Cold Cases and Warm Bodies in the Supreme Court

Approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes

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?

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Consolations of Sushi To Go

Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes

Sashimi for dinner #3

Order
Design
Composition
Tone
Form
Symmetry
Balance

More red…
And a little more red…
Blue blue blue blue
Blue blue blue blue
Even even…
Good…

Bumbum bum bumbumbum
Bumbum bum…

More red…
More blue…
More beer…
More light!
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.

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Normalization, Again

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes

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

Here’s that Robin essay: https://harpers.org/archive/2018/04/forget-about-it/

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About the reMarkable “paper” tablet and the end of civilization as I know it

Approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes

https://remarkable.com

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.

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Desperate Optimism

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

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.

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Who Is Julian Assange, Really?

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

Julian Assange portrait by Espen Moe

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.

Subsequent to the publication of this blog entry, I learned of this investigative piece, which had appeared a little more than a week before in “The New York Times.” It speaks for itself: Wikileaks and Russian objectives sometimes seem to dovetail…

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Trump, the Democrats and the Khans / Bush and Sheehan

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

The exploitation of grief in the age of celebrity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Counternarrative—Modes of Facebook Hypocrisy

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

So far, it isn’t my friends. My friends, you lot there on Facebook, seem to be mainly a pretty rational group most of the time. No, it’s friends of friends and others my friends follow that they might “like” a post of. The result of that, as we all know, is that in the strange code of conduct of Facebook, I am privileged to see not only that you liked something that someone or some entity elected to post in their dimly lit little corner of the chativerse, but I can see what was said, and I can see what their friends and admirers said in response.

When a tragedy occurs of the like of the still unfolding horrible terrorist attack in Paris on Friday evening, some resonance, some harmonic, vibrates, it seems, across the Facebook Community (that’s in caps, because Facebook consider that we all, all one-and-a-half billion of us all told, constitute a community, and that we have “Standards,” which they define and uphold). What I have seen in response to the attacks, in addition to the outpouring of concern and horror is the response to the response. The immediate result of seeing the apparently prevalent wave of sympathetic and empathetic expressions we elect to share with one another—out of whatever humane urge that motivates us to do so, if only to relieve our own nascent feelings of revulsion or fear or plain garden variety sadness by sharing them—is a seemingly instantaneous counternarrative.

There are, apparently, in every crowd certain individuals who, demonstrably shallow and not troubled either by a need, or possibly not impeded by the ability to act on such a need, to think at all about what comes off the ends of their fingertips, or their thumbs before they commit their sentiments to cyberspace.

According to this counternarrative, every utterance and act of sympathy—it’s become popular, in an adoption of a graphic meme of solidarity, to cover our profile photos with a wash of colored stripes (it was rainbow hued when the Supreme Court upheld gay marriage as a right according to the law of the land; it’s currently tri-color in keeping with the national flag and colors of France)—is an act of hypocrisy. Why? Because we privileged inhabitants of Facebook-land clearly, on no greater probative evidence than the size of the response from all over the FB network immediately in reaction to receiving news of the tragedy, are only concerned when the victims are white—an argument amply reinforced if the suspected (and now declared) perpetrators are, in the squirm-worthy taxonomy of current geopolitics and religion-based vilification, not white, purely by way of being, allegedly and ostensibly, followers of the Prophet.

We have not shown sufficient and equal concern, in force of hand-wringing, colors unfurled, anguish expressed in the fragile coherent English of expressing grief and shock, for other downtrodden sufferers on this orb of suffering as we circle the sun. What about the Lebanese suicide bombers in Beirut two days previous? What about the now seemingly endless stream of refugees strewn across the roadways from the Middle East to the gates of Europe? What about the dead of Sudan? Or Ethiopia? The repressed hordes of Myanmar, Indonesia, Tibet…

One of the diminishing list of virtues of Facebook is that it allows you to peek at whatever information any member of the Community elects to share with the public at large. In most instances you at least get to see a sampling of what they deem worthy of sharing with their dear ones, not so dear ones, passing acquaintances, and the ether-bound flotsam who penetrate the boundary of our friendship checkpoint somehow. I’ll not even comment, save for this, about the hapless individuals who seek merit by collecting as many friends as possible. Ostensibly this is a sign of the validity of the only shred of express proof that their counternarratives about our wretched bias—we unhappy privileged whiteys who favor our own as we assert our privilege and exceptional worth—and that is, as they fervently assert, we are one world, and one race and one people.

Well, my wont is pretty much to exercise little to no interest whatsoever in most of the friends of my friends—not because of any misanthropy, or lack of sociability; I’d simply rather wait for a proper introduction, and these are thin on the ground, shall we say? Nevertheless with the latest spate, more of a dribble, to be honest, but even a few drops of acid are corrosive, of the kind of self-righteous counternarrative posts I decry here, I have been lured into a peek at the profile pages of the perpetrators.

What have I found? Though hardly a sound forensic foundation for argument, it nevertheless suffices me to be able to conclude that, within the confines of this self-selecting gated universe of fellow Facebookers, there is nary a mention on the pages of these individuals concerning the plight of their brethren in suffering and heartache, of any skin tint, white, yellow, brown, black or the myriad permutations represented by the earth’s total population. So much for one world. So much for empathy.

What possibly the world likes even less than someone who habitually wears his or heart on his sleeve, is when the same individual, so accoutered, uses the threadbare garb of shallow sentiment as the uniform of a self-appointed scold.

I know where my heart and my feelings and my empathy lies, and I am never chary of expressing my censure when there is any evidence anywhere in the world of malice, injustice, or harm perpetrated on any victim, especially the innocent ones. I beseech my friends who are so quick to approve the easy sentiments of the self-righteous to consider that by encouraging the circulation of these empty thoughts, readily donned, and just as readily cast off, as the mood changes and the parade passes, you are cheapening the value of the humanity of those who care deeply and have only so much capacity for grief.

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Trumping the Greatest Man in the World

Approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes
James Grover Thurber—American humorist and writer, raconteur, cartoonist, staff member of The "New Yorker," 1894-1961. Credit: Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer - Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.

James Grover Thurber—American humorist and writer, raconteur, cartoonist, staff member of The “New Yorker,” 1894-1961.
Credit: Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer – Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.

I’ve been increasingly entranced with an idea for the past few weeks. It seems to be the only means of relief from a dilemma emblematic of a world now captive entirely to the phenomenon of celebrity as ethos—whereby no matter how outrageous the performance, then the greater the general admiration of the populace at large. Rather, to amend that proposition slightly, the more outrageous the performance, the greater the likelihood of an enthusiastic admiration.

We’ve had our libidos (and our ids) massaged seeing it in the gyrations, pulsations, and pelvic osculations of pop female singers. Correlative to this phenomenon are, of course, the behaviors of their male counterparts. Except to a perplexed minority, composed mostly of uselessly over-educated, hence judgmental, if otherwise well acculturated intelligent adults, the great mass of humanity comprising the U.S. population asserts itself in ever greater adulation of the likes of Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, Will.I.Am., Kanye West (and, of course, Mr. West’s consort, who seems to have no visible talent, save for the highly visible product of perpetual cultivation of her womanly proportions—calibrated to some ideal that somehow consummates and amalgamates the chimerical fantasies of worshipful female perfection through several millennia and many cultures; think the Venus of Willendorf in Spandex). No matter that there are not the usual, that is the age-old, signs of attainment according to established standards of human grasping for perfectibility, in matters of intellect, creativity, scientific discovery, exploration.

What has pricked my conscience with that entrancing idea is the seeming spread of the spectacle, like a rogue virus, to other reaches of la patria Americana. Now we are seeing the phenomenon raised to a new level of art, the stakes very much higher than mere popularity. Politics. The stakes, of course: the office of the “most powerful man in the world.” I put that in scare quotes, because if it were true, President Obama would have ensured his place in history with the passage of all sorts of laws for the common good, would have brought the country back from the brink of economic ruin, if not insolvency, would have prevented unemployment from being an unmanageable scourge… But, hmmm, as they say on Facebook coyly, “wait!”

If it were not necessary for scare quotes President Bush (II) would not have plunged us into unwinnable wars for at least 11 years, at a cost of thousands of American lives, likely hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan lives, would have incurred what will probably amount to an unpaid debt of three or four trillion dollars for the cost of those wars. Would have ensured that the efforts of future presidents would face the intractable efforts of a Congress to do nothing that furthered any other agenda than his, of never raising taxes, even while incurring mounting levels of expense and debt.

But (yet again…) wait!

Maybe, in fact, it’s not a punch line. Maybe we are getting the equivalent, in business attire, of rap stars and reality stars and bimbos who sing in the nude while swinging on construction hooks on huge cranes to run for the office of President of the United States… Did I say equivalent?

However, back to that idea that has captivated my imagination.

Some backtracking, more than 90 years, is in order first. Among the factoids stowed away by the truly culturally literate is the year of the founding of “The New Yorker,” arguably the most civilized serial publication ever devised by humans in English—possibly in any language, but I only know two, and one of those not too well; I’m fairly confident of my judgments about the uses of the English language. Famously, among the other things that the man who founded the magazine and edited it through its first 25 or so years of development, Harold W. Ross, did was to insist that the language be used with clarity and directness, yet, with style and verve. He was accused of cultivating, if only unconsciously, an unmistakable house style that sheared all protuberances to a uniform height and filled in all voids to ensure a predictable, readily identifiable uniform surface appearance. Others would differ. But we are not here to deconstruct venerable literary edifices (and “The New Yorker” has gone on to foster the careers of a diversity of writers, each with a readily identifiable way of handling the language).

Ross was an anomaly. A true son of the Old West—he was born and spent his formative years in Aspen, Colorado, and never attended college—he was somehow also a man of cultivated sensibilities, a true urbane sophisticate, who spent most of his life in the urban milieu, yet always longing for his roots on what, at the time, was the last of the frontier. He was first, and foremost, a reporter, a newspaper man, and so he learned at the forge of hammering facts into a readily ingested narrative that provided all necessary information and no more.

Eccentric in many regards, he was, as I already said, among other things, a stickler for clear, direct, uncomplicated, if not altogether simple, writing, but with no compromise for the literary merits of the exertion required in producing the crystalline prose of which the New Yorker magazine became an avatar. A high-school dropout who became a wrangler of the wittiest and most sophisticated writers—at the inauguration of the magazine, most of them plying their craft in a humorous vein. After a rocky start, which saw the upstart publication—famously, as Ross put it in the mission statement and prospectus for The New Yorker, not intended for “the old lady in Dubuque”—almost fail; within two years of its inception the magazine had found its footing and its voice. Never wholly abandoning its intention to look at the more light-hearted facets of life, “The New Yorker” saw its way to an even greater role for humor, the same role to which so many practitioners, starting well before 1925, put it to use, from Shakespeare to Woody Allen, and that is, first, to examine and then expose the foibles of human behavior, and to cast a light into even the darkest corners of the human psyche.

Among the earliest of the greatest of its staff was a man who seemed incapable of an utterance that would not produce a laugh. He had the additional gift of art that flowed effortlessly from his pencil. Many an iconic “New Yorker” image, particularly the affable if lumbering lineaments of the great mastiff-sized dogs that were featured in many of his “drawings,” as the magazine’s denizens insisted idiosyncratically on calling what we mere mortals, savoring the fruits of such exertions, identified as “cartoons,” quickly became part of the “brand:” institutions. I speak of James Thurber, the creator of numerous fictive immortals, possibly the greatest of whom, certainly among the best known, was Walter Mitty, the everyman who stood in for all of us, harboring quixotic dreams of glory we, any of us, would never personally know. And he only knew in the darkened movie theater of his imagination.

We live in an age, three-quarters of a century hence from the birth, full-grown, of the immortal Mitty, where (with not an atom of irony detectable by the most sensitive of New Yorker critics and investigative journalists—who have examined everything it seems, from the microscopic traces of our earliest ancestors, to the methods of wild orchid thieves in Florida everglades) even Mitty-esque strivers, living their own glory-laden fantasies of triumph and salvation, can play them out on a world-stage for all to see and hear, as they mouth the soundtrack that narrates their own triumphs, as fictive as their exploits and attributes, as wistful and evanescent as their promises. I speak of course of the current crop, as well as all past crops, of would-be nominees and holders of high political office.

And the public, or some statistically measurable, if not significant, segment of it, roars its approbation, so hungry are they for a hero and a champion that their own fantasies, fed by Hollywood with a steady diet of comic book masters of the universe, have transmuted into the impossible facts of a Trump, unsubstantiated in reality, unchallenged by those whose stock in trade is challenge in the name of truth. With Biblical probity—to speak a thing is to make it true—there is no questioning of Trumpine veracity. The eternal truth will bear him out, once you stop tramping in the weeds of quibbles and details.

By his own accounts, Donald Trump is, indeed, one of the greatest of men to grace our lives. And he will provide all the information required to substantiate such a claim, while, of course, withholding all those “stupid facts”—as our recent great populist/fabulist President, born of wishes made flesh in the kingdom of imagination and legend, called them—that would only muddy the clear waters of faith.

What gnaws at so many, however, are the glaring views, sometimes only flashes and Instagrammatic glimpses, of those loutish interstices of behavior that simply persist, small, manageable fires, flaring up, then dying in the metaphorical forest of our collective inescapable quotidian, miraculously never building into the all-consuming conflagration that portends disaster for the man with the fiery-orange hair at the center of attention. Walter Mitty with a colossal ego.

By his own measure, Donald Trump, among his many claims and titles would, seemingly, be the greatest man in America, and as a consequence, America being the great country it used to be, which it shall be again under his stewardship, the once and future America: the greatest man in the world.

My man Thurber, surely a student of the vanity of human wishes, and the folly of human aspiration, in fact wrote of such a man, albeit a fiction, albeit tailored to a simpler time in our history—when heroes were outfitted in less flamboyant attire, and never of their own fashioning. Indeed, it was a time when it was expected that heroes eschewed celebrity, and more modestly accepted the praise and the accolades offered by a grateful nation, humbled in their sense of their humanity by the brave exploits of such genuine heroes. Men like Charles Lindbergh and William Perry.

These two paragons are invoked in a short story published in “The New Yorker” in 1931, written by Thurber, and set as a narrative in what was then the future (that is, in 1940) looking back on the history of events as they unfold as if they had occurred and been forgotten. All of this happened in such a way for good reason, as the secret history reveals, because the character of the title character–the story is whimsically, if not facetiously, entitled “The Greatest Man in the World”—had proven to be such a louche individual, in all respects so irredeemable, to have not only feet of clay, but about whom it might be said that his entire body, if not his very spirit were composed entirely of terra cotta.

The hero, one John “Pal” Smurch, accomplishes the unlikely feat of flying solo without stopping around the entire globe. He returns to acclaim, but as the narrator informs us, the truths about him as revealed by the press compel a resolution that is as dire as the prospect of allowing such a revelation of his true nature to reach the adoring public. I have excerpted relevant passages, culminating in the impromptu solution to the seemingly irresolvable dilemma the great and important men, whose job it is, among other tasks, to save the public at large from any awful truth. I was reminded of the dilemma as I pondered the likelihood of how the masters and mistresses of our lives, in both parties, and in all the corridors of power in Washington, in finance and in industry despair of how to solve a problem named the Donald.

The story Thurber tells opens as Smurch, an unlikely hero from the start, takes off in his little plane, outfitted with no more than a gallon of bootleg gin and a six-pound salami, launched from a New Jersey airfield into the heavens in a quest for greatness. Improbably, stories come back from far corners of the world with sightings of his small plane, and the gears of the engines of fame begin to mesh… With some elisions I have made, it continues, after his landing and his forced three week sequestration in total seclusion as powerful figures first grapple behind the scenes with their helplessness dealing with the nightmare Smurch has presented them, by his very existence and the ineluctable and unavoidable revulsion his personality inspires, and finally, in the dénouement, stumble, as it were, upon a happy solution.

…Reporters, who had been rushed out to Iowa when Smurch’s plane was first sighted over the little French coast town of Serly-le-Mer, to dig up the story of the great man’s life, had promptly discovered that the story of his life could not be printed. His mother, a sullen short-order cook in a shack restaurant on the edge of a tourists’ camping ground near Westfield, met all inquiries as to her son with an angry “Ah the hell with him; I hope he drowns.” His father appeared to be in jail somewhere for stealing spotlights and laprobes from tourists’ automobiles; his young brother, a weak-minded lad, had but recently escaped from the Preston, Iowa, Reformatory and was already wanted in several Western states for the theft of money-order blanks from post offices. These alarming discoveries were still piling up at the very time that Pal Smurch, the greatest hero of the twentieth-century, blear-eyed, dead for sleep, half-starved, was piloting his crazy junk-heap high above the region in which the lamentable story of his private life was being unearthed, headed for New York and a greater glory than any man of his time had ever known.

The great and important men in the room, faced by the most serious crisis in recent American history, exchanged worried frowns. Nobody seemed to know how to proceed. “Come awn, come awn,” said Smurch. “Let’s get the hell out of here! When do I start cuttin’ in on de parties, huh? And what’s they goin’ to be in it?” He rubbed a thumb and forefinger together meaningly. “Money!” exclaimed a state senator, shocked, pale. “Yeh, money,” said Pal, flipping his cigarette out of a window. “An’ big money.” He began rolling a fresh cigarette. “Big money,” he repeated, frowning over the rice paper. He tilted back in his chair, and leered at each gentleman, separately, the leer of an animal that knows its power, the leer of a leopard in a bird-and-dog shop. “Aw fa God’s sake, let’s get some place where it’s cooler,” he said. “I been cooped up plenty for three weeks!”

In the tense little knot of men standing behind him, a quick, mad impulse flared up. An unspoken word of appeal, of command, seemed to ring through the room. Yet it was deadly silent. Charles K.L. Brand, secretary to the Mayor of New York City, happened to be standing nearest Smurch; he looked inquiringly at the President of the United States. The President, pale, grim, nodded shortly. Brand, a tall, powerfully built man, once a tackle at Rutgers, stepped forward, seized the greatest man in the world by his left shoulder and the seat of his pants, and pushed him out the window.

“My God, he’s fallen out the window!” cried a quick-witted editor.

“Get me out of here!” cried the President….The editor of the Associated Press took charge, being used to such things. Crisply he ordered certain men to leave, others to stay; quickly he outlined a story while all the papers were to agree on, sent two men to the street to handle that end of the tragedy, commanded a Senator to sob and two Congressmen to go to pieces nervously. In a word, he skillfully set the stage for the gigantic task that was to follow, the task of breaking to a grief-stricken world the sad story of the untimely accidental death of its most illustrious and spectacular figure.

We live in much more complex and nuanced times (OK, not nuanced, but somehow we are to believe we are more sophisticated and informed as a people than we were almost a hundred years ago). No one, least of all I, a credentialed pseudo-intellectual, progressive-leaning, liberal-minded humanist, would suggest that such a quietly violent, if ingenious, solution to the Donald, an act perhaps better suited to clandestine black-ops skullduggers we are not supposed to admit our government has on its payroll, is the only solution. However, I have scoured the pages of the media, both those that are virtual and those composed of wood pulp, and nary a crackerjack strategist, opiner, or editor, nary a pundit, an analyst, or a steely-eyed, nerveless investigative reporter has come up with a better.

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Freedom of Speech is No Compulsion to Speak

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

What’s on my mind:

As I continue to cogitate, though in certain respects it’s largely a sub-conscious rumination, on the events of the past week in France, plus the shit-storm of commentary that appears through all outlets in all channels of communication, certain thoughts are beginning to cohere in my little head.

Knowing me, I’ll have more than enough to say, I suppose, in due course, but, for now, I’ll say this.

It seems to me that a steadfast belief in freedom of speech (which is a far-ranging freedom, and is not excluded to politics or religion) is not an injunction or an obligation to be compelled to speak. And especially not just because you have some feelings, particularly strong ones, on any subject.

I have been known in the past not to be afraid to speak truth to power, and in the right contexts, I’ve done so, sometimes spontaneously, because it was just and ethical to have done. It is no virtue to be honest, especially if it’s gratuitous. But it is entirely justified to oppose oppression, coercion, or outright lying and to confront it with the truth. I don’t think this has ever made me a hero or courageous. I am the opposite. I am, more often than not, filled with anxiety, but fear is no excuse for not acting. I am never fearful when circumstance finds me in a place that, in the absence of any other voice for uttering the truth that applies, I open my mouth.

I also have learned that nothing is as powerful a weapon against tyranny and oppression, or even mere bullying (when an institution does it, through its agents and agencies, it’s called throwing their weight around) than the skillful application of truth to make the oppressor look ridiculous. Scorn, anger, and righteousness render them deaf. But the potentiality of being laughed at by the public almost invariably makes a tyrant, at least one with some remnant or shred of reason intact, suddenly reasonable.

This latter truth, though, has never induced or compelled me to rain down ridicule, even to the point of disrespect, on anyone or any institution simply for the effect, or the pleasure of voicing my implied superiority. Even dressing up scorn and ridicule in the respectable cloaks of art, calling them satire or parody, does not excuse gratuitous provocation. No matter how deserving the ridicule, some account must be taken of the state of mind, or more likely the mindlessness—never mind the evil beyond any form of reason—of the oppressor. Most of the time, if red cloths are waved to incite beasts to an instinctive state of preservation by aggression, it’s mainly for sport. This is called cruelty by some. With humans, the same rules apply. Cruelty, however incisively and cleverly applied, in the incitement of humans to act like beasts, when that is the predictable (and increasingly inevitable) result, renders questionable the motives of the provocateur. Universal scorn, applied equally to all manifestations of ridiculous behavior and belief, is no defense for the basic cruelty and inhumanity of the act.

Certain commentators of prominence (I’m thinking of David Brooks on the right, and Jeffrey Goldberg, ostensibly on the left; conveniently an ur-Republican, a self-described “liberal…who came to his senses,” and a Jewish liberal who wears his ethnicity on his sleeve professionally) have found reason, through very clever, but still specious, argument to declare that each “is not Charlie…” I am still sorting out what I know now only intuitively to be faulty logic (though it may be overly generous of me to call it even that) to be able to say what’s wrong with these declarations, never mind the possible underlying motives for doing so.

What I find myself thinking, instead, as, indeed, I read the now ubiquitous declaration of solidarity “Je suis Charlie..” and, plumbing my own feelings, realize that I sense no resonance with the sentiment within myself, is that if I am anyone, and it is something spiritually akin to some abstraction that I can identify with the current trials we all somehow suffer together in France, it is this: Je suis Charlot.

Charlot is, of course, the affectionate name bestowed on that comic genius, no stranger to the finer points of ridicule, satire, and the skills required to pull at the heart strings of all, Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin’s name has come up countless times in the last five or six days, because of his iconic motion picture masterpiece of eviscerating tyranny, “The Little Dictator.” The film came out in 1940, and the plaudits it, and its maker, deserves notwithstanding, it also must be remembered that the war we now refer to as World War II (and which, in the end engulfed the entire planet) had already been raging in Europe for almost a year, and it was five years, and 50 million lives extinguished, before it ended.

Truth is powerful. It is necessary. And it must never be abandoned or denied. But, even in the face of truth, evil and tyranny are so relentless, sometimes virtually implacable, that we must constantly remind ourselves that these shifting transformative enemies are still abroad in the world, and will require more than faulty logic, or lip service and ritual to be suppressed.

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