If you feel like the current conditions of political life in our country are pretty much a matter of the greater number of us being in thrall to a much smaller number, whose will to do bad acts seems to grow perceptibly, you’re not alone. Sometimes it feels like the situation of our physical selves being in thrall (and certainly at threat of finding ourselves in such a condition) to microbes (or even smaller… viruses are very much smaller than bacteria, for example) about which little seems to be able to be done.
But there’s a significant difference, however compelling the analogy and however helpless and bereft you may feel. Like the body’s own immune system, of which, let’s face it, we remain substantially unaware as well, we have it in ourselves to take action against even a sea of troubles.
We can vote at the very absolute least.
Remarkably little of the electorate feel the power of their right to vote. Despair unhinges us. Disgust, frustration, anger, ennui, whatever the erosive demotivators we suffer, there seems less and less hope left in this most fundamental of American rights. But it remains the key to collective empowerment. In part this is what we mean when we speak of democracy, and we mean it with the connotations of good, and ethical, and right. Individually, we have, each of us, our one small bit of command, of entitlement. This is what substantiates our agency as citizens. The power of the ballot.
Enough votes at once will effect change. We’ve seen it in the lifetime of the current generation. Changes in administration. Changes in the majorities of Congress. Changes in laws, including at the highest, the constitutional level.
Inherently our system still works, even as we plod on, seemingly limping and bleeding from what has come to seem not merely a chronic, but a continuous assault on our fundamental humanitarian principles, uncertain of not if, but when, our sense of belief will give out completely and we submit, if not surrender, utterly. All it takes is a vote. And as the actions of key leaders among those who hold power over our behavior as a people and a nation seem to portend that we will crash on in defiance of other of the world’s sovereignties, in defiance of nature itself—utterly despite the collective will, at the deepest level, of the greater percentage of our entirety as a nation—the power of that vote we still have seems to have less and less reason to enact it effectively. But repeatedly, we have proven as an electorate, that this is not so.
We still have, remarkably, another chance. In the most primitive of assessments, it’s down to basics. Almost a Manichean choice of a duality facing us. Possibly as simple as right and wrong.
Gratefully, the choice is even simpler, because there is only one wrong choice. And many right ones, with nuances and more blatant differences for sure, but any one is right in this electoral challenge. Just don’t give up. Just don’t vote wrong. Just vote.
“You can really have no notion how delightful it will be
When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters, out to sea!”
—“Lobster Quadrille,” Lewis Carroll
One of the things I’ve learned, almost by necessity, since I am never usually preparing something like lobster for more than two people anyway, or, if I’m making what I call a Paella Royale (with shrimp and clams in the shell and lobster pieces), it’s best to cook with lobsters that are the size called, for some strange reason, “chicken” – which is to say, ideally, about a pound and a quarter or very slightly more – but the absolutely best size for individual lobsters is between one and a half and two pounds (or very very slightly less).
I never understood the virtue of getting gigantic, and presumably more and more mature, that is, long-lived specimens, simply because one is going to attempt to feed say six or eight people. For one thing, that’s probably counter-productive to sustainable lobster populations (which, I admit, do seem, realistically, to wax and wane for reasons they keep thinking they understand, but really don’t). I can say that, because it makes sense.
Anyway, if there were more than two eating lobster, I get more than one lobster. For one thing, it’s easier to deal with the claws and tail, etc. of smaller lobsters in every aspect of preparation, cooking, serving, and eating.
But even more important, on the subject of executing one’s dinner before cooking it, it’s much easier to kill a lobster quickly for what one can persuade oneself are humane (i.e., lobsterian) reasons when they are smaller.
I still remember the ordeal of trying to plunge the tip of a very sharp blade of a 10” chef’s knife into the very tough head of a lobster that weighed somewhere north of two-and-a-half pounds. It was an ordeal for me, and I’m sure for the lobster. Especially as I was trying to minimize the discomfort the arthropod was going to experience at the same time I was trying to eliminate any possibility whatsoever of doing some harm, especially inadvertently to myself.
There is the expedient of cutting through the thinner carapace on the bottom of the beast, prior to bisecting the bug, one-half from the other. But as I can relate, it would still have been a bit of an ordeal, as when the size of the lobster increases so does the thickness of every aspect of his shell, even on the bottom.
Something to keep in mind.
I also happen not to have had particularly tender meat from a very much larger specimen, not even in restaurants. That may be due to some kind of confirmation bias. But I’m pretty sure I’ve always had quite tender enough lobster meat from a nice small manageable shellfish.
It’s True: Before Cooking Comes the Killing
And there’s nothing else to call it. It’s not just tradition, certain crustaceans and mollusks (and the lobster as an arthropod with a carapace, along with shrimp, krill, and even barnacles, make up the preponderance of the taxon; it’s not exactly on point, but these are, to my mind, the creatures that exclusively deserve the cognomen “shellfish;” oysters and clams and such are mollusks, and they may live in water, but they aren’t fish, and those aren’t shells) should be alive just prior to preparing them for being eaten, usually through the intervention of being cooked.
I’ll grant, lobsters do have a heart, and it’s a noble, but I think mainly a symbolic injunction to kill a lobster instantly by stabbing it in the heart with dispatch. But the lobster heart is pretty small, and it’s hard to locate from outside the body. Also, not unlike ours, it’s not precisely centered.
Also, lobsters have slightly decentralized nervous systems. So there’s a problem anatomically speaking with the more recent “humane” technique of providing for a conscientious instantaneous execution of the beast by plunging a sharp tool into its head. Their brains are tiny, and though there’s a major nerve in the “head” (the portion just behind the pointed section at the front, between the eyes and antennae, there are two other nerves there that serve auxiliary functions and likely keep it alive and kicking).
The Swiss government feels so strongly about humane killing of lobsters, they have made it a crime to boil them alive. Their prescribed method is electrocution (and naturally there’s a commercial product for restaurants, which costs about $3500, that does the trick), but this is impractical. In lieu of it, they say one should slightly anesthetize the lobster by giving it a dunk in salt water, and then plunging a knife into the head (at the same point I mentioned above, behind the pointed section of the head).
The alternative method, though not sanctioned by the Swiss government, it isn’t forbidden either, and the one that makes most sense is the one that most chefs with an ounce of humanity (shouldn’t that be lobsterity?) in them is to plunge a knife in the mid-section, with the lobster on its back.
The method fully, then, seems to be to plunge the knife in the mid-line and to split the creature in half as quickly and neatly as possible.
Let’s deal with the traditional methodology quickly by the way, even as we consider the philosophy behind thinking about the humane way to do the delicious creatures in. The worst thing you can do to a lobster is boil it alive. Other than that, there doesn’t seem to be a scientist alive at the moment who will say with certainty that a lobster (or a crab for that matter, or a crayfish) feels pain in the way humans understand pain. They have nerves, but nerves don’t exclusively transmit pain, in addition to whatever other signals they transmit.
And though it’s clear that experiments have proven that crabs, for one, will avoid their dark hidey-holes in order to avoid whatever it is they experience when shocked with electricity, it’s clear, for once and for all (for now) that the way to kill a lobster quickly is with a knife and a rapid dissection in half.
One of the reasons Jasper White’s pan roasted lobster recipe became my favorite way of cooking the beast is because it came out right about the time I learned how cruel it is to boil or steam (actually steaming is worse, apparently) a lobster, and cutting it in half alive is necessary to make the recipe. And then there’s the bourbon in his recipe, and a little extra helps assuage any sense of guilt as you anticipate the pleasure eating this awesome dish – actually any dish that includes lobster, because, let’s face it, even right out of the shell just after cooking them very quickly, they’re uniquely delicious.
It is only in my lifetime to my knowledge, and largely restricted to the Anglo northern semi-continent of North America that individuals with Jewish forebears have relaxed a vigilance that most Jews of the modern era have instilled in them from birth. Having been born only within about a year after the ovens of the camps in Germany and Eastern Europe were extinguished, and as the first generation son of a couple of immigrants from that same enclave — whose families were tormented, if not outright killed, by their gentile neighbors in Russia, and whose immediate relatives sought refuge with them to the West – I was regularly, if passively and, so to speak, tenderly made mindful of the threat, however covert, “out there.” Whatever the outcome in terms of my faith, and in time I repudiated the religion of my fathers, I was never allowed to forget I was a Jew. Someone intent on making me suffer, if not worse, for that sole reason, would not care how devout or heretical I might be.
Blacks, I always understood, would have it worse throughout their lives, as they each wear their identity on their skin, and I have never encountered anyone of African descent, however remotely it could be traced, who, in some part of their conscious minds, was not aware of being the subject of a potential hostile gaze. At the very least.
Periodically, and it is happening again now, at this moment, because of the massacre of Squirrel Hill, Jews remind themselves of what too many are lulled into forgetting—a state of mind few African-Americans seem to allow themselves to indulge in. So vast is our country, and so large is our still growing population, that it has happened for virtually every identifiable ethnicity or sect or nationality that has found shelter in it that seemingly for them, if not ever for all, and never all at once, there is no longer a cause for alarm. No longer a need to fear bigotry, oppression, bodily injury or mortal danger.
However, it seems necessary every time there is an unexpected upheaval (and doesn’t a lack of vigilance, or a mere lack of staying alert, a lack of mindfulness, necessarily determine the condition of shocked surprise when it happens?) suddenly that group under attack, in however focused and localized a way, is reminded of the difference between true neutrality and dormant hate. With sufficient empathy, anyone among us, especially those who can discern some substantive and differentiable marker in their biological being that, under the malevolent scrutiny of an authority would define them as some alien “other,” will, like those once again active targets, realize their status as prospective prey – simply for being who they are. Of course, if the bigotry is overt, there is no mistaking it for disinterest.
But even in America, the friendliest of nations, how often is prejudice left wholly unmasked? How often is what at bottom can only be called hatred made naked, actively so, for anyone to see?
I’m not saying that the alarm and dismay, the sadness and grief, the unremitting emotional anguish of hearing of and seeing the victims of violence borne out of hate is inappropriate or serves no purpose. I am simply reminding all of us of the virtues of being mindful, if not consciously in a state of vigilance. I mean, whatever the level and degree of guardedness we exercise – and it should always be within the bounds of reason – complacency that is the yield of a false sense of security is likely not a rational way of carrying oneself through a world, and everywhere within it, that every day provides savage testament to the still untamed facets of human nature. There simply is no utterly safe enclave anywhere.
The current ordeal of the nominee for the seat on the U.S. Supreme Judicial Court vacated on the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy highlights, among other things, two contradictory tendencies among the public. We tend to accept fully, or utterly reject, and purely at face value allegations of extreme behavior. What gets our juices flowing are cases of murder or even significant bodily harm, kidnapping, and, of course, sexual misconduct. At the same time, we have a spot in our hearts, perhaps softened and predisposed by all those juices, for seeing justice done however long it takes in the special instance of what are called in police jargon “cold cases.” The only matters that compare for compelling sympathy are cases that later prove to have indicted, and usually punished, the wrong person. But these latter instances, both unsolved crimes and crimes erroneously attributed to an innocent, are related if merely by the power they have to excite our emotional involvement even after protracted periods of time. We even can work up a compulsion for cases involving offenses so ancient they are history, and all the parties involved long dead, if not almost altogether forgotten. Nothing stirs certain of us like the words, “disinter,” or “exhume.” You’d think we had a scholarly love both for Latin and rotting flesh.
Among the genre programming that claims sufficient following there is always current a choice of shows, both on network television and cable or streaming. We have the fictions of the very popular series, which ran for a respectable seven years, called, simply, “Cold Case.” What underscores the avidity for that series is that all the cases featured were fictional. On the other hand, there is equivalent enthusiasm for a series which features what are purported to be real cases, in which we are to suppose there is the satisfaction of seeing in the end the meting out of “Cold Justice.” In the latter a real-life former prosecutor and a crime scene investigator team up to crack such cases across the country.
There have also been myriad mini-series and podcasts devoted to examining afresh baffling or vexing seeming (or actual) crimes in which, originally at the time of occurrence, there was either a successful conviction, or the mystery of a total lack of an indictable offender. The more popular of these “reality-based” extended inquiries resulted in concluded cases being overturned and retried, or in the case of utter failure a latter-day confession by the perpetrator. Receiving equal acclaim have been a certain number of shows that incorporated fictionalized or speculative aspects of exposition of a real case. The most engaging of these kinds of programming, in my personal experience, have included the documentary mini-series “The Jinx” (the case of admitted murderer Robert Durst), the documentary podcast (that spawned a powerful genre of such shows, and the establishment of a production company devoted to producing them), “Serial” (involving the case of an accused and convicted Adnan Syed, who had his case re-opened 16 years later, in part because of this inquiry, after being sentenced for the crime in 2000—as recently as five days ago, incidentally, the State of Maryland, which is running out of appeals of the decision to retry Syed, appealed, probably as a last resort, to the highest court in that state… as they say, stay tuned, and back to my regular programming).
Suffice it to say there is an ongoing hunger for stories of injustice, of justice forestalled or upended or perverted. Generally, we find these compelling and engaging, and a test of our willingness to keep an open mind, or at least to examine more closely how we arrive at the conclusions and convictions we arrive at in the light of what is sometimes conclusive evidence—when sometimes other factors we can’t quite identify compel us to arrive at a contradictory “verdict” in our minds despite that evidence. When the evidence is inconclusive or fragmentary or, seemingly, non-existent, we are thrown back on our entire internal system of beliefs, biases, and what we persist in calling logic, no matter what part of the brain is involved, acquired over a lifetime of childhood development and all of our experience.
We long for evidence of the successful pursuit of justice. We plunge into the fascination of cases involving the extremities of behavior, especially when there seems to be no satisfaction of that longing. We put aside our repugnance, if not outright horror, of certain acts, in the interests, we say, of truth. And we endorse, at least as passive witnesses, if not outright bystanders with no other skin in a game but our shared skin as human beings, the additional energies, if not the material expense of time and cash in pursuing what we insist on calling the truth. We do. Unless some other order of value, some objective conforming to that order and that value, is at stake. Then, it would seem not only are bets off, we don’t care to venture into the casino altogether to watch other players confront the stakes. It can be a complex and complicated business, this business of who did what to whom, and what’s it worth, if anything, to find out.
And so now, let us consider the even more convoluted contradictions of the matter before the Senate that is hogging the headlines, concerning Judge Kavanaugh.
Stating the obvious, apparently unsubstantiated allegations about sexual misconduct by alpha individuals – mostly men, but let’s not introduce the specter of gender bias – in our society have been enough to bring down politicians, both in office and seeking them. Enough to bring down very powerful media executives and on-air talent. Enough to bring down star athletes, as well as athletic management of professional teams and the de facto equivalent, major college sport organizations.
What they are not sufficient to derail, never mind to oust from any current office, are the ambitions of men who are nominated for one of nine seats as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Other misdeeds, or so they were positioned, have been sufficient to scotch a nomination. Even Abe Fortas, a sitting Associate Justice nominated to replace the retiring Chief Justice (and the first sitting Supreme Court justice to be called in to testify at his own confirmation hearing) failed in his attempt to be seated, largely because of unpaid political debts by President Johnson owed to Republican senators who elected to find that the stipend Justice Fortas received from a university to teach a course at American University during the summer recess of the Court was sufficient sign of moral unfitness that they filibustered the confirmation process into extinction. The upshot was that Justice Fortas chose to resign from the Supreme Court altogether.
And now, of course, it should be mentioned as an aside, as well as ironic counterpoint to latter day machinations, the filibuster is dead as a political weapon. The Democrats in the Senate as it is currently constituted are sufficient in number and temperament to have put an end to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh long since, and without an ounce of painful personal discomfiture for anyone.
Though I don’t mean to turn this into a discussion about the range of historical precedents for finding reasons to disqualify candidates on what, after all, were strictly political grounds, there have not been many instances, as I started off by saying, where an alleged act of sexual impropriety lost a nominee a seat on the highest court in the land. A quick review online reveals none. There has been at least one instance of a state District Court justice losing his seat (and not a lifetime appointment at that) because of sexual improprieties, but not without his stepping down while also denying the allegations against him. Not to mention U.S. Appeals Court justices (the most recent one being the infamous Alex Kozinski, who sat very close to his colleague on that bench in the Ninth Circuit, that is to say the aforementioned Brett Kavanaugh—but Justice Kozinski got away clean by the expedient of retiring, though at the youngish age for senior judges of 67).
To be fair, Judge Kavanaugh is in the process of being prepped for being pilloried in the court of public opinion, not to mention the Senate Judiciary Committee if the Democrats in the minority can somehow get their way, for activities in which he is accused of participating when he was still a teen-ager. He was in prep school as a senior of 17 in one instance, and in a newly revealed alleged incident, it was a year later, his freshman year at Yale College.
By any definition, these incidents, accepting the premise they may have occurred, are cold cases, especially in view that the warm bodies involved are still among us, still vital, still relatively young, though the occurrence of these alleged incidents was at a time that the bodies were not just warm, but in the full flower of youth—which seems to have a fluid meaning and pertinence depending on whose opinion you ask about the allegations. Yet, given our penchant for deep interest in such cases – whence the course of justice, indeed? – there is a divide as to whether there should be any intensive effort to examine either case, but especially that of the first allegation involving the sexual assault of Dr. Ford at a prep school party, for further evidence or corroboration beyond that of the principals in this drama. Indeed, it’s clear that for the Republicans in the hearing room, and in Greater Washington DC, and in suburban Connecticut, and around the country, there has already been too much allowance, and the chance being given to Dr. Ford to submit herself to examination and inquiry (let us not call it interrogation, even though the Republican majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee insists that lawyers appointed by them be permitted to pose the questions to those testifying) is sufficient effort, energy and expense. And not because of the nature of the offense, but because of, well, that’s the question isn’t it?
If it were a Hollywood mogul, it’s easy. Guilty as charged. And if not guilty, though Mr. Harvey Weinstein, in fact, will have to face the court, so let’s consider, ahem, another example. Well, if it were a U.S. Senator or a member of the House of Representatives, either of whom will be up for re-election in short enough order, and either of whom could be made the focus of an ethics inquiry by the body on which they sit as a member (but why bother with such a nasty and un-collegial business, when a man’s honor can be invoked and he can be called upon, in private, to do the right thing?), he would do the honorable thing and simply step down, by way of tacit admission no matter what discrepant verbiage actually issues from his lips, which it inevitably will. But this is a sitting judge, who will have to suffer the bitter deprivations of continuing in his seat on the bench of one of the second highest courts of the entire nation, continuing to wield power and influence on the laws of the land, rather than assume an even higher agency holding a judicial position for life.
Is this a matter or justice? Is this a matter of life and limb? Nah. Apparently not, at worst it seems to be a matter of teenage hanky panky and indiscretion. It’s merely a matter of the reputation and word of a woman. How many times must we be taught what that’s worth, at least in certain arenas?
And a little more red…
Blue blue blue blue
Blue blue blue blue
Bumbum bum bumbumbum
Color and light
There’s only color and light
Yellow and white
Just blue and yellow and white
Look at the air, miss
See what I mean?
No, look over there, miss
That’s done with green…
Conjoined with orange…
—Stephen Sondheim, “Color and Light”
In that great mythology of the self with which we burden our subconscious, we are like the heroes of an ancient Greek epic. Adorning ourselves with self-appointed epithets of valor, during the course of our lives we accrue certain attributes like the swift-footed Achilles, or the brave Ulysses of Homeric tales. Not to suggest that these qualities dog us top-of-mind – or in any way consciously – during the flow of our quotidian.
In moments of stress, perhaps in moments, now so rare, of quiet contemplation, we may comfort ourselves with thoughts of the more sterling of our virtues. Or, depending on the nature of the moment, we may suddenly find ourselves confronting our baser degraded nature: the less noble of what we shamefully confess as our faults to ourselves, if no one else: those things we insist we shall correct before we die. For sure we all mean to reconfigure our selves in the course of time into better and better creatures.
In the meantime, as best we can, we joust with our enemies, and wrestle our demons. And maybe we, in those moments of the secret contortions of doubt and that rare sense of worthlessness that threatens to topple our sense of balance we falter. When the equilibrium that permits us always to move forward on the currents of existence wobbles, we feel that somehow our fate has been mysteriously, but above all incomprehensibly, cast into the depths.
In now ancient habits of perception we speak of fortune “not smiling upon us” at those times. And the chief challenge is somehow to find the way, a method, or a strategy, a tactic, some deft set of moves, that will resurrect our spirits and set us once again confidently on our usual path forward. If not, strictly speaking, upward as well. Of course it is.
To the ancients in fact, as part of the cosmology, fortune was not an abstraction, formless and indistinct. They imagined a god or, often in the case of Fortune, as a goddess – and not some inchoate force or tendency of the universe, but a being purely existential, and embodied, like many other incomprehensible forces with no corporeality or substance in our world of solids and flesh, of reality. Perhaps it was because of the very fickle nature of the ways and acts of Fortune, raising some up even as she cast down others, that ascribed this indubitably unfair gendered identity on this capricious deity. But whatever the reason, and however unreasonable its ascription, there was no doubting the actions she imposed on humans.
The trope was powerful and basic and universal. Fortune puts us on a great wheel, and turns it. The ferris of Fortune. So, with each revolution, some were raised up, to view the landscapes of life, if not of the firmament as well, from the highest vantage, even as others were lowered, down and down, perhaps to tumble off the wheel on the hard surface of a too too solid earth. With such a view of human prospects at the hands of such a mercurial deity, philosophy evolved with a predictable tone or cast.
How often do we believe we will not merely tempt the fates, but overcome or outsmart them – if not, more humbly, somehow merely even out the odds? Some regimen, or regular habits of being, any actions other than the unwavering and unresisting submission to the vagaries of existence seemed likelier to be redemptive. And, indeed, it seemed to work for some. Except when it didn’t.
An old saying, in one form or another, has persisted since those days of antiquity. The Greeks and Romans embraced the notion of defiance. “Fortune favors the bold,” is how it goes, or the “brave” or the “strong.” You get the gist. Words to that effect are what Pliny the Elder is recorded to have said to his nephew, also Pliny – Pliny the Younger – as the older gent set sail in his fleet to inquire into this Vesuvius business; eruptions, destruction. He was helping a friend. He lost his life in the undertaking.
We call that irony. However even if we do not call it that, there is an inescapable fact, not ineluctable for each of us with regard to ups and downs, except that we are all doomed eventually to prove our mortality. The fact is, irrespective of how we choose to conduct ourselves, fortune will reign as it will. And the virtues of boldness or resolution, or strength or courage may have value, but not by way of altering the unpredictability of the specific course of our lives.
In 2002 my wife Linda and I managed to realize a dream we shared over the course of the first ten years of the life we had agreed to have together. We bought a medieval maison de village in a tiny hilltop hamlet deep in rural Provence. In February of that year we accepted title in the office of a French official, a special kind of lawyer, called a notaire. We proceeded from the legalities immediately to begin to furnish our new second abode. We visited again in the warmer months, for a longer stay, and commissioned some needed repairs and remodeling to be done, and returned home to spend an uneventful fall and a chilly winter in Boston.
In January of the new year, she was diagnosed with a relatively rare form of breast cancer, hard to identify and almost indistinguishable from other common ailments that are eminently treatable. It can only be diagnosed by biopsy, and by the time taking such measures seems prudent it is usually well advanced, and requires radical treatment. Inflammatory Breast Cancer, so-called because it masquerades as an infection, it turns out is one of the most aggressive forms of the disease, and is indiscriminate as to age of the victim.
Nine months later, after chemotherapy, radical surgery, a recuperative holiday in our beloved French village, and then a course of radiation, Linda was well enough to return to work, which she did. Then, in October, during a routine colonoscopy another cancer was discovered, completely unrelated and requiring the initiation of a separate course of treatment. Because the cancer had already metastasized to her liver, she was scheduled for two more major surgeries – the first, highly successful, prior to the start of chemotherapy, and the second, seemingly successful at first. Its complications persisted through the remainder of her life. Why did she get two cancers, unrelated? According to her oncologist (well, one of them, and he a world-famous clinician and researcher of breast cancer), “bad luck.” No more. No less.
We endured together, for five and a half years. I cooked our meals. I cleaned her constantly draining wound from the liver surgery (which cost her ⅔ of that organ, but prolonged her life). I injected. I swabbed. I bandaged. I took voluminous notes of every consultation. I kept the world of her numerous friends and relatives abreast of her condition. I arranged our travel. And did all the driving, across town, or across Provence, as we made numerous trips. And, to our surprise only once, the first time we asked, her doctors always assented to the idea of another visit to our serene paradise.
Linda worked until she couldn’t. Her employers, IBM, were magnanimous and accommodating. Money was never a problem. Insurance was never a problem. There was never a problem, except for what stared us in the face every morning when we woke up, and it was the same world with the same prospects. And there was no sense there was anything bold, or brave, or strong, or noble, least of all, about how we conducted our lives.
Early on, she had said, I am still me (and she was, minus some parts in time, and a couple of times, minus her luxuriant hair, which always grew back, though greyer each time, and curly or straight as the whims of the hair gods willed it). I am not going to be defined by a disease. And she wasn’t. Two weeks before she died, she was out until one in the morning, because a friend, the widow of a colleague, a subordinate of hers who had died of cancer a year before, had scored tickets to the playoffs for the Celtics. And would she like to go? Are you kidding? She tried not to wake me up when she got home. Almost made it.
We went to France right afterward. And yes, these latter trips required the hire of a wheel chair (fauteuil roulant) on the other side, but she eschewed its use unless absolutely necessary. Usually walking up the stubborn hills on which the whole province is built.
On the day we were packing to leave for Nice, to take the first leg of our usual route back to Boston, her legs wouldn’t support her, and she collapsed to the floor, very slowly. Twice. “That’s funny,” she said, “that’s never happened before.” I helped her into our bed, freshly made, in anticipation of some future return, and I called the EMTs.
In France, ambulances under such circumstances arrive with a doctor on the team, and they made short work of determining she had to be transported to the local hospital. I followed them in our rental car. She was admitted. And I drove on to Nice to drop off a friend who had been visiting with us, to assist somehow, though never clearly how, and who was nervous about making her connection to Italy. I drove back to Draguignan, and saw Linda, now admitted to a private room in the ICU connected to the emergency service. She was sitting up and eating apple sauce, and very tired. I said I’d go home and change and eat something, and return to spend some more time with her. But she demurred and said there wasn’t much point, as she was going to crash for sure, and she’d see me in the morning. I kissed her and said good night, and that was the last time I saw her conscious.
The hospital woke me the next morning at 6am and informed me her organs were failing and to come back to the hospital as soon as it was convenient. I spent that day, contending with my halting French, trying to help resolve the question as to whether she was sufficiently stable to be medivaced back to Boston. Suffice it to say she wasn’t. The physicians speaking for the insurance company wouldn’t have it.
I slept in her room that night, trying fitfully actually to sleep in two chairs pulled together seat cushion to seat cushion, with my ears stoppered with ear pods and the Beatles faintly playing, mainly drowned out by her struggle to breathe. She died with me alone in the room with her at 5:45 the next morning.
I wasn’t able to return until a week later, her cremated remains installed in a place of honor in our little house, and utter uncertainty about anything leaving my mind blank, and my path forward equally uncertain. All I knew about Linda, after speaking long distance to her oncologist at Dana-Farber was that it was amazing she kept going on her own steam for all but the last two days of her life. “Her body was totally full of cancer for the last two years,” he said. All they could do, which they did, was keep it at bay, and keep her out of pain. For those last few weeks, she walked around with a crack in her pelvis, because the bones had been so weakened by radiation they couldn’t stand up to the cancer in them.
When I got back home, my life and attention were completely filled with the administrative demands of tending to her affairs and her estate, and my own meager business matters.
Tending to myself was easy enough. I had long since learned, during her long decline, that unless she was at home, I never saw the need to prepare and cook meals for myself. And I lost the habit of doing so. It was simply less demanding either not to eat, or to satisfy the rare pangs of hunger by going out. I was a ten minute walk from some superb places to eat in our neighborhood of Harvard Square. And there were bars, which sometimes held a greater allure for the usual reasons.
When even the presence of other people – because after all, I was not particularly disposed to be much of a social animal – I simply stayed home and slowly enough depleted our well-provisioned stock of liquor. Not wanting to neglect my needs altogether, I would make a quick run to that paradise of hipster victuals – a super-size Whole Foods. The greatest treasure among its indulgences for those who they were more than happy literally to cater to? The sushi bar, manned, it seemed, from the moment the store opened to the time they shut off the lights, by diminutive chefs always bowed over their bamboo mats. Roll after roll.
I preferred sushi, or, even better, sashimi. It was light. It was minimal. It was the most direct intake of the food I preferred, and seemed to need. Protein. In a form that provided one step or two away from live flesh. From life itself, or so it seemed in my philosophical purview, stripped away as it was to the barest existential facts.
But more than anything else, what appealed to me, what was compelling, was the Tao of it. What was stripped away more than anything else, as in so much of the Japanese esthetic entailing food, its preparation, and its presentation, were all nonessentials. The food was raw and edible with the fingers. Utensils? None, though if you wanted to be that fastidious, nothing is more fundamental than chopsticks. And the food appeared before you, declaring some innate order, and yet bespeaking the most sophisticated if minimalistic of intentionality by way of the design of it. Everything squared up. Everything on a single plane. Spatial relations all orthogonal.
It forces order on the patterns of your mind as it scrambles to think, and escape the sheer desire to emote. All animal, you are reminded you are also human. Brutish, you are reminded that social custom and basic austere order are the the foundation of an organizing principle. That where death imposes decay and chaos, life will prevail if only through the imposition of order and balance, of symmetry, of design, and composition.
And in all of these reside the only hope for an ultimate and prevailing sense of peace.
And I discovered, that indeed, with all of that, and a shot of 90 proof whiskey, and a Tsing Tao beer to wash down the fish, I had the first inkling of a sense that rebirth is possible. And though I wasn’t quite up, I no longer despaired of being down.
Normalization is a problem of the past, not the present
I have said repeatedly, usually, I admit, to no one in particular, from the first time I heard the usage as a warning, usually screamed (figuratively) in my (virtual) face from a (virtual) hysteric in that inevitable nearly impossible place, all too real, for all its virtuality, Facebook: “Don’t talk about normalizing Trump!” There’s no danger there. It too is impossible. It’s not entirely what the word means anyway.
What we have to fear is an adjustment and periodic readjustment in our perception of all that has come before, which was never normal at the time (and the farther back you go, the farther goes one’s sense of the craziness of the errant behavior). As Corey Robin points out in his essay “Forget About It” in the current Harper’s [paywall], though it’s here, if you want to take a shot at getting access (see below), it’s our constant reassessment upwards of the assault on our notion of normal during the administrations of Richard Nixon, and then later George W. Bush – “Hey those guys weren’t so bad, after all, were they?” – that is the real danger. And it’s a danger not because of the infamous reality distortion field identified by Steve Jobs in one of his P.T. Barnum moments. We’re not likely to accept anything that happens today, that is, any time at all during the tenure of the current incumbent of the White House, will register as normal, not to anyone with any vestige of sanity. It’s the extent to which by comparison some future rough beast (to use that particular, but miserably and perpetually apt trope) may make today’s beast look not half bad to our future selves. Or whoever has managed to replace us.
In short, the dangers of normalization are not to the future or even the present. We like to think we are always capable of vigilance, resistance, and clear-headedness. The danger, because we are never sufficiently in possession of those qualities, is to the past, where we think some pastoral and salubrious notion of normal resides. After all, it’s to that instinct that Trump so scurrilously adverts with his now patent cynicism of a slogan about what we can make of America. What we are making of it, because we suffer the distortions of sensibility that alter our notion of what is normal. And as we seek our way back to some semblance of it, we discover, as we have done repeatedly, that we have lost our way. Possibly irrevocably.
‘“There can be an appalling complexity to innocence,” the political scientist Louis Hartz observed in his classic 1955 study The Liberal Tradition in America, “especially if your point of departure is guilt.” That nexus of guilelessness and guilt, depth and innocence, is usually [Philip] Roth country, but in this instance we’ll have to take the master’s tools and use them ourselves.’ — Corey Robin
It’s very attractive. Right up my gadget alley, and just barely, at 600 bucks, within the scope of my nearly impulsive acquisitiveness. In other words, I’m surprised I haven’t sprung, having only learned of this device as long as an hour ago, because of an ad, God help me, on Facebook. The only rueful feelings I have are connected with wondering why I wasn’t contacted by any means with some notice as to the usual crowd-source spiel and pre-order ritual. This would apparently have saved about 40%.
I like paper and ink. The attestation simply enough is that I keep collecting writing instruments, including fountain pens and artisanal pencils (often in dozens at a time). I now own them in quantities that likely—with consultation of actuarial tables and an analysis of my actual usage needed to confirm—will never be depleted. I have myriad paper tablets mainly in a size I will readily, and do, carry around with me, usually in the left rear pocket of my trousers. I have smaller ones, for occasional notes and for when I am, for some reason, not carrying my current usual go-to notebook in that pocket. I have larger ones, of the octavo size that most people think of when they think of personal notebooks (approximately the template for the iPad mini).
Frankly the latter are preferable, even if I write in the same size characters, usually in pen and ink, which I do in the smaller index card sized notebooks that fit in my jeans unobtrusively. I can fit that much more in a line of writing, and that much more on a page. It’s easier to make the larger notebook lie flat, and easier to draw on the page for that rare occasion that I’m inspired to sketch something rather than try to capture the thought in words.
I have just spent about 20 minutes taking in the promotional copy from the vendor that developed and produced this new product, and I’ve read some of the review literature in the gadget press. It all sounds quite propitious, except for the usual and expected delays in manufacture and fulfillment that I have experienced first-hand with all the crowd-sourced products that I have bought, a long list of which I am still waiting for; products that were a lot simpler technologically than this tablet.
I gather that had I been alerted somehow when they began their campaign for funding and had elected to be an early adopter (and it’s quite likely, given my history and the price discount, that I would have), I would be very very frustrated by now. I infer that their first orders from supporters were collected in November 2016. Which means they are now a full year into the first release product cycle. According to the vendor’s online blog, they still haven’t shipped to all of their early adopters.
This makes me wary, more than anything else, about ordering the device now, this early in the product life. It seems to do what is promised. There are no words of disparagement or about shortcomings in performance in the reviews of the product’s actual performance. It seems to hit all the right marks in terms of design in all senses, from their graphic design of marketing materials, to the industrial design of the product, to the technology (insofar as I am versed in it well enough to understand it) under the hood.
However, there may be real world performance failure, and it will be another gadget cluttering up my office and studio that simply stopped being useful through literal lack of support from the vendor (a small startup in this case, which means if they stop supporting the product it would probably have been because of a failure in the marketplace altogether for the company). I have a small helter-skelter museum of such ultimate product failures – at least one of them, the Apple Newton, having gone through billions in development and marketing, through several iterations. A number of them have quite viable companies’ brands on them, like Apple, or Amazon, or Logitech, and some of companies now defunct or absorbed into some larger entity only to disappear like a single microbe in a biome in some conglomerate corporate gut, like Palm. Many of these obsolete devices still work, at least a few with only the least encouragement, like a new battery or a recharge. Some are dead in the water. All equally useless, and each of them out-of-fate, their functionality displaced by more reliable, better designed, functioning up-to-date replacements.
There is also the resistance I feel, knowing myself as a consumer, both with my idiosyncratic quirks and my behaviors as a typical consumer with a routine honed through years, if not decades, of employing technological tools (caveat: I consider a graphite pencil on paper a technology) to get done what I have to get done. Some products I’ve acquired with a great sense of potentiality and promise at the start, only to be disappointed after a fair game try at introducing this new “tool” into the mix of things I use in the course of a day. And I am a gadget freak so there are a good number of them. Some products have become an integral part of some routine. I have now gone through four generations of the Apple iPad, and two generations of the Apple iPad Mini. I have owned six successive generations of the Apple iPhone, starting with the first one ten years ago this past summer. And I don’t regret (not very much) the thousands I’ve spent on simply these associated “mobile” gadegts. For one, almost none of these devices, when replaced with the latest spiffy version, brimming with technological advances, has gone into disuse, or even into my involuntary museum of such devices. They have been passed along to eager and grateful users not so particular about deploying only the latest, lowest latency gizmos.
Even with lesser, or at least less glamorous, products, like the variety of cell phones I owned before adopting the iPhone as my standard, I passed along the obsolescent products so they could be used productively by needier consumers with some want for the technology. Several phones were donated to organizations, including the local police, who gave such phones in working condition to, for example, women at risk. The graduation from flip- to iPhone was made a great deal easier by the generosity of a friend who bought my first iPhone for me as a gift, allegedly to signify his appreciation of my “coolness” with what was then the coolest gadget out there. He had done the same with the iPod, the first one, six years earlier, which I used for a couple of years, and retired for a more sleek, smaller, higher capacity model, though it still worked perfectly; as it did when I traded it in at the Apple Store several years after that to defray the cost of what ultimately proved to be the last version of this product with a mechanical hard drive before Apple concluded that the technology had to be declared extinct.
It has only been in rare instances that I have taken a product out of use that was still working as required. I am loathe to dispose into the waste stream any product with hard technology (plastics, rare elements, electronic circuitry, toxic chemicals) whether it is working or not. If it does still work, I try to find a new home. But there are few. Using services like Craig’s List and eBay, which I’ve tried, is only asking for more trouble and aggravation – or at least a much higher chance of it, and the monetary return would be negligible and not worth the effort. And most of the devices, gadgets, and gizmos that I have hung onto do work, or did when taken out of service. This phenomenon, of functional obsolescence, is one of the huge deficits of life in a first world country, especially the United States.
The fact is, however, that the entire planet is awash in the detritus of last year’s tech. Spanking new and shiny and enviable only months ago, a product that has been superceded in the marketplace, either with a competitive brand’s product, or a newer model from the same parent company, or an altogether new technology, quickly loses its luster and seeming usefulness. It hasn’t, of course, but we are many of us hostage to having bought into the mythology of the ways in which progress manifests itself. Or the reflexive, and I think self-protective, systems of establishing a sense of credible self-worth.
I don’t bother myself with the vagaries of philosophical inquiry about the ways in which so many of us are equally prey to having our values skewed, or possibly even utterly subverted, so that we end up in the habit of spending more time fulfilling the need created within us by innumerable cultural forces – being materialistic, being acquisitive, being in terrible need of signifying our sense of worth to ourselves with a constant stream of gifts, and those largely items that have been rooted in the apparent esteem, deservedly or not being no matter, of our peers. And we concomitantly spend that much less time being mindful of what comes with existence in this life in this world on this planet largely for free. Until that turning away becomes not just quotidian habit, but a disposition of mind.
I don’t bother myself overmuch about these things, not because I think I have vanquished that grasping, acquisitive, covetous urge within me characteristic of this stage of the Anthropocene – that is, not to make something grandiose out of this. Rather, I am sufficiently mindful (and if I have to, I force myself to be, consciously; silently it’s true, but this is not the kind of thing to make any noise about—if I did with any regularity, and poked you in the ribs before I did so, it would be a giveaway that in fact my objectives were somewhere other than in the sphere of ethics; I am humbled by my own sense of humility and, uh, self-abnegation) that I can keep myself in check, and not run away with any facet of my personality that derives from genes that determine one’s role as a Master of the Universe. This means I will, among other things, and I am trying hard not to trivialize this, but these are real signifiers that real people actually do, never own a brand-new (or even a “pre-owned” – god, I love that phrase) Patek Philippe watch. Their clever ad people assure us, anyway, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” I will never own a fleet of cars, or even a two-stall stable of a Tesla (for town) and a hybrid Range Rover (for those forays to the north country). I could arguably do so, without putting a significant dent in my ability to ensure a diet of healthful, good-tasting foods for myself and my little family, or necessitating a move from our spacious and airy, but hardly grandiose, home to a more efficient condo downtown, along with an annual travel pass on public transportation vehicles. And I wouldn’t do the latter, not because I feel I live a fretful encumbered existence as the epicenter of an object-cluttered way of life. Much of the detritus with which the house is burdened (in its less accessible storage areas), especially as I described the abandoned technological flotsam in the foregoing narrative of my life with tech-y gadgets, is there because the world does not care to make it easy to dispose of such artifacts of our quest to escape the insuperable inevitability of our mortality. Climate change, after all—if we are to believe the thrust of belief of a third of the U.S. electorate—is definitely not in large part the result of human behavior.
Yes, it can all be left in barrels for the Lower Merion Township Refuse and Recycling trucks to carry away, as they do, virtually without fail, every week of the year. But then it becomes the burden – and no less poisonous or detrimental to succeeding generations – of a much wider expanse of my fellow citizenry, silently and with only their tacit permission, given that I am bound only by my conscience. Curiously, I have no confidence that my neighbors, equally, that is, no better or worse, are bound equally by theirs.
So, in the end, I’ll take a pass on this latest toy, reMarkable™ as it alleges to be. It may be like paper, but it isn’t paper. eInk® is a brilliant achievement, but it’s not ink. Life-like is not a choice I care to make yet.
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.
Julian Assange, captured in the wild, By Espen Moe (Julian Assange Uploaded by Ralgis) via Wikimedia Commons
I found myself this morning in a place I have been before. I was casting about for an appropriate trope, some metaphor, or analogy perhaps, that could most economically sum up a thought on the tip of my tongue and at the verge of my mind.
I had just perused a screenful of Google finds, having searched on Julian Assange and Bernie Sanders. Having been informed that something dire about the latter had been hinted at by the former, I found there was to be no satisfaction as is often the case (with the former) perusing the usual at least vaguely reliable sources—what we’ve come to refer to with a faint air of noble disdain as “the mainstream press.” No matter that the New York Times, the Washington Post, and let’s say The Guardian (the Anglophone’s “Libération”) have been doing a creditable job, at least since the Republican National Convention, of quietly, but still forcibly, holding Trump’s feet to the fire. Most of the stories are, alas, not of the headline grabbing sort where the gist of the story is, in fact, solely in the headline: “Trump Insults God—Where Will He Go Now?” Rather they are of the sort that requires digging, genuine hard-nosed investigative journalism research in the basement files and news morgues and tax filings of the past 40 or more years. But dig up stuff they do.
We can only hope the effect on the electorate, at least around the edges known as undecided voters, will be accretive. In the meantime however, the real juice still flows on sites that largely are self-accredited news organizations. These reside, at the bottom, being bottom-feeders, on the left and right. Indeed, if they checked into the same three-star tourist hotel on the Riviera for the weekend they’d readily get one of those suites consisting of two bedrooms sharing a bath, with a doorway between them that is supplied with a lock, but whose key was lost long since.
The latest news, if it’s to be called that: apparently the somewhat cryptic and amorphous factoid hinted at by Julian Assange back in August (and reported via the same sources, and then either discredited or patently ignored) has been revived in the last 24 hours by way of a timely interview that M. Assange granted to an Austrian news source. He hints, but hints only, saying only that all will be revealed in due course, that, indeed, it’s true that Bernie Sanders was “threatened” in early July sufficiently convincingly by the Clinton campaign that he ended his candidacy, as demanded. The threat is not, of course, clear. One version of the story holds that his wife was threatened with physical harm.
The theme, not a sub-text, but the real topic here, is that this, as Assange has warned us repeatedly, is how the Clinton organization of goons and thugs rolls. Indeed, the entire Democratic Party is apparently, to use a phrase Trump has come to embrace, “a criminal enterprise.” [speaking out of the side of one’s mouth, lit cigar held at the corner of the lips, Groucho-style: “and he oughta’ know…”]
With no shame in the admission, I have to say, once again, I didn’t know what to make of this. However, it did occur to me that there has been perhaps an incremental elevation in what I will call Assange’s mysterious pernicious temperament toward certain targets. His hatred of the Clintons, which he doesn’t deny, is now, if not well documented, at least accepted universally as de facto truth—the sort that will be still only partially uncovered in history texts, using to-be-recently-in-the-future discovered primary sources, of the 22nd century.
So there I was, as I say, on a weekday morning with the day’s non-story, from the paranoia newswires that never stop clattering, puzzled, yet again, with a persistent repetitive topic, the maleficent sheer hatred of one celebrity for another. That it involves global issues of political and economic significance only means that it’s to be pondered with a portion or two of more grave concern than the latest dispatch about the Kimwe/Swift Feud.
Fortunately, my episode of matitudinal puzzlement of the day coincided with my usual duty every other weekday, of assuming stewardship of the dog’s first walk. The blessed imposition of this pleasant duty provided exactly the mental respite I needed to have it come to me, even as I tugged Artemis along, coaxing her, now that she had delivered the first of her excretory performances, to achieve the more, shall I say, solid of these discharges. I wish I could say that my thought arrived simultaneous with her visible relief, but it preceded it, and possibly with even less strain.
I’ve struggled not merely to categorize, not merely to characterize, but to personify the role Julian Assange plays in our lives, I mean beyond the obvious ways the news is free to describe his presence on the world stage: accused rapist, purloiner of secret documents, unrepentant publisher of unfiltered government papers, fugitive on a global scale immured, with a kind of cosmic and comic irony, in the embassy/sanctuary of a former banana republic. No matter what he is accused of: of almost equal unimportance is what, ultimately, he may be found guilty of. These are matters, especially at this point (he’s been living ignominiously in the London Ecuadorean embassy for over four years now), of far greater moment surely to him than, well, at least, to me. What’s more important is the role he plays, insofar as someone like him still can capriciously and, apparently with seeming ease, continually play and have an impact on matters that will, potentially, affect our lives: the quality of them at least, in abstract terms, such as the ethos that pervades.
And then I had my thought as it plopped into my consciousness. Julian Assange is our J. Edgar Hoover.
Same tactics, same tendentious attitude, same presumption of moral superiority (hollow, as it turned out, and always seemed to be: the morality of a hypocrite), the same willingness to destroy reputations, never mind lives, with innuendo and with lies impossible to disprove—access, gained illegally, to “evidence” of the mischief of others, and used more as leverage than as concrete probative facts beyond a shadow of a doubt. The same implacable and undeviating mission to project an essentially paranoiac’s fantasy of a world beset with corruption and evil.
There is a paradoxical tendency wired into the American ethos to venerate sacrifice, loss, and grief and yet, in the end, to exploit it, often to dubious ends.
The myriad victims of war too often provide a catalyst for the cultural and political phenonomena that distract us. And it’s not a great insight to note that these currents in the national continuum are now cojoined, almost indistinguishably: in our ordinary lives, we are, in fact, hardly touched by the touchstones and personalities of our culture and its actors and enactors, no more than we are in any direct way by our politicians; yet our discourse and preoccupations are pervaded by them.
The latest, and unexpectedly long-lived, focal point has been the appearance of the Khans at the DNC convention last week. Their comments, offered civilly and yet forcefully, made emphatic by the silent mournful presence of Mrs. Khan, were made to protest and highlight the insensitivity of the Republican nominee and its inherent defilement of the death of the Khans heroic son in the Iraq War ten years ago. Their point was about Trump’s vile degradation of a whole people, believers in a religion, but the issue has become utterly something else because of the typically maladroit narcissistic reaction of the offensive mogul. We cannot ignore either the contributory efforts of the media, the established political apparatus, and the chattering masses to amplify the increasingly garbled points of conflict and to feed the flames that have now engulfed a full week’s worth of daily news cycles.
It hasn’t been lost on the reporting machine, or those jaundiced observers of the sordid machinations of the entire political apparatus the similarities, though there are vast differences as well, between the current unfolding situation, and the efforts of Cindy Sheehan, also a Gold Star parent, who lost a son in Iraq, and used her status as an enabling tactic to attract more attention to her efforts as a full-time anti-war activist, camped on the Bush ranch in Texas, where the President at the time, would repair as a retreat and a respite from the increasingly restive public and media as the war dragged on long past his “Mission Accomplished” aria as alleged coda to that conflict.
One difference is, of course, that President Bush had already successfully run for re-election a year before, and Cindy Sheehan, collaborating with the Democratic establishment, is alleged to have been promised an end to the war if she agreed to work on behalf of the party in its pursuit of regaining the House in 2006.
There is obscurity of motives and duplicity going all around in both stories, and doubtless others, though none spring to mind as prominently as these most recent events centering on the status of ordinary American citizens who have made what many consider the ultimate sacrifice of life in terms of the loss of a loved one.
I suggested that this is an endemic feature of our culture, and indeed it seems to be, but I would guess as well that it has its roots in other cultures, other contries, other civilizations in history, if it is not, in fact, an intrinsic and unresolved potential tragedy in every family. The very first story in the Bible, after that of the expulsion from Eden, is of Cain and Abel, and the murder of Abel by his brother in his wrath. We can only infer the immensity of the impact on the original mythic parents of all of mankind, as it is not described, and the ensuing chapter in the Bible, an account of the “line” of Adam, begins with his son Seth—whose birth was a divine grant clearly in compensation for the loss of Abel.
There is no such silent solemnity as a mute regard for the grief of parents losing a child in our culture.
We, at our worst, tend to spotlight such mourning, no doubt, in some perverse way to show our reverence, but as well, and inevitably, to exploit it one way or another.
The novelist Philip Roth, with a sensitivity and a sensibiity at once grim and mocking—how else can we react sometimes to such monstrous behavior as we see regularly, but with humor to penetrate and dispel our dumb horror?—alluded to the phenomenon. He did so first, in an extended satiric introduction to a speech he gave in 1960 he called “Writing American Fiction,” in which he mainly spoke of the challenge to the imagination of any fiction writer by reality itself, as evidenced in the kind of story that graced every tabloid newspaper, even as it still does today, and the way it is treated by sordid attentions paid by that press and its readers.
He did so again, en passant, with a passage in his infamous novel that showcased and lampooned the psychopathology of American life, Portnoy’s Complaint, published in 1969. Here is a passage. The stakes have gotten higher, clearly, than the award of kitchen appliances to this most shameful category of exploited victims—their possible willing and mindful participation notwithstanding.
“A Gold Star Mom,” says Ralph Edwards, solemnly introducing a contestant on “Truth or Consequences,” who in just two minutes is going to get a bottle of seltzer squirted at her snatch, followed by a brand-new refrigerator for her kitchen … A Gold Star Mom is what my Aunt Clara upstairs is too, except here is the difference—she has no gold star in her window, for a dead son doesn’t leave her feeling proud or noble, or feeling anything, for that matter. It seems instead to have turned her, in my father’s words, into “a nervous case” for life. Not a day has passed since Heshie was killed in the Normandy invasion that Aunt Clara has not spent most of it in bed, and sobbing so badly that Doctor Izzie has sometimes to come and give her a shot to calm her hysteria down…
—Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint, 1969
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