Nothing Changes, 1879 Edition

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

Mark Twain, 1909. By Photographer: A.F. Bradley in his studio. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mark Twain wrote the following piece the year previous to the tumultuous and critical election year for President of 1880. Only 15 years after the Civil War had ended. The incumbent, Rutherford B. Hayes, had run in 1876 with the promise that he would not seek re-election – a promise he kept… astonishingly to our modern sensibilities. As a result the election was highly contested.

Recall, for perspective, that the country had already weathered the initial vagaries of Reconstruction, the various eruptions of corruption that marred the chances for a more peaceful process of reconciliation between the north and south, or for the assimilation of African-Americans, now fully established as citizens with rights (albeit what these were, and their extent continued to be contested). It had weathered the chaotic and tumultuous administration of Andrew Johnson, the martyred Lincoln’s successor, and as a great exponent of exploiting his office for purposes of politically biassed exercise of power. It had weathered the previously unrivaled level of corruption revealed in the administration of President Grant, sullying the reputations of all but the General himself.

The election was precedent-setting for several reasons. Unlike today, there was, in practical terms, virtually total engagement of the electorate. More people voted, as a percentage of the whole population in the 1880 election than had ever occurred previously in the United States. The vote could hardly have been more evenly split. The winner, James Garfield (who ran with Chester A. Arthur as Vice President, later to succeed him to the highest office) garnered a majority of the popular vote over his rival,  Winfield Scott Hancock, the Democratic Party candidate. The vote was split by a difference, in the final tally, of less than 2,000 votes nationally. But in electoral terms, although each candidate won an equal number of states (19 to each), Garfield’s electoral votes were entirely from the more densely populated, urbanized and industrialized north, including Oregon in the enclave of Pacific and Mountain states that existed in a kind of civic isolation from the rest of the country, separated by what was then still the territories (and therefore non-voting) of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. This band of not-yet-enfranchised territory included the contiguous Dakota territory, not yet divided, and that of Montana. Importantly, the Democrat Hancock’s victory in the entirety of what had been the formerly secessionist southern states, plus Texas, Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey, set the precedent that persisted for decades, of a solidly Democratic south. Until the the first third of the ensuing century the liberal banner was carried by the Republican Party – the classic notion of the “party of Lincoln” as the nucleus of progressive ideas, a notion now obviously defunct. Curiously, and consistent with the bizarre unpredictability of the American electorate, the one state Hancock did not manage to carry, and whose allotment of electoral votes would nearly have reversed the outcome (as opposed to ensuring the landslide that was Garfield’s) was Pennsylvania… still a contested state and, today, a potential game changer if President Trump does not manage to retain his advantage there in 2016. For perspective, if Hancock had won Pennsylvania, he would have lost the Presidency by a very slim two electoral votes.

In any event, whatever the actual political reality and the culture that inspired Twain to write this piece as he did, he does seem to have captured, as he did so often, what it turns out is an enduring, perhaps, in a sense, a genetic, characteristic of the peculiar and continuously unpredictable condition of what the electorate will find not just tolerable, but acceptable about its would-be representatives.

The “moral crimes” of Twain’s imaginary contestant for the office, qualified to run sufficiently by his own lights (the only ones that count, as apparently has long been the case in our country, if not from the beginning) despite his peccadilloes, may seem mild by comparison to what passes for business as usual in Washington or what is considered a candidate’s “private business” and of no bearing in fitness for office. But those were gentler times, and we and the politicians, have had just over 140 years since then to invent far more ingenious ways of interpolating tolerance for depravity into our perception of normal behavior, and the same amount of time to have our sense of outrage ground down, possibly to only a trace presence in our consciences.

“An Open Letter to My Countrymen”

I have pretty much made up my mind to run for President. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any Congressional committee is disposed to prowl around my biography in the hope of discovering any dark and deadly deed that I have secreted, why—let it prowl.

In the first place, I admit that I treed a rheumatic grandfather of mine in the winter of 1850. He was old and inexpert in climbing trees, but with the heartless brutality that is characteristic of me I ran him out of the front door in his nightshirt at the point of a shotgun and caused him to bowl up a maple tree, where he remained all night, while I emptied shot into his legs. I did this because he snored. I will do it again if I ever have another grandfather. I am as inhuman now as I was in 1850.

I candidly acknowledge that I ran away at the battle of Gettysburg. My friends have tried to smooth over this fact by asserting that I did so for the purpose of imitating Washington, who went into the woods at Valley Forge for the purpose of saying his prayers. It was a miserable subterfuge. I struck out in a straight line for the Tropic of Cancer because I was scared. I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have someone else save it. I entertain that preference yet. If the bubble reputation can be obtained only at the cannon’s mouth, I am willing to go there for it, provided the cannon is empty. If it is loaded, my immortal and inflexible purpose is to get over the fence and go home.

My invariable practice in war has been to bring out of every fight two-thirds more men than when I went in. This seems to me to be Napoleonic in its grandeur.

My financial views are of the most decided character, but they are not likely, perhaps, to increase my popularity with the advocates of inflation. I do not insist upon the special supremacy of rag money or hard money. The great fundamental principle of my life is to take any kind I can get.

The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the Presidency?

The Constitution of our country does not say so. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why would I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?

I admit, also, that I am not a friend of the poor man. I regard the poor man, in his present condition, as so much wasted raw material. Cut up and properly canned, he might be made useful to fatten the natives of the Cannibal Islands and to improve our export trade with that region. I shall recommend legislation upon the subject in my first message. My campaign cry will be: “Desiccate the poor workingman; stuff him into sausage.”

These are about the worst parts of my record. On them I come before the country. If my country don’t want me, I will go back again. But I recommend myself as a safe man—a man who starts from the basis of total depravity and proposes to be fiendish to the last.

—Mark Twain
“Let’s Look at the Record”
Harper’s Magazine, July 1954
Reprinted from the
Kansas City Journal, June 15, 1879

Digiprove sealCopyright  © 2020 Howard Dinin

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When Did You Stop Beating Hillary Clinton?

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

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

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

2008April04 11:28 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digiprove sealCopyright  © 2016 Howard Dinin

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Digging Around Where I Come From

Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes
Zalman Dinin is, I believe, the man on the right. The other men are not identified.

Zalman Dinin is, I believe, the man on the right. The other men are not identified.


I’m not gardening in the backyard of my old condo in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Been there. Done that. Howard has left the venue.

I don’t know how you spend your time when not temporizing on Facebook. There’s work, of course. And all the things we do to stay alive. Then there’s everything else. I spend a certain amount of my time on an ongoing basis looking into my roots. I mean in the Kinta Kunte sense; my own little channel of Alex Haley, but of a different skin color and a different continent.

My forebears were from Russia. In my father’s case, more specifically what is now called Ukraine—current hotbed of nationalism 21st century style opposed by Russian recidivists, mainly ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, thinking maybe they should never have left. In fact, my father’s people (and my father and his family) lived in that part of Ukraine often, in our day, violently in dispute, a region still very much riven.

I have no idea where my father, who died in 1999, would fall out on the question. I was raised to understand that he thought of himself and all of his relatives as Russians—though Ukraine has existed, that is, inhabited, for over 30 thousand years. But in modern political history, Ukraine has rarely been independent, free of the Russian yoke.

It was part of Russia when my father was born, 110 years ago. Inevitably the Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement that was constituted in part of parts of Ukraine would think of themselves as Russian.

I grew up on stories from my father about his childhood, about which he had vivid memories, and the ultimate turmoil that transfigured his life and that of his small family: his parents, his brother—my uncle, and his mother’s brother, my Great Uncle Sol. It was Sol (or Zalman) who instigated the move out of Russia to better parts. They settled briefly in Argentina, waiting almost three years to be able to enter the United States under the quota of immigrants allowed from that country. Among the stories my father told was the adventure of escaping by train, past Russian and then Polish guards at the borders—all of it planned and engineered by my Great Uncle, who, my father had also told me was a troublemaker from way back.

I remember my father’s stories, fragmentary as they were, with some continuing immediacy, as he repeated them over and over, and I never tired of hearing them. To punctuate the stories were albums of photos, mainly of his immediate family: those I’ve already mentioned, as well as five (or was it six?) brothers, of whom Zalman was but one. The others were, like their father, my great grandfather in addition to his brother, my great grand uncle, enterpreneurs and business owners. One by one, they were cut down, early in their lives, by Cossacks, by bandits, by the “white army” of the czar, harassed by all of them, and from all sides, with no respite from the mayhem at the hands of the revolutionaries, including the “red army.” It was to escape the conditions, none of them “good for the Jews” that resulted from the upheaval of the Revolution, the overthrow of the czar, and so forth.

Prior to any thought of escape, my Uncle Sol had done his part by aiding the partisan efforts of his more daring and rebellious friends. Sol was protected by the status of his father, a close friend of town officials, including the mayor, from whose offices Sol would steal official blank forms to be forged into documents that allowed free passage from one part of Russia to another, necessary credentials for those bent on fomenting change.

What I am left with, though, is my patchwork of memories of the stories my father told so many times. I regularly would encourage him to write down what he recalled, and especially the exploits of my older relatives. He was only a youth when he left Russia (at the age of thirteen) and my Uncle Alex, his brother, even younger. There would not have been that many stories concerning their behavior and actions, though my father’s memory was comprehensive and incisive enough to form a virtual novella about what life in general was like for a young boy at the turn of the century in Czarist Russia in provincial Russian towns, each with its complement of a Jewish community.

There is something else of a record of that era and my family’s private history, appropriate to the present age of a disconnected if wholly continuous flow of visual imagery, especially with the eruption of personal photographic records, designed to have a half-life almost as brief as particles in a collider, and numbering into staggering orders of magnitude: billions of images every week dissolving into the ether. Ironically, the visual record that I now possess consists not of countless pictures, but more than enough, a surfeit, of photographic prints for the most part. Many of the faces when I uncovered the first cache of photos were immediately recognizable, at least insofar as my father had identified individuals unknown to me (all but my Uncle Sol and my grandfather, Josef Dinin, were dead and gone by the time I was born, and they didn’t last long enough to be recorded in my still undeveloped cortex)—almost all of them existed seemingly mainly to put faces to the cavalcade of names he would rattle off.

After my father’s death, I retrieved boxes of material that turned out to be poorly stored further records. There were some documents, like my Uncle Sol’s papers from Argentina, his passport, the naturalization certificate in the U.S. of my grandfather. But mainly there were more photos, cascades of photos in some instances as pasteboard boxes long neglected disintegrated under my fingers. I removed everything I could gingerly and procured the lot into archival storage containers, designed specifically for photographic materials, or anything on paper really and particularly susceptible to the acids used in most paper and board fabrication.

Now I continue to be faced with figuring out what to do with this trove. Most of the photographs were captured by commercial photographers with studios in the cities and towns of Ukraine, or taken by itinerant traveling photographers, more of the quality of snapshots, but still encased in their presentation covers, of a thin, opaque, and usually black pasteboard. The commercial studio portraits are mounted on thick cardboard, usually with ornate borders and title text, often of a generic nature, suggesting that the photographer bought stock mounting board, with embossed decorations and non-specific renditions of their business, like “Cabinet – Portrait” (French seemed to be a prominent lingua franca indeed, for the commercial and educated classes of Russia, like a bourgeois transfiguration of the habits of the court and of diplomatic circles).

In one trove I found two of literally hundreds of images, two that I thought I recognized readily enough.

If I am correct, and I can’t be sure because the fellow I am fairly certain is the refractory young man known as Zalman, the daredevil and stalwart friend of revolutionaries, is much younger in this portrait (perhaps this is from the office blank stealing phase of his nascent career as a troublemaker) than other positively identified portraits I have. He is the one, the particularly handsome one, sans spectacles, unlike his companions, on the right staring dead on into the camera. These three intense dudes, it seems to me, are clearly close, enough so to be entirely casual in their pose—a departure from the typically stiff and formal portraiture in so many other of the prints I have. I have no idea who the other two are, and I am fairly certain there is no one left alive who I might possibly have a chance of meeting with even the most tenuous of connections with the obscure history of the Dinin family in Ukraine, so as to be able to inform me of, at the very least, their names. I love this photo for all the portents in it, and the stories that demand being told, even out of whole cloth, so alive and direct and frank and commanding are the gazes of these young stalwarts.

Ilya aka Alex Dinin and his mother, Ida. He was my uncle.

Ilya aka Alex Dinin and his mother, Ida. He was my uncle.

The other photo is really quite small, smaller even than the prototypical snapshot size of 2×3 inches that was the popular format for photographs processed and returned by the drugstores where one brought their rolls of film for processing by labs off-site, when my parents were young and in love, in the 1930s, and of the sort, the snaps and other photos, that is, that comprise another whole portfolio of vexation for me, pondering the challenge of identifying who, and what, and where, and why these images were captured in the first place. But this photo, of a stern-faced woman and a somewhat, but not much, milder looking boy, clearly with a deep and abiding relation to the woman by blood is significantly older than that.

At first, having recognized the woman as a much younger incarnation of my grandmother than in more recent photos I had seen, my father’s mother, Ida, who never knew me, before she died of causes unknown to me, when she was barely in her 60s—at first I took the young fellow as my father, and, indeed, when I scanned the photo, I named the file using his and her name. However, on re-examination and a closer look at that characteristic curled lip, somewhere between sullen and a sneer only one-quarter formed, and after comparing the shape of his left ear and the shape of the same appendage in a much later portrait, taken by me, a teen-aged me, in fact, of my Uncle Alex (his name in Russia, at the time of the portrait of him and his mother, would have been Ilya) persuaded me of my mistake. The portrait, given his apparent stage of development and the indeterminacy of his age, except within a range of three or four years, had to have been taken around the time of the family’s escape from Russia in 1918, when he would have been eight or nine years old. The photo, an oval shape, obviously, was cut out somewhat clumsily from a larger photo and pasted to a nondesript piece of board, with no marks or printing on it of any kind—another attestation to the haste and changed circumstances that surrounded its taking and mounting and preservation. But again, there is no one to tell me any more than what my memory serves and my eyes and imagination manage to tell me.

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