the important Congressional committees), entered Weequahic High School this boy at the age of twelve, an I.Q. on him of 158, one hunder-ed and-a fif-a-ty eight-a, and now,” he tells the awed and beaming multitude, whose adoration I feel palpitating upward and enveloping me there on the altar—why, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if when he’s finished they don’t pick me up and carry me around the synagogue like the Torah itself, bear me gravely up and down the aisles while the congregants struggle to touch their lips to some part of my new blue Ohrbach’s suit, while the old men press forward to touch their tallises to my sparkling London Character shoes. “Let me through! Let me touch!” and when I am world-renowned, they will say to their grandchildren, “Yes, I was there, I was in attendance at the bar mitzvah of Chief Justice Portnoy—“an ambassador,” says Rabbi Warshaw, “now our ambassador extraordinary—” Only the tune has changed! And how! “Now,” he says to me, “with the mentality of a pimp! With the human values of a race-horse jockey! What is to him the heights of human experience? Walking into a restaurant with a long-legged kurveh on his arm! An easy lay in a body stocking!” “Oh, please, Re-ver-ed, I’m a big boy now—so you can knock off the rabbinical righteousness. It turns out to be a little laughable at this stage of the game. I happened to prefer beautiful and sexy to ugly and icy, so what’s the tragedy? Why dress me up like a Las Vegas hood? Why chain me to a toilet bowl for eternity? For loving a saucy girl?”
Forget Walter Cronkite. The best we’re going to do these days about truth from behind the curtain are Rex Tillerson and Steve Bannon.
We all look to heroes in the form of truth-tellers when our lives seem imperilled, especially by the larger, the more global, forms of threat. When mired in the disorder and chaos of war, or epidemic, or the greater natural catastrophes, we have always found in their words a kind of anchor for our fading sense of security and some glimmer of a chance at survival – if it’s not existential continuity that is jeopardized, too often the threat is to our apprehension of the decay of any hope of the feeling, vague, surely inchoate, but always real, of well-being. This notion that life, despite its hiccups and glitches, its disappoints and frustrations, will somehow overall be OK is possibly as essential to our will to go on as is being free of real and immediate palpable dangers to our lives.
In the past, especially during what is now effectively a two-hundred year epoch of accessible mass communications, first with pamphlets and broadsheets printed cheaply on paper, and more lately with instantaneous digital emissions that appear in the cold glow of our portable screens, we’re turned to those who somehow establish for themselves a quality that goes by various labels, but all of these amounting to some warrant of credibility and trust. With the shaming and exposure of the last crop of avatars of a semblance of truth, maybe better understood as “brands” of what passes for truth – hoist on their own petards of randiness and an arrogance of power; in case I am being too allusive here, I am speaking of the ruined careers of Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer, and Charlie Rose (not to show any political bias in pointing at skullduggers) – we are losing even the sense of some remnant of the kind of trust that not too many decades ago we placed in the hands and velvet delivery of such seemingly noble individuals as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.
Not only have we been steadily trading down in what we find acceptable to label as “truth,” with some of us exercising even lower standards, and lesser indices, than others of us. Concommitantly we have obviously demanded less and less of our public seers and glorified towncriers, even as we’ve rewarded them with higher and higher emoluments for their ability to draw and keep a loyal, and preferably unquestioning, but certainly not taxing audience of followers and adherents. What we’ve lost with the downfall of this last crop of exposed sexual predators is not so much a reliable source of truth, sometimes not comforting to hear, but reassuring for its show of courage in the form of veracity. We’ve mainly lost the comfort of a familiar and expected face. In the end, I suspect, it may be no worse than the adjustments required of us when death strikes a celebrated and popular figure prematurely, not to mention unexpectedly.
Some of us may feel there’s not much lost at all. The greater loss is something more abstract. It’s the loss akin to the loss of reason. Even as reason and logic are thrashed, as a manifestation of the age, along with their greater, if more abstract, sibling truth. I’ve long since convinced myself that the result is that even greater loss: a reluctance to accept the truth in whatever unexpected form we find it, perhaps sealed in a shipping carton, like an Amazon reward, or perhaps a bomb, or perhaps merely a load of horse manure right on our front steps when we open the front door of a morning.
What I’m getting at with all this is that we must cling to whatever shreds of truth we discern whatever the source. We may have to credit that source with whatever tatters of humanity necessary to honor in them as a sign, indeed, of some vestigial humanity of their own. It’s a bestowal of recognition we may be reluctant to extend, for any number of arguably good and justifiable reasons given their apparent characters and past behaviors. There is something to be credited though, if there is any hope of America (and Americans) for survival as a respectable political entity in a world where this is still the first best way of establishing bona fides in the commmunity of nations.
It’s possible that one unseen benefit, an artifact of some still nascent healing process, will be to tune our instruments for eliciting compassion and empathy by conveying the smallest necessary bit of credibility – as I say, where we can find it – on those whom otherwise we might cast utterly into a state of non-existence simply because they are not so much evil as hideously inconvenient to our own possibly too rigid sense of the proper constituency of an acceptable world order. We are all fragile vessels, and perhaps it is true that in the language of such a trope their fragility is greater than ours, but we must acquiesce I’m afraid, if there is to be any real hope of progress, in the recognition that even these are humans after all.
And of course, there is that sought-after solace, and that comforting sense of security, and that hope, however vague and evanescent it seems at the moment, in accepting that, despite the messenger, there simply is a certain stubborn immutable truth in the pronouncements of Rex Tillerson, a few months ago (concerning the effective cerebral competence of our president), or of Steve Bannon, just yesterday (concerning the dire insinuation of incompetence, and worse, into the administration in the characters of the president’s own offspring).
I personally am reassured in persuading myself there is sufficient credibility to build on, and see these provocative pronouncements as more than transitory, possibly even involuntary, utterances of a kind of rueful humor. As merely that, they get us nowhere.
I may dip as far down into my being as I care to and come up with the solid sense that what I feel is what must be the right way to feel. It is. For me. That’s not to say I doubt my beliefs and interpretation of how to go about life and get around the world I inhabit. I’m thoughtful and analytical, and prudent and careful. I can be punctilious, and, even more, scrupulous in my choices. I am rarely rash. Nevertheless, I have to keep reminding myself that what I think is right is not necessarily what everyone who is right-thinking in their own minds believes as well. As of this morning, the clash between North Korea and the United States has taken an incremental change to the status of personal feud, between two tyrannical egomaniacs—both small change when it comes to their worth as moral and ethical leaders, but each with his fingers on very lethal nuclear buttons.
It occurs to me, as I ponder the possible outcomes, that at least part of the analysis of what strategy will work in terms of neutralizing a rogue threat—lest there be any mistake, I am talking about Kim Jung Un and his small but deadly arsenal—now must take into account matters of character, role-playing, and the myths we all cherish about heroes and champions, and how the latter are supposed to behave in times of peril. No matter how bellicose in many other regards, especially behind the faceless abstractions of military strategies implemented on a grand scale with talk of “forces” and “troops” and “armies” and “civilians,” that is, always plural and mass nouns (so there is no incentive for the ordinary citizen to think, even for a minute, that in actuality we are talking about the actions of individual combatants, ordinary men and women like ourselves, under orders, or merely about the individual victims of execution of a particular order of battle, the dead and wounded of bombings, errant drones, missiles, and small arms fire), American presidents and then down the chain of command, pretty much without exception, tend to try to appear to be grave, serious, sober, rational, and above all cautious, so as not to make it a contest of individual wills or personalities. They work mightily not to have it appear personal, for sure, but they also work mightily to wear the mantle of responsibilty for the actions of the mightiest military force that has ever existed. They pay a price for proceeding cautiously, at the hands of critics who, at least philosophically, embrace a posture of displaying greater strength and the ultimate ability to crush virtually any enemy—short of bullying, of course, though there are those voices, always, in the halls of government, and among the rabble, who believe that the label “champion” is synonymous with “tough guy.” And tough guys talk tough.
Trump certainly talks tough, and it repulses me, more than anything else. But I sit in my zero-gravity chair (there is enough tension in my life, in the personal sphere and in the global sphere, that I don’t want to put any more strain on my back than I have to, on top of ingesting unpleasant news about the state of the world) reading today’s New York Times with its account of the exchange of school yard taunts traveling around half the world between Washington and Pyongyang and I am left to ponder what’s going on—to examine the meta-text so to speak, and compare my spontaneous reactions to what I imagine are the responses of others, especially those unlike myself. First, the shot across the bow, while Trump stands defiant and bristling with menace on the deck of the good ship United Nations: “dotard,” that now rare, vaguely British and hence vaguely charming and formal epithet—and, so, given the source, vaguely comic and yet apt… would that we all had the presence of mind, the nous (that Greek philosophical term, with its overlay as a quality of intellect: that determining affect of “gumption”) to call Trump what he is, among other things, and that is just another alter kacker. And, with his enfeebled and meager arsenal of taunts and insults—with which he is admittedly quite effective, there’s something to be said for a limited range of weapons, used repeatedly and in volume—Trump counters with “madman,” quickly abandoning the actually jaunty (and probably mistaken) provocation of “rocket man,” well intended, but in a different way than Kim’s use of an archaism to belittle he who is, indeed, an ancient one, falling comically into the swirl of spent cultural memes.
If only we needed to look forward merely to a battle of words. I’ll put the latter-day masters of the language that gave us Wilde and W.S. Gilbert, Shaw and Joyce, Orwell, the Python, and leaping across the ocean to our shores, also gave us Twain, Mencken, Parker, Kauffman, Perlman, and Marx (and I don’t mean Karl) up against a post-adolescent who nevertheless does throw across some incisive verbal weaponry, albeit with the added burden of having to work in a language other than his own, for the sake of the larger audience (and because he doesn’t have to work very hard to shore up his constituency, which he has, for the time being, let us concede, largely by the short hairs). But there is always the risk, as there has been on the Korean peninsula since the ascendancy of the Communist Chinese on the mainland in 1949, that it will become a very hot war of deadly weapons.
And what I wonder, after a lifetime, mine, of living with such a threat, which flows and ebbs like the proverbial tide, over us from so far away in the world, how many people—sick, perhaps, of the dread, of the nameless anxiety, at once ridiculous and real, fomented by a backward country of 25 million subjugated people who have withstood possible annihilation in the form of hot war, cold war, famine, and the ravages of capitulating to the demands of a regime, now three generations old, whose sole reasons for being are to be venerated (for whatever complex set of reasons) and to be self-perpetuating—are thinking and feeling the same thing, opposite those feelings of nausea and repulsion of mine. “Yeah, it’s about time.”
“Who are they to push us around?”
“We need to talk tough, and stand tall, and not take any guff [use whatever other euphemism you like here].”
“Thank god. Trump will show them! And teach them a lesson.”
At this stage, it little matters what the actual consequences will be of “talking tough” in a way that materially is no different than the resistance, cajolery, diplomacy (both visible and behind the scenes), and cautious but prudent policies we have exercised for over 60 years, while two armies of Koreans eye each other across no man’s land. That there are now significant rhetorical differences is clear*, but even these have consequences, which will not become clear until we learn exactly what Trump thinks he is doing, beyond imposing on as many people as he can at once with the mere tactics of swagger and braggadocio (and I don’t pretend to believe for a moment that he is unaware of exactly what maneuvers he has at his disposal to deploy—and even taking into account that he is also likely aware by now, eight months into his fragile tenure, that in Kim he is no longer dealing with a business adversary akin to those he faced while trying to build a hotel in a Middle East oasis). He does not do well with humiliation—which he is courting, if he actually has no desire to act like the monster he would be if he attempted to unleash our forces, in any way that exceeds a token show that somehow manages to be effective in humiliating his adversary, the scion of a tradition that has its own monstrous ways of neutralizing much smaller incidents of being humbled.
* One problem is that political discourse has become coarsened, and generally less civil, as a result of the past five cycles of presidential politics—with all of the more localized interstitial contests increasing the opportunities for vulgarizing and debasing not only the vocabulary, but the general rhetorical tenor. Now, with the most proficient perpetrator ever of applying the vernacular to the previously fairly elevated, if not polite, stage of addressing opponents, adversaries, and even colleagues and allies, with some degree of tacitly accepted decorum on a world stage, it is that much harder to assess the impact—never mind the underlying significance, at least in terms of degree, if not force of influence—of street language that could as easily be bluster as it is mere verbal prelude to mortal physical engagement. Parley is an art that was invented in the days of leather and steel armor, when potential combatants rode on horseback. It is an art, I am afraid, that has had its methods and techniques fade and wither. Today, the battle is usually for people’s “minds,” that is, the inclination, hopefully favorable, to those who are the authors of the utterances. But the effect of Trump’s words—the ability to differentiate real intent from figurative manipulation of popular sentiment is beyond me, and as far as I can tell, beyond every commentator, interpreter, analyst, pundit, you name the expert, that I have seen—must, at some point, do more than keep an entire population in thrall. At some point, actions will occur. And it is what they may be that I dread, far more than the largely inept usages he deploys.
At the behest of a good friend, who asked me on Facebook what I thought of the following article on the Web, I read the article. I tried to read it twice, to assist in getting past a significant number of potholes and bumps in the text, but I simply could not muster the initiative to get past that first reading, which left my friend feeling with regard to Mr. Kay’s narrative, “he goes over my head a few times.” I felt, conversely, that my friend was being charmingly polite and self-effacing. As you will see, I can’t manage these otherwise authentic sentiments and remain credible in what would be in me my feigned sincerity.
Here is the link to the “Fast Company” Web page with the article in question. You can read it before or after reading what I have to say. Or, if you have sufficient self-regard, you can skip it altogether. If you have an overabundance of self-regard, it’s possible you’ll elect to stop reading me right here.
Undoubtedly Alan Kay has always been a smart cookie. It’s not entirely clear that he is able to articulate intelligibly and clearly what goes on in that head of his, not from this Fast Company interview. It’s been filtered through the mindset of a typical Fast Company contributor, which is to say, one of a huge team of well-educated millennial ax-grinders. Whatever Kay actually said remains, likely irretrievable, in the silicon pathways of Brian Merchant’s digital recording device.
That’s the first problem with extracting anything of meaning, never mind of value, from this deliberate, cozy, but still reverential brush with the greatness of late 20th century cybernetic science pioneers. The second problem is that, despite the first fact, I think, but cannot be sure, it’s possible to extract some hints of motive in the various expostulations of Mr. Kay, though these may have been colored by the mission of young Mr. Merchant (as evidenced in his selective contributions to the “conversation” documented here). It sounds like there’s more than a bit of the product designer manqué in Kay, and despite his generous assessment of Steve Jobs’s marketing genius, it seems clear that the deficiencies he delineates in the progress of the product concepts he envisioned with his collaborators more than 50 years ago now are more of a marketing nature, than of a failure in the evolution of the underlying technology, which he hardly touches on (possibly because the lede here should have been not that Mr. Kay is not impressed—this seems to be a fragmentary memoir of his history of insufficient esteem for the accomplishments of Mr. Jobs, with whom Mr. Kay seems to imply a collaborative bond—but that Mr. Kay would have loved to have introduced products to a market that had the same demonstrable, indeed monstrous, success as those that Apple actually did present so successfully, going back to the iMac).
Further, and this is the third and possibly the biggest of the problems I have reading this feature story from “Fast Company,” it is not at all clear that errors in navigation, so to speak, for the great ship of Human Knowledge (with its fleet of support vessels, which entail the means of not merely furthering its course, but how it will continue to sail the endless seas of the universe), at least since the advent of products that further what I’ll call the market for consumer computing, are attributable to the products being offered so much as the applications to which the market asserts its preferences. In short, it’s never been my perception that Apple envisioned the design and production engineering of a product that would optimally enable spending hours playing the wholly hermetic self-involvement of a game called “Candy Crush.” Along these lines, and more in an abstract sphere, Kay had occasion to allude to the great, if not culturally cataclysmic, aperçu of Professor Marshall McLuhan concerning the impact of certain specific mechanical technologies on not only human societies, but on human nature. I think it’s unfortunate that Kay, I am sure unwittingly and unintentionally (but who knows?) perpetuates the perception that McLuhan was a philosopher (and maybe possibly an evolutionary psychologist) when he was, in fact, mainly a literary qua cultural critic.
I can’t be sure of this, though, because, ironically (which Merchant and Kay make clear is the touchstone communicative mode of the zeitgeist), albeit Kay lavishes praise on the rhetorical skills of such as Neil Postman, or even further back to Bertrand Russell (“that bastard”) being capable of writing “like a dream,” Mr. Kay is not capable, at least he doesn’t talk like a dream… All of this suggests, and punctuates the perceptible fact in the form of this published interview, that unlike them Mr. Kay is not capable of being either clear, first and foremost, and thereby persuasive—especially of facts, it’s suggested, not otherwise palatable to the recipient of the argument. But then, this is a heavily edited and manipulated interview on the heels of a major product introduction by the world’s largest company in terms of market capitalization. And it appears in Fast Company—a tarted up business magazine that has what seems to be an inalterable mission. Its agent, in this case, the aggressive journalist bent on positioning himself as the resident historian of the development and impact of the Apple iPhone, states his professional purpose (on his LinkedIn site profile) as follows:
Today, he spends most of his time investigating the myriad ways humanity is attempting to survive itself.
Talking of high-minded purposeful solipsism.
Instead of McLuhan, it seems as if Kay, and his self-appointed henchman Merchant, should have dug a bit more into the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin, and in particular that of the noösphere. It’s a concept that has been kicking around (though it’s hardly a popular lively topic) since the 1930s, and thereby lends a certain estimable patina to the already comfortably burnished ideas that issued from the labs of not only Xerox (the company that never got over not becoming what Apple has proven itself to be, though it showed every promise of doing so; it just could never get over the hump of being utterly incapable of conceptualizing and developing products that could be marketed and sold successfully to the mass consumer market… something that Sony, Apple, and for a long while (until it lost its technological grip) Polaroid, among many others, had proven themselves to be), but of a great number of academic laboratories and whole departments in the applied and theoretical sciences.
The notion that there is a concurrent, coextensive, and (insofar as I can understand some complex and possibly arcane theory) commingled developmental human capacity keeping pace with, if not finally and now (should I say NOW!) exceeding the excrescences of evolution, usually understood in terms of natural selection is, in short, not a new idea. That there is a superceding (what I will provocatively call) ontological development in the evolution of human epistemology—please IM me if that “human” is redundant, and I’m just sounding like a fool—remains to be proven, however. But a lot of people seem to sure want to think so. And a lot of very smart people are counting on the insinuation of certain largely 20th century technologies (starting with the Turing engine—in the form of the still barely modern digital computer—and continuing through the accretive accumulation of a wide range of programming languages, including so-called object-oriented ones, but not stopping with them, as well as mimetic architectures for computer engine design (with their tightly bound software|hardware manifestations) with neural networks the most prominent as an example in my mind) in the gestation of some new kind of what I’ll call consciousness, and which Kay here, very clumsily and slightly incoherently calls “another level of thought.” There is, possibly, some suggestion, and this would be particularly in keeping with the thinking of the theorists of noöspheric structure, that this presumably extranumerary level of thought is, in fact, a wholly new level of thought—somehow, again mysteriously and incomprehensibly (here) aided and abetted, if not stimulated, with some vague suggestion of insemination, by the great potential computing advances envisioned in Palo Alto, and other places. That, the aiding, abetting, the, uh, stimulation, the, erm, insemination, which is to say, the enabling of some new dawn of thinking would occur if only we would let it. Except we are bent on watching serially, or with sporadic binging, entire seasons of the alleged comedy series “Bojack Horseman.” All that potential enlightenment down the omniverous black hole of popular culture.
Having said all that, allow me to say, just briefly, because I am afraid that I have already taken up too much of your time to leave you comfortable, even at the risk of seeming suddenly to change the subject. I’m not. I’m just doing what every creative nonfiction writer in this day and age does, worth his or her rhetorical salt, and that is, I am making it personal, because the mission of deconstructing and then deriding the suspect emissions of a noteworthy brilliant computer scientist is always a dead end. Unlike Mr. Merchant, who by familiar conversational postures and ploys suggests he is, I am not by any means Mr. Kay’s peer (though, to play the age card, I am far closer chronologically than Mr. Merchant can ever be while Mr. Kay lives—and thereby have my own memories of the very same periods of the development of computer products and the underlying science and engineering).
Nevertheless, I have no problem stating that I am not at all unimpressed by Apple’s latest product announcements, and especially in the light of what small lights went off in my mind (kind of premonitory LEDs) as I watched the Apple Event on September 12, the extended product commercial, wherein they announced the much anticipated new line of iPhones. First let me say, and I must offer the caveat that I am not an inveterate watcher of these fanboy events—I’ve never watched one from beginning to end, as I did this one, before. Something told me, and I can’t say what (nor do I wish to devote the time and emotional energy to figuring out what “told” me; I’ll just say, I have a lot of faith in intuition), to watch.
After consciously noting and filtering out that tsunami of ejaculations (I am speaking entirely of rhetorical phenomena) from the mouths of the parade of Apple executives delegated to announce the products and their attendant features, consisting essentially of the words, “beautiful” and “magic,” I realized that two things struck me as particularly compelling. I don’t pretend to be an exhaustive reviewer of popular media, or even the self-consciously nominal intellectual fare of which I am a significant consumer. But little attention was paid to two facts about the new products, one a functional capability of the newly announced Apple Watch Series 3 and the other a facet of the underlying enabling computer design of the new crown jewel of smartphones, the iPhone X.
First, we were told that in addition to the liberating capability of being able to don a watch that would leave us coupled, with an available signal of sufficient power, to the nation’s grid of cellular transmitters, the watch, with forthcoming software revisions, will be capable of monitoring cardiac arrhythmias. This is very big. It’s big, no doubt, in terms of a significant potential advance in diagnosis and prevention of debilitating, if not fatal, cardiac and cerebral anomalies. Without belaboring this (this is not the place, and I don’t have the time, even if you do) this can have a significant impact on ensuring well-being and greater healthy longevity for humans, and I would suggest, tantalizingly, that this has implications for how we will be able to think about the nature of mortality, and all the attendant epistemological matters pertaining. Talk about a new “level of thought.”
Second, and this could be even bigger, but I can’t say, because I don’t have the bona fides for even thinking about potential applications, the new iPhone X, embedded in the Face ID engine of the product, has a computing advance—with clear, proven, highly affordable manifestations, albeit as a consumer product the vendor is hard-pressed to describe to an avid public in any language other than to use the ridiculous word, “magic.” It’s not magic, but it is incredibly powerful, and it will fit in anyone’s pocket. I am speaking of the architecture of the new A11 Bionic Neural Network chip in the iPhone X. This was conceivable, but, if you will, unthinkable in a consumer product, back in the 1980s (for perspective, the Macintosh, which Mr. Kay considered the first personal computer “worth criticizing,” was introduced in 1984; it was capable of facilitating, but in what in hindsight was only in the most primitive way, the graphic user interface, with the ability to “draw” on the screen of a cathode-ray tube… and, frankly, not much else worth noting, except the use of a new “input” device charmingly called a mouse, and all of which were envisioned by Mr. Kay and his cohort at Xerox PARC labs, back in the 60s and early 70s—which is to say, it took, let us say, 10 or 15 years to see realized in a consumer product). It has, for practical purposes, taken 30 years for a true neural network architecture to see realization as a viable product.
I’ll just say, to conclude, that it’s too bad, to note only one major benefit at least as Apple presented it. I mean this aside from the vaguely engaging (not sufficiently to justify replacing my perfectly fine current iPhone 7+ model, less than a year old, outmoded as its technology suddenly has become; I will just have to live with the humiliation) application of highly secure three-dimensional facial recognition to permit use of the phone. It’s really too bad, in fact, that Apple in their considerable wisdom (borne of incredibly successful and undoubted marketing acumen—certainly Mr. Kay attests to it) chose to put enormous emphasis on what I can only describe as the colossally trivial ability to animate cartoon characters with a simulacrum of basic emotive expressions, and all that anthropomorphically at best.
You’d think, and I hope in a small way, that Mr. Kay would be in concurrence, if this is not precisely what he was trying to say, and would have without the interference of Mr. Merchant, the world has enough smiling, grimacing, gesticulating cartoon panda bears.
I could add that, once you have an iPhone X, unless you can use it to solve some significant complex problem that has eluded very serious invesigators and researchers for years (which I fully intend to do with mine), I would suggest you put down the phone making sure it’s on its self-charging wireless Qi pad, and go play with a dog. Salutary for all aspects of the brain chemistry. But I won’t add that, because it would be snotty.
Two things I’ve seen online this morning prompt today’s meditation. Let me just say, though, that I am reminded above all, ignorance is bliss. Dangerous, but bliss.
One is a post in my newsfeed from a Facebook “friend,” someone who, it happens, is a published author and life-long journalist on political matters and foreign affairs. He tends to take a moderate view on many things, and is quite serious, if not wholly sober-minded about what it is that is appropriate for a professional press to cover—not only in terms of subject matter, but appropriate for tone, manner, POV, and the usual journalistic decorum as it’s been practiced in American media for, let us say, the past 75 or 80 years.
And the other is, I suppose, strictly to be categorized as an opinion piece, now largely the meat of the “fake media,” like the “Washington Post” and “The New York Times,” the two papers, along with two or three others, usually designated national papers of record. The “Post” and the “Times” have significantly ramped up the number of pieces they publish daily with a byline, and the clear differentiation of being, editorially, commentary or opinion. They do this even as they have strayed somewhat in their beat and investigative work from the strait-jacket of the protocols and style of serious news reporting in the United States of neutral, fair and balanced observation and analysis without interpretation.
Well, my friend (who will go unnamed), it’s natural for those of us with a more refined sense of what is appropriate for mature and serious adults to ponder in the give and take of world events to decry, not just the breach, but the rupture, of what has always been a somewhat fragile code of the protocols and public demeanor of not only the citizenry of a sovereign nation, but the consciously professional members of its fourth estate. And while we’re at it, we tend to bemoan the rude tastes and predilections of whole swathes of the American electorate, who seem to have a constant and robust appetite for the unsavory, if not the debased, if not the DMZ between civility and barbarity.
However, it’s not just we and whatever “class” we represent, it’s not just the more prudent members of an elite in our society comprised of those of all political stripes, and it’s not just the rank-and-file, the hoi-polloi, the salt of the earth, and the deplorables of the national array of citizens who are taking in the behavior of those in Washington and in the outposts of the apparatus of government. And I mean, as well, the modus operandi of those charged with monitoring that behavior with whatever ill-defined, if not unhinged, sense of mission they have—not the real journalists, but the pretenders: all the self-styled reporters, bloggers, podcasters, pundits, and colorful personalities. As I’m sure you know, there is also a whole world of official watchers; friends, enemies, allies, antagonists, and lurkers alike who hang on every word, every tweet, every gif, every snap, every youtube (snippet or full-length feature), that now issues from our seat of government. I am usually mindful of this qualifying point of view, but the WaPo Bakos “perspective” piece is a pointed reminder not to stop paying attention. And it’s because no one off our shores, the millions of people employed full-time by foreign powers to study us, ever take their eyes and ears off us.
So I don’t know about you, but I can tell you why I care, whether I personally really want to or not. The whole world is watching, and it redounds, wholly involuntarily and wholly unasked for, upon me, as well as in excess of three hundred million other souls. As well, I am too unknowing, if not stupefyingly ignorant, of how exactly—beyond one’s sense of spiritual malaise (which I can live with; I have so far, for several decades)—these seemingly inconsequential acts, so mean and debased and sometimes prurient, performed by people I would, in any other universe, not care about or pay attention to in the least, will someday redound on me in existential terms. If for no other reasons, I would say, I pay attention (at least to the New York Times and the Washington Post, and a few other still trustworthy news carriers—there is no reason to get on Twitter, watch MSNBC or its brethren), because I don’t like surprises.
I woke up on November 9, 2016, neither surprised nor defeated. Overwhelmed by the depth of my ignorance, but neither of the latter sensations. I didn’t like the result, but there is nothing I can do about what the actions of people who believe the unbelievable. And these folks do reinforce their beliefs, their sense of “truth,” by indulging in all that those spurious and unreliable outlets had brought about, despite both my best intentions and what actions, as an ordinary citizen, I can take. I still see no reason to believe that by ignoring these signs and pointers to portents that we cannot afford to allow to carry on unattended, that somehow there will be some different future outcome. I cannot pretend that the act of behaving as if these real occurrences had no connection to my life would mean they, in fact, do not. That’s a form of delusion—the first thing all of us decry in our tormentors.
A national sense of shame because of the bad acts of a sitting president is an entirely new condition. It must be optimism that drives one positive perception about the current and ongoing phenomena. On the upside of the political history of the United States it’s taken us about 230 years of uninterrupted decorum to arrive at the sudden recurrent experience of having a president whose behavior in public has become a matter of concern. Not simply partisan observers, not simply the press, not simply pundits with an air of presumption, and not simply foreign commentators regard the status of our country as somehow imperilled.
Why are there no rules, however minimally formal—never mind actual laws, but even mere recorded precedent and a response, or a hastily written set of guidelines in the form of a personal note from a departing incumbent to a new chief executive—is because we’ve never needed them. But then, we’ve never had a president so evidently ignorant of the more homely and everyday aspects of the social contract that even children in tenements in obscure urban centers, or toddlers on isolated farms in the hinterlands seem to grasp and adopt from an early age.
Moreover, this president seems also not to grasp, or if he does, he does as he does so much else, that is, in the hermetic and very tight confines of some silent private code that determines he acts only in such a way as redounds entirely to himself—regardless of, though too often despite—how his actions seem to define a new and different character for our entire nation. We ask ourself if he really, truly understands. It has become evident long since that it doesn’t matter. The more relevant question is, does he care? Every day, in a different way, however small the difference, however unexpected the context—though even the expanse of the locus of his departures from convention seems to shrink, given the diminished impact on his ability to shock and disgust even the most thin-skinned; he does it in the White House, he does it online, he does it in foreign centers of power and governance, he does it on the telephone, on television, on the radio—he demonstrates a blatant disregard of circumstance and context. We must conclude there either are no scruples at work here whatsoever, to such an extent that even a predecessor who seemed amoral now seems a paragon, or that there is an idiocy working overtime as to redefine the meaning of genius.
The succession of lies has given rise now to a formal index, kept by no less than the newspaper of record. The succession of mean-spirited, heartless orders and proposed laws has now become so numerous that it keeps a self-appointed marshal of such a seemingly haphazard, but consummately systematic dismantling of our code of ethics—even to the negation of our compact and fundamental principles of liberty and independence from tyranny—busy tracking and codifying them, in anticipation of some future reckoning, as a permanent weekly enterprise for the duration of his tenure (see Amy Siskind on Medium.com), and now going into its 32nd week.
What was merely habit or perhaps a laughable character flaw in an otherwise harmless larger than life celebrity figure, has now become, with his investiture to national office, a grave embarrassment that has long since burst from the boundaries of media bleats, tweets, crawls, and blasts. It pervades our everyday lives. It does so whether we are resolute in our self-imposed news blackouts, or we bathe masochistically in the fetid waters of wall-to-wall coverage in all media 24 hours a day. It does so often, and with such disregard for even the most trivial of expectations of decorum. The only rationale is that he has warned all and several, generally and specifically, that, as his wife, and as a spokesperson on the government payroll have told us with straight faces, that if he is insulted, he will return the favor, ten times worse. Ahab famously exclaimed, “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me!” We are all the president’s white whale.
What is to be done? Apparently nothing.
We are to take solace in our ability to allow regular stresses of this insubstantial sort to leave us at worst numb to further onslaughts. It is after all just words. The positive view, as I started by saying, is that at least we’ve not had to confront this before, nor have our forebears, lo, unto ten or a dozen generations.
However, numb as we may be, we cannot allow that lull to set in that leads inevitably to a sleep. Early on, the caution was not to allow any of a consort of forces, the perpetrator himself, or any of those resources of information we all depend upon, regardless of political affiliation or persuasion that unceasingly report on and then perseverate on the meaning of his latest twisted utterance, to allow us to believe that there is something normal about this behavior. So far few see it as normal. And those who believe that avoiding the subject will somehow convey protection, they will inevitably discover that, like Rip van Winkle did, not paying attention, even voluntarily, will lead to shocks he never had to contend with.
For the culprit, there is no apparent effort involved in being himself. The energy required will always outlast the aggregate energy we must all expend, first, trying to keep up, and then, recognizing the impossibility of the task—the fount of opprobrium that is his consciousness is inexhaustible—we stop paying attention altogether and let him just carry on.
Rather we must have some faith that there will be some intervention from sources unknown, and essentially unpredictable. We have never seen such an affront to reason and civility, and it is ridiculous to expect that the only remedy will derive from some zealous application of reason, never before mustered and never before applied—just as reason and civility and determination have saved us from more easily characterizable global threats, blessedly palpable and substantive in their being, in the past, they are of no use now.
If there is some secret worm of genius at work here, the only objective can be that indeed, eventually, we will all get so tired we will just let him carry on. And indeed, the insults will stop, because the chief trigger is any expression of the reality he prefers not to confront and never has his entire life.
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
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?
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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