Detail from Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” at the Museo del Prado
The germ of this thought comes from listening to an interview on Fresh Air yesterday, Thursday, November 12, recorded the day before, which would have been Wednesday, a week and a day since the still officially unresolved election, and at least two news cycles previous. I point it out using this commonplace gauge of cultural progress because it is also still current (or why would Terry risk the embarrassment of being out of touch?). To wit, I notice in both the New York Times and the Washington Post that President Trump – his aides are alleged to say – has no plan; he is merely getting himself however he can from news cycle to news cycle.
White house memo
Trump Floats Improbable Survival Scenarios as He Ponders His Future
There is no grand strategy. President Trump is simply trying to survive from one news cycle to the next.
The thought flits through my head that, maybe, he has at long last legitimately found his own bit of revelation and, as an endgame, turned to religion and a faith in miracles.
But nah. I can’t help but grab the seat of my pants and what’s left to palpate of my shrinking gluteal mass, and deduce from the condition of my hind parts that it’s the same old shit, just a different day. But it’s the implications of the ghoulish contemplations and deliberations on the possible, the probable, the unthinkable, and the preposterous that nag at me. It’s like a constant frigid flow of air from the left, a polar express of glacial horror originating from somewhere “between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” Yet it keeps nagging at me that I should just give in, and allow the temperature in my core to keep dropping, to the zone of absolutely no hope. It’s tempting, but I resist.
On Fresh Air, Terry’s guest was a dude touting some what is now considered durable, if not estimable, cred. His name is Garrett Graff, and he is the very model of the cyber-age journalist: former editor of Politico, a contributor to Wired, and the author of at least three books, one on Robert Mueller’s tenure as head of the FBI, a history of the bunkers built in secret to protect government leaders in case of nuclear attack, and an oral history of September 11 (which I am only guessing does not include President Trump’s notorious lies about witnessing people, which he averred were Muslims, dancing on rooftops and cheering from across the Hudson straits from Hoboken as the twin towers burned and finally tumbled).
The topic of their conversation is entitled, on the Fresh Air home page, as “Journalist Details ‘Potential Mischief’ of Trump’s Remaining Weeks in Office.” It consisted, in my hearing of it, of admittedly only speculative outcomes of the potentialities of the various “moves” and actions taken by the president in the past few days, and weeks, and, even going back months – with the unstated implication that every measure, every step, every vindictive or mean-spirited or sheer lunatic act was performed aforethought, and, conceivably… not saying it’s so, but this is how autocrats, authoritarians, totalitarians, dictators do things, have done things…
And I realized, not a new thought for me, but a refreshed set of impressions, that this is how a certain quarter among the news media has been reporting and commentating on the Trump presidency all along. To me, it constitutes a really unsettling superset of the stuff of dread-scrolling. For now I call it Paranoia Porn.
It amounts to imagining the worst outcomes of a regime that resists owning the qualities ascribed to it, beyond the malevolence and hatefulness embedded in the spirit of its worst aimless deconstruction of certain entities and systems necessary to the conduct of governance in the United States. These stories and conversations, these interviews and analyses, the stuff of a whole industry of media content engineering and manufacturing that has kept it going, and not just going but thriving – with the major companies, like The Times, reporting record levels of revenue and profits – in my view are the final throes of examining minutely what Trump has been doing, and then fantasized about by the far left media in the way of speculative horror scenarios based on incredibly complex conspiracies involving setting up a shadow government in the hollowed out shell of the existing legitimate infrastructure which has been performing the business of government for the entire history of the republic.
In fact, as far as I can tell, and anyone – from the lowliest whistle-blower to Carl Bernstein, from Mattis to Bolton, from Comey to Scaramucci – but anyone has been willing to make public, frankly and truthfully (by their own recognizance) has reported on every conceivable twist and turn, every u-turn and wrong turn, every impulse and miscue, there is only evidence of one large truth. Trump has proven repeatedly and consistently the incompetence and shallowness and shortsighted nature of nearly every one of his more far reaching initiatives and in four years, and continuing into this period of interregnum, when his aides tell the media that he has no endgame intended as a culmination of his current chaotically disruptive machinations, he has never betrayed the possession of anything resembling a strategy or plan.
Of course, as I like to say, I could be wrong, and I hope I’m not. But if I am, I am, and you are, no worse off than the doomsayers are perpetually hinting we may find ourselves to be. In which case, we will indeed be beyond help. But I am not sure I will regret (nor would I find solace in doing so) thinking this is all, as I say, a morbidly prurient fascination with yet a new form of pornography. It scares me to think of paranoia as a desirable state in which to seek ecstasy.
photo by Albert H. Teich/effects added by Howard Dinin
I’m thinking as we all, in some corner of our consciousness, fidget and distract ourselves awaiting an outcome, and suffer the condition of Tiresias in The Waste Land, not so much throbbing between two lives, as vibrating between what I’ll call two civic states of being. Is it the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end?
The more that suddenly positivist liberal media, and especially the commentariat – that overpopulated sub-state of what it fancies itself to be, part of the fourth estate – are merely anticipating what they seem to think is a foregone outcome, the more I feel the hum of true uncertainty. Joy is in the air, and after a long term, it’s closing in on four years after all, of pissing and moaning and talking about the inconceivably further decaying state of civilization, and all embodied in one clinically obese semi-failed real estate developer with a knack for expropriating the attention of every person, including anyone not immediately in his presence. Optimism, can you believe, from the baleful doomsayers. This despite being bitten in their hindquarters innumerable times by a perversely indifferent set of facts, in this case numbers of votes to be counted. And yet, and yet… that delirious outcome of which we are on the brink – suddenly we’re a happy few, a band of brothers, whereas yesterday, they were all too ready to tell us what’s wrong with us – an outcome soberly still measurable against some calculable total of statistical deviance… is generally concluded.
And by the inherent permission accorded by an assumed happy and propitious resolution (however tiny, and therefore ambiguous, the margin), the collective wonder turns to a focus on how the incumbent, presumably, and in what I’ll cling to calling a presumptive way, is expected to make his exit. He has promised even well before, weeks before, the polls were scheduled to open – and briefly he gave us pause to think that he could even alter the implacability of that received fact: the immutability of the Election Day, as defined in the Constitution—call it off, delay it, schedule it for next year, or the release date of the vaccine; Can he do that? He seems to think he can do anything? He can’t do that! Well, of course not… but isn’t it pretty to think so, with echoes of his innate impotence in virtually all matters in which, in fantasy, in his wishes, he wields power impervious to the most refractory resistance – that he will contest whatever there is to contest, having established, at least for his own nefarious rhetorical purposes that not only was there a fraud of historic proportions afoot, but that it was already started, weeks ago remember, and all ballots save those cast, defiantly in the face of a raging monstrously contagious viral epidemic, by voters in person with proper identification, were bogus and void. Not just suspect and uncountable. Strip away the franchise that was born with the Republic, and never abrogated or delayed, not once in our history – except temporarily in 11 renegade southern states, and the Union would have magnanimously and unquestioningly have granted them continued voter status, if they would just, at the same time, put their muskets and rifles down, and let those people go…
He would not even answer the question about whether he would comply with the protocol of an orderly and non-disruptive transition of administrations as a new one took power from his – his non-responsiveness not to be interpreted as the globally accepted legal policy, ‘tacet contire,’ silence implies agreement, but really more in keeping with the rules of the game of stud poker, and he chooses, in anticipation, to keep his hole card face down for a long as possible. And of course, there were those of us who have expected the worst from him, even without provocation, because we had taken the measure of his character, and without pausing to analyze the sum of his life of grifts, not only weighing the comical grandiosity of the rewards when they succeeded, but also assessing the abject ignominy of the intentionally circumspect, if not downright concealed, and ultimately uncountable, failures, but including also the repeated acts of salacious indulgence that were the chief excrescence of his innate, his almost genetically determined, vulgarity. And those of us who did fully expect he will make his longed for extrication from the seat of power ugly – really ugly and gut-wrenching – and difficult (Herculean), and, if possible, violent, in a series of final acts of his particular style of scorched earth deconstruction of the social and civic order, which is then gilded over, like a chandelier of base metal left hanging among the ruins by a single strand of tarnished wire.
And so, it may surprise you to hear me agree, of course he will make it as bad as he can, not because he is vindictive and vengeful, though he is, not because he is a pugnacious bully, though he is, but because that is his nature. To be loud and attention-seeking, and monotonically in the mode of self-aggrandizement. In short it’s the manner in which he does everything. It is the template for the caricature of himself to present to a credulous world, hungry for the cheap seats version of some manifestation, two-button sharkskin suit and all, with the fake hair, and the fake skin, and the multiple layers of gold in the form of ostentatious artifacts, the gaudier the better, to be worn on one’s person, that passes in the age of the infinite loop of streaming content version, of a hero.
He was loud and attention-getting as a mere over-publicized and, measured by the tacit codes of socially accepted behavior (this was years before the concept of Real Housewives was ever imagined as a germ of an idea), over the limit in lubricious demeanor and affect, as phony as the very-expensive-dental-work realty shark, whose closest manifestation as front page content was the barely proximate permanent slot reserved for him on Page Six of the tabloids, like the best table at some parody of an ostentatiously “glamorous” venue. He was loud and attention-getting through the 70s, when he forced himself on a jaded media as the latest personality to pay attention to, and on through the 80s and 90s as his notoriety – always positioned as fame by his own exertions at spin – spread all over New York, like melting oleomargarine on toasted Wonder Bread, and oozed occasionally into the notice of the national downmarket tabloids.
It was the mode of his announcement – I’ll remind you: loud and attention-getting – with generous dollops of hyperbole and outrageous character assassination on a global scale, and perpetrated with the corrosive weapons of glittering, wholly mendacious stereotypes as he ascended that famous golden escalator with a hired mob of cheering sycophants.
Of course, he’s going to make noise, and make it difficult, and he won’t go quietly. It’s not in his nature otherwise.
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.
“Let’s Look at the Record”
Harper’s Magazine, July 1954
Reprinted from the Kansas City Journal, June 15, 1879
If you feel like the current conditions of political life in our country are pretty much a matter of the greater number of us being in thrall to a much smaller number, whose will to do bad acts seems to grow perceptibly, you’re not alone. Sometimes it feels like the situation of our physical selves being in thrall (and certainly at threat of finding ourselves in such a condition) to microbes (or even smaller… viruses are very much smaller than bacteria, for example) about which little seems to be able to be done.
But there’s a significant difference, however compelling the analogy and however helpless and bereft you may feel. Like the body’s own immune system, of which, let’s face it, we remain substantially unaware as well, we have it in ourselves to take action against even a sea of troubles.
We can vote at the very absolute least.
Remarkably little of the electorate feel the power of their right to vote. Despair unhinges us. Disgust, frustration, anger, ennui, whatever the erosive demotivators we suffer, there seems less and less hope left in this most fundamental of American rights. But it remains the key to collective empowerment. In part this is what we mean when we speak of democracy, and we mean it with the connotations of good, and ethical, and right. Individually, we have, each of us, our one small bit of command, of entitlement. This is what substantiates our agency as citizens. The power of the ballot.
Enough votes at once will effect change. We’ve seen it in the lifetime of the current generation. Changes in administration. Changes in the majorities of Congress. Changes in laws, including at the highest, the constitutional level.
Inherently our system still works, even as we plod on, seemingly limping and bleeding from what has come to seem not merely a chronic, but a continuous assault on our fundamental humanitarian principles, uncertain of not if, but when, our sense of belief will give out completely and we submit, if not surrender, utterly. All it takes is a vote. And as the actions of key leaders among those who hold power over our behavior as a people and a nation seem to portend that we will crash on in defiance of other of the world’s sovereignties, in defiance of nature itself—utterly despite the collective will, at the deepest level, of the greater percentage of our entirety as a nation—the power of that vote we still have seems to have less and less reason to enact it effectively. But repeatedly, we have proven as an electorate, that this is not so.
We still have, remarkably, another chance. In the most primitive of assessments, it’s down to basics. Almost a Manichean choice of a duality facing us. Possibly as simple as right and wrong.
Gratefully, the choice is even simpler, because there is only one wrong choice. And many right ones, with nuances and more blatant differences for sure, but any one is right in this electoral challenge. Just don’t give up. Just don’t vote wrong. Just vote.
Am I the only one who thinks it’s crazy, solely on the basis of their ages, that Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders is viable as a candidate for president? It’s not a matter of ageism on my part. I’m 73, though I don’t “feel” it, as is statutorily required of me (that is, to say I don’t feel it). But I wouldn’t want myself to be nominated to any office, never mind CEO of the US, solely because I am too well aware that statistics are not on my side. And even less so on theirs. They’re older.
Then there’s the matter of how that job “ages” the job-holder. It’s been evident of every occupant of the office since it killed FDR, which is 74 years ago. Not that the effects, whatever they may be, are irreversible.
Jimmy Carter two days ago became the longest-lived former president. George HW Bush, who just died, was also in his 90s. No one asked either of these guys if they wouldn’t have wanted the job in their latter years—not to suggest they didn’t want a longer term in office than either of them got. Bush was 69 when he left office. Ten years younger than Biden would be if he ran and won, and assumed office in 2021. And Bernie is just a wee bit older than Joe, so he’d be closer to 80 standing on that platform in a chilly January inauguration. And Carter was 56 when he lost his bid for a second term.
It could be that Jimmy and Pappy were fortunate being spared the vagaries of the stresses of office in their declining years. There are those whose lives belie what I am implying, like, say, Rupert Murdoch and Warren Buffett (just to keep this argument ecumenical), but they aren’t having to deal with being President.
My sense of all this would be mitigated somewhat if we, like certain tribal peoples, were a society that did not just give lip service to venerating elders, but actually constituted a culture that included a system of governance whereby it was the elders who ran things.And everyone accepted it. That’s what “culture” means in part.
Never mind a tribal council of sachems and elderly wise men and women, there won’t even be a minyan of ten “seniors” to hustle up for a cabinet session. Not that the current completely rational compensatory demand for greater diversity of electoral representation would stand for it, if there were.
No one running who was that old, and who was rational enough to expect to be elected, would choose a running mate anywhere close to 70. Donald Trump, who’s a year younger than me, chose a feckless non-entity (who mainly reinforced a perceptible bias of opinion of a plurality, at least, of likely voters), but still a guy who was not even quite 60 on election day in 2016.
In the case of either Biden or Sanders, significant weight would have to be given to strategies for running mate selection to respond to one facet of the selection question. What is the likely perception by a significant number of voters that they would be voting, as they rarely have had to in previous elections, for the inevitable occupant of the White House possibly well before the first term is up.
America is generally characterized as the land, if not of opportunity, then surely as the land of boundless optimism. Which is how we elected William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Warren G. Harding, and Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, and ended up with John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Calvin Coolidge, and Harry S. Truman, respectively – though not predictably in any case. The ages of the incumbents when they involuntarily left office were 68, 65, 57, and 53. As for why I speak of optimism, let me just say, Quayle, Cheney, and Pence; while saying nothing of the merits of the men who chose them as running mates who got into office, regardless.
Please note the argument is not to be wary in any case, and that we should merely be careful of what we wish for, because fortune acts with equal severity on young and old alike. The argument is about actuarial tables of mortality – the odds, if you like – and keeping an eye not so much on the age, but the substantive qualifications of the running mate.
This “actuarial” argument is co-extensive of any question of Trump’s fitness for office, and he will still be younger than either Sanders or Biden, and it cannot be ruled out that Trump will not be shy to suggest that unlike him, his opponent is “losing it” not least because of senility; in fact, the counterfactual quality of such an assertion – very much from the heart of the Trump school of rhetoric – almost guarantees that we would hear it. On the purer political grounds of who to run against Trump, the age factor must be considered. A younger candidate for the Democrats will not nullify the proven impact of his strategy of vulgar denunciation by ridicule and derision of any candidate daring to run against him.
Unclear what any analysis of Sanders’s or Biden’s appeal to young voters consists of, and whether it would persist through an actual candidacy. The spirit of the new younger, “millennial” Democratic caucus, and the gathering power of an argument for change, and not just change, but a re-direction for both parties suggests either of them may not sustain the political momentum needed to make it to the nomination. The Democrats are only that much more susceptible to criticism, because of the innately fractured nature of its factionalism, and so they are more visibly and obviously ripe for a contentious struggle for dominance of the party going into the 2020 election cycle. Young Republicans, or young conservatives, are a gathering force as well, and seem overdue to mount a powerful (and possibly eruptive) effort at revolution and revitalization after a corrosive four years of Trumpism.
There are certain words whose meanings have always eluded me, and I need to refresh my comprehension, long since, or so I thought, hard won. Nonplus is one of those words… Is it a good quality, a bad quality. All I usually am sure of is that it is a condition of uncertain benefit imposed by outside events or actions on one’s sensibility.
Jacobin Magazine [disclosure: I am a subscriber] has always elicited from me a sense of ambivalence, the prevailing response I give their endless outpouring of screeds. Sometimes the balance tips to positivity on my part, as I am mainly in concurrence with some sweeping, often categorical, pronouncement they have made about an occurrence or a presence on the world stage. I am, for sure, never left with a doubt that the magazine is turned out by a stalwart, that is, an unwavering staff of ideologues, or at least adherents to a prevailing principle, or, at worst, wage slaves who, to earn their weekly stipend, must show allegiance to the messages defined by the editorial mission.
It is with a strange sense of stupefied admiration that I have to read – yes, have to, as I subscribe, for the time being, to their email newsletter and to the newsfeed one sees on Facebook (and other social media for sure, but apparently the effect of my Facebook “like” has been to auto-vaccinate me against the urge to follow them on Tumblr, let’s say, which is about the only other place I might see their torrent of propaganda regularly, hour to hour, day to day).
In today’s email was the following link (below). You’ll have to click on it to see the degree of brazen chutzpah (no, I don’t believe that constitutes an unnecessary rhetorical redundancy: there’s chutzpah, there’s a higher degree of chutzpah, and then there’s our current president) they can effect when moved to comment, in three-part harmony, so to speak.
In this instance, the body is not even in a state of detectable decay turning into some form of inevitable compost, and yet they hasten to shit on it, or at least on the memory of the individual that once inhabited it.
Understand that I bear no love, and bore none while he was alive, and least of all while he served as President, for George Herbert Walker Bush. The worst thing I could bring myself to say was, at the time, he was the most cynical man who ever held the office. But, in my defense, because I see the weakness of this characterization (and no, not because of the degree of the comparative, or because it was the worst thing that I thought), but I can only see its inadequacy and shortsightedness because of the two individuals who held the office after him.
I have always been wary of the accusation of “war criminal,” certainly during the tenure of the usual suspects, going back, at least, to FDR (to name the first of a series of presidents within my ken; I was born only within two years of his demise, and his memory was a living thing itself within my family, because my father, a Jacobin in his own right, and a union organizer, worshipped the departed president). For one thing, it tests the notion of war as a crime. I’ll concede, even declare openly, that war is a great evil, but as for being a crime, that requires the intervention of a defining framework, including a body of laws that elucidate formally what constitutes a crime. Then you must have a suitable court to adjudicate the indictment during, presumably, the course of a trial in which evidence, hopefully of the unimpeachable sort, is presented to the court before judgment is pronounced.
With someone like George H.W. Bush, never mind Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, well, you get the idea… most such accusations, usually broadcast publicly and purely by self-sanctioning prosecutors, with no official role or appointment by a sovereign body of government, become especially forceful and louder at their demise, because, well, because that’s the last shot we plebes have got, isn’t it? I mean before the slow, quiet engines of historical judgment gather evidence, vet it, verify it, and present it in the appropriate venue for any follow-on implementation of fitting redress, whether punishment of a living perpetrator or vilification of a dead one. And that can take years, sometimes more than some of us reasonably have to look forward to.
But for some, often those of an ideological disposition, this is not a constraint, and freedom of speech being still a right in even these oppressive times, they feel free to pre-empt whatever order might impose the foregoing sequence of an act of justice. Usually there is no such order prevailing—the complainants would probably say it is not even apparent. But my point here is not to argue that condition.
My point is merely to marvel at the heedless and often terminally earnest sense of outrage and violated justice demands that card-carrying hotheads should make pronouncements, completely out of phase with even the mildest public notion of a qualified grief at the parting of a fallen former leader. My point is to say, Jacobin, once again, and what is becoming all too often, is leaving me nonplussed.
It is only in my lifetime to my knowledge, and largely restricted to the Anglo northern semi-continent of North America that individuals with Jewish forebears have relaxed a vigilance that most Jews of the modern era have instilled in them from birth. Having been born only within about a year after the ovens of the camps in Germany and Eastern Europe were extinguished, and as the first generation son of a couple of immigrants from that same enclave — whose families were tormented, if not outright killed, by their gentile neighbors in Russia, and whose immediate relatives sought refuge with them to the West – I was regularly, if passively and, so to speak, tenderly made mindful of the threat, however covert, “out there.” Whatever the outcome in terms of my faith, and in time I repudiated the religion of my fathers, I was never allowed to forget I was a Jew. Someone intent on making me suffer, if not worse, for that sole reason, would not care how devout or heretical I might be.
Blacks, I always understood, would have it worse throughout their lives, as they each wear their identity on their skin, and I have never encountered anyone of African descent, however remotely it could be traced, who, in some part of their conscious minds, was not aware of being the subject of a potential hostile gaze. At the very least.
Periodically, and it is happening again now, at this moment, because of the massacre of Squirrel Hill, Jews remind themselves of what too many are lulled into forgetting—a state of mind few African-Americans seem to allow themselves to indulge in. So vast is our country, and so large is our still growing population, that it has happened for virtually every identifiable ethnicity or sect or nationality that has found shelter in it that seemingly for them, if not ever for all, and never all at once, there is no longer a cause for alarm. No longer a need to fear bigotry, oppression, bodily injury or mortal danger.
However, it seems necessary every time there is an unexpected upheaval (and doesn’t a lack of vigilance, or a mere lack of staying alert, a lack of mindfulness, necessarily determine the condition of shocked surprise when it happens?) suddenly that group under attack, in however focused and localized a way, is reminded of the difference between true neutrality and dormant hate. With sufficient empathy, anyone among us, especially those who can discern some substantive and differentiable marker in their biological being that, under the malevolent scrutiny of an authority would define them as some alien “other,” will, like those once again active targets, realize their status as prospective prey – simply for being who they are. Of course, if the bigotry is overt, there is no mistaking it for disinterest.
But even in America, the friendliest of nations, how often is prejudice left wholly unmasked? How often is what at bottom can only be called hatred made naked, actively so, for anyone to see?
I’m not saying that the alarm and dismay, the sadness and grief, the unremitting emotional anguish of hearing of and seeing the victims of violence borne out of hate is inappropriate or serves no purpose. I am simply reminding all of us of the virtues of being mindful, if not consciously in a state of vigilance. I mean, whatever the level and degree of guardedness we exercise – and it should always be within the bounds of reason – complacency that is the yield of a false sense of security is likely not a rational way of carrying oneself through a world, and everywhere within it, that every day provides savage testament to the still untamed facets of human nature. There simply is no utterly safe enclave anywhere.
The current ordeal of the nominee for the seat on the U.S. Supreme Judicial Court vacated on the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy highlights, among other things, two contradictory tendencies among the public. We tend to accept fully, or utterly reject, and purely at face value allegations of extreme behavior. What gets our juices flowing are cases of murder or even significant bodily harm, kidnapping, and, of course, sexual misconduct. At the same time, we have a spot in our hearts, perhaps softened and predisposed by all those juices, for seeing justice done however long it takes in the special instance of what are called in police jargon “cold cases.” The only matters that compare for compelling sympathy are cases that later prove to have indicted, and usually punished, the wrong person. But these latter instances, both unsolved crimes and crimes erroneously attributed to an innocent, are related if merely by the power they have to excite our emotional involvement even after protracted periods of time. We even can work up a compulsion for cases involving offenses so ancient they are history, and all the parties involved long dead, if not almost altogether forgotten. Nothing stirs certain of us like the words, “disinter,” or “exhume.” You’d think we had a scholarly love both for Latin and rotting flesh.
Among the genre programming that claims sufficient following there is always current a choice of shows, both on network television and cable or streaming. We have the fictions of the very popular series, which ran for a respectable seven years, called, simply, “Cold Case.” What underscores the avidity for that series is that all the cases featured were fictional. On the other hand, there is equivalent enthusiasm for a series which features what are purported to be real cases, in which we are to suppose there is the satisfaction of seeing in the end the meting out of “Cold Justice.” In the latter a real-life former prosecutor and a crime scene investigator team up to crack such cases across the country.
There have also been myriad mini-series and podcasts devoted to examining afresh baffling or vexing seeming (or actual) crimes in which, originally at the time of occurrence, there was either a successful conviction, or the mystery of a total lack of an indictable offender. The more popular of these “reality-based” extended inquiries resulted in concluded cases being overturned and retried, or in the case of utter failure a latter-day confession by the perpetrator. Receiving equal acclaim have been a certain number of shows that incorporated fictionalized or speculative aspects of exposition of a real case. The most engaging of these kinds of programming, in my personal experience, have included the documentary mini-series “The Jinx” (the case of admitted murderer Robert Durst), the documentary podcast (that spawned a powerful genre of such shows, and the establishment of a production company devoted to producing them), “Serial” (involving the case of an accused and convicted Adnan Syed, who had his case re-opened 16 years later, in part because of this inquiry, after being sentenced for the crime in 2000—as recently as five days ago, incidentally, the State of Maryland, which is running out of appeals of the decision to retry Syed, appealed, probably as a last resort, to the highest court in that state… as they say, stay tuned, and back to my regular programming).
Suffice it to say there is an ongoing hunger for stories of injustice, of justice forestalled or upended or perverted. Generally, we find these compelling and engaging, and a test of our willingness to keep an open mind, or at least to examine more closely how we arrive at the conclusions and convictions we arrive at in the light of what is sometimes conclusive evidence—when sometimes other factors we can’t quite identify compel us to arrive at a contradictory “verdict” in our minds despite that evidence. When the evidence is inconclusive or fragmentary or, seemingly, non-existent, we are thrown back on our entire internal system of beliefs, biases, and what we persist in calling logic, no matter what part of the brain is involved, acquired over a lifetime of childhood development and all of our experience.
We long for evidence of the successful pursuit of justice. We plunge into the fascination of cases involving the extremities of behavior, especially when there seems to be no satisfaction of that longing. We put aside our repugnance, if not outright horror, of certain acts, in the interests, we say, of truth. And we endorse, at least as passive witnesses, if not outright bystanders with no other skin in a game but our shared skin as human beings, the additional energies, if not the material expense of time and cash in pursuing what we insist on calling the truth. We do. Unless some other order of value, some objective conforming to that order and that value, is at stake. Then, it would seem not only are bets off, we don’t care to venture into the casino altogether to watch other players confront the stakes. It can be a complex and complicated business, this business of who did what to whom, and what’s it worth, if anything, to find out.
And so now, let us consider the even more convoluted contradictions of the matter before the Senate that is hogging the headlines, concerning Judge Kavanaugh.
Stating the obvious, apparently unsubstantiated allegations about sexual misconduct by alpha individuals – mostly men, but let’s not introduce the specter of gender bias – in our society have been enough to bring down politicians, both in office and seeking them. Enough to bring down very powerful media executives and on-air talent. Enough to bring down star athletes, as well as athletic management of professional teams and the de facto equivalent, major college sport organizations.
What they are not sufficient to derail, never mind to oust from any current office, are the ambitions of men who are nominated for one of nine seats as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Other misdeeds, or so they were positioned, have been sufficient to scotch a nomination. Even Abe Fortas, a sitting Associate Justice nominated to replace the retiring Chief Justice (and the first sitting Supreme Court justice to be called in to testify at his own confirmation hearing) failed in his attempt to be seated, largely because of unpaid political debts by President Johnson owed to Republican senators who elected to find that the stipend Justice Fortas received from a university to teach a course at American University during the summer recess of the Court was sufficient sign of moral unfitness that they filibustered the confirmation process into extinction. The upshot was that Justice Fortas chose to resign from the Supreme Court altogether.
And now, of course, it should be mentioned as an aside, as well as ironic counterpoint to latter day machinations, the filibuster is dead as a political weapon. The Democrats in the Senate as it is currently constituted are sufficient in number and temperament to have put an end to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh long since, and without an ounce of painful personal discomfiture for anyone.
Though I don’t mean to turn this into a discussion about the range of historical precedents for finding reasons to disqualify candidates on what, after all, were strictly political grounds, there have not been many instances, as I started off by saying, where an alleged act of sexual impropriety lost a nominee a seat on the highest court in the land. A quick review online reveals none. There has been at least one instance of a state District Court justice losing his seat (and not a lifetime appointment at that) because of sexual improprieties, but not without his stepping down while also denying the allegations against him. Not to mention U.S. Appeals Court justices (the most recent one being the infamous Alex Kozinski, who sat very close to his colleague on that bench in the Ninth Circuit, that is to say the aforementioned Brett Kavanaugh—but Justice Kozinski got away clean by the expedient of retiring, though at the youngish age for senior judges of 67).
To be fair, Judge Kavanaugh is in the process of being prepped for being pilloried in the court of public opinion, not to mention the Senate Judiciary Committee if the Democrats in the minority can somehow get their way, for activities in which he is accused of participating when he was still a teen-ager. He was in prep school as a senior of 17 in one instance, and in a newly revealed alleged incident, it was a year later, his freshman year at Yale College.
By any definition, these incidents, accepting the premise they may have occurred, are cold cases, especially in view that the warm bodies involved are still among us, still vital, still relatively young, though the occurrence of these alleged incidents was at a time that the bodies were not just warm, but in the full flower of youth—which seems to have a fluid meaning and pertinence depending on whose opinion you ask about the allegations. Yet, given our penchant for deep interest in such cases – whence the course of justice, indeed? – there is a divide as to whether there should be any intensive effort to examine either case, but especially that of the first allegation involving the sexual assault of Dr. Ford at a prep school party, for further evidence or corroboration beyond that of the principals in this drama. Indeed, it’s clear that for the Republicans in the hearing room, and in Greater Washington DC, and in suburban Connecticut, and around the country, there has already been too much allowance, and the chance being given to Dr. Ford to submit herself to examination and inquiry (let us not call it interrogation, even though the Republican majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee insists that lawyers appointed by them be permitted to pose the questions to those testifying) is sufficient effort, energy and expense. And not because of the nature of the offense, but because of, well, that’s the question isn’t it?
If it were a Hollywood mogul, it’s easy. Guilty as charged. And if not guilty, though Mr. Harvey Weinstein, in fact, will have to face the court, so let’s consider, ahem, another example. Well, if it were a U.S. Senator or a member of the House of Representatives, either of whom will be up for re-election in short enough order, and either of whom could be made the focus of an ethics inquiry by the body on which they sit as a member (but why bother with such a nasty and un-collegial business, when a man’s honor can be invoked and he can be called upon, in private, to do the right thing?), he would do the honorable thing and simply step down, by way of tacit admission no matter what discrepant verbiage actually issues from his lips, which it inevitably will. But this is a sitting judge, who will have to suffer the bitter deprivations of continuing in his seat on the bench of one of the second highest courts of the entire nation, continuing to wield power and influence on the laws of the land, rather than assume an even higher agency holding a judicial position for life.
Is this a matter or justice? Is this a matter of life and limb? Nah. Apparently not, at worst it seems to be a matter of teenage hanky panky and indiscretion. It’s merely a matter of the reputation and word of a woman. How many times must we be taught what that’s worth, at least in certain arenas?
Most of us believe the United States intelligence apparatus, regardless of precisely however many separate agencies it comprises, manages to identify not only Russian hacking of our public communications networks and our process for swaying public political opinion, but can identify specific individuals, in Russia, as among the perpetrators, with sufficient evidence to justify a formal indictment of twelve suspects. Further, we believe it is already well established, thanks to leaks and whistle-blowers, that the most secretive of our national security apparatus has the means to monitor not some, but all, communications among Americans, not to mention a significant percentage of foreign nationals, both within our borders and within the confines of their own nations; they can monitor phone conversations, text messages, and emails, and record and store all of these data streams for further, more prolonged, and deeper analysis. They can identify the individuals and the roles they play within foreign diplomatic delegations, whatever their formally declared as well as their covert assignments while operating within our borders, and, furthermore, identify them even on foreign soil, including their native countries. We can identify them and, if need be by way of sanctions, deport any number or all of them from our country. We can and do indict them in our own country, as already mentioned.
We have had these capabilities, and performed these and similar actions for years. In many cases the power to do so has been possible and has been deployed in actual practice for decades. If anything, with the passage of time, we have become more proficient and adept and sophisticated in the development of the capabilities of these technologies and their application for purposes of what is generally labeled as something like “national security.”
Further, we apparently have the capability of covertly gathering information in the multifarious forms of analyzable data from deep within the operational apparatus of foreign governments – both among our allies and our more hostile economic and geopolitical rivals (including former and potential future enemies of our state). We are capable of, and have committed acts in the past of, disrupting or in other ways influencing the internal politics as well as the governance by duly appointed, in many instances democratically elected, state officials and functionaries. We have insinuated ourselves into the affairs of sovereign nations, and implicated ourselves in the overthrow of legitimate representational as well as despotic usurping governments.
Admittedly capable of and actually perpetrating all of these actions, our government has done and will undoubtedly continue to do so. That is, they will, short of self-imposed internal political constraints. For example, as we have seen in the past 17 years, the Congress can and will pass enabling legislation permitting the president to take executive action in the pursuit of protecting our national security. As we have seen in the past 19 months, conversely, Congress could but won’t merely constrain a president in order to proscribe undesired acts, like firing his own officials, in the execution of his office. Nevertheless, repeatedly our government has demonstrated the successful implementation of strategies in pursuit of national objectives using such intelligence capabilities paid for by American taxpayers nominally in their interests.
All that is said and done. Now we have as President an individual positioned by dint of his public prominence in the worlds of national and global commerce, as a recognized and readily recognizable public figure in the realm of entertainment, with well-publicized personal views on matters of national and international political significance, of avowed, if not merely self-declared, great financial stature, with personal and corporate ties and obligations – long since documented and well-known through dissemination by national and international news organizations – to banks, governments, and private funding sources throughout the world, with sufficient resources and persistent media attention to declare his candidacy for office who has managed in two years with no prior record as an elected official to catapult himself, in a single national election, to the office of arguably the most powerful governing executive in the world.
Are we to believe that if the American intelligence apparatus has any information about this individual that supports further investigation for evidence of indictable criminal behavior within the scope of the entire aggregate criminal code of the 50 states and the federal government, it was not already known, recognized as such, and being analyzed for the appropriate venue and charges to be prosecuted? And furthermore, if such information exists, even short of constituting evidence suitable for the consideration of a grand jury in any localized or federal jurisdiction, it would not already have been leaked, reported on, and the subject of ongoing and rigorous journalistic inquiry?
High intelligence, let alone Machiavellian skills at deviousness, and the mastery of a brilliant intelligence agent, on the order of a Kim Philby or a Colonel Abel, are not requirements for the office of President of the United States. In any event, there was never a demonstration of such qualities in Donald Trump up to the day of his inauguration in that office. If anything, since that day, all evidence, readily observable in plain sight, whatever your news source, points to the absence of even a scintilla of such qualities.
Are we to believe he is positioned, and qualified, to be an agent of the Russian government? Are we to believe he even is susceptible to recruitment as a willing and compliant “asset” (a concept about which, apparently, millions of Americans are suddenly expert) of that government – or would be attractive to that government in such a role (I used the descriptors “willing” and “compliant” deliberately)? Are we to believe that the Russian government, keeping in mind the entirety of its prior 27 year history starting with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, was in a position to recruit such an asset because of a rational expectation that he was credibly capable of attaining the office he now has at any time prior to three years ago when he declared his candidacy?
I don’t believe any of it. I do believe that in his avaricious, amoral, egomaniacal pursuit of real wealth (instead of the sleight-of-hand appearance of it) and power, and a pathological need for public attention on a grand scale beyond the insulating buffer of an inner circle of enablers and sycophants, he became an ideal dupe – cluelessly and involuntarily collaborating, not only with the true “deep state” of the 1/10 of 1% who own as much of American wealth as the bottom 90% and who wish not only to preserve it, but have it grow, but collaborating as well, equally clueless, with the geopolitical aims of a Russian autocrat, the center of a ring of oligarchs who wish to see the resurrection of their country as an influential, implacable superpower, which has been their ultimate aim at least since Putin first served as Prime Minister under Boris Yeltsin in 1999.
In 1999, looking forward to 2000, there was talk of Donald Trump running for President, as a possible candidate of the Reform Party. And his preferred running mate, he said… None other than Oprah Winfrey. But the country wasn’t ready for Trump. Nor did they need him. They had George W. Bush.
How have the people who believe the increasingly ludicrous things they do come to do so? Unrelieved grief and despair will do that. All the more reason not to lose one’s head.
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
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