It All Comes Down to Words

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

Greek icon, ca. 1700 of The Second Coming, public domain

As will surprise no one who knows me, I am firmly of the camp that says when all is – to tap one of the larger clichés – said and done, all of what we spend so much time contemplating, analyzing, and sending one another alerts to heed (replete with links to videos, audios, articles, tweets, re-tweets, comments, and every permutation of the mechanisms afforded by technology to transmit and preserve utterances of the moment) is about language. It’s about what differentiates us from the other apes, and most of the other mammals: verbal communication (I said most, because there are other vertebrates, at least, who do vocalize and about whom we are discovering there are underlying structures, with rules and, well, essentially, phonemes, not which can necessarily and strictly be called verbal, but are certainly the cognitive equivalent: so we have a larynx, other creatures have other physiological structures to emit sounds).

So, it’s not so surprising that, after all, after all the tallying of the various categories and intensities of false utterances by our president, not to mention the cadre supporting him, sometimes with more lies, sometimes with ingenious if tortuously convoluted assemblages of words that don’t exactly – just shy of forensically – constitute more mendacity, but which work just as well as a plausible, but unprovable, construction of words in a seemingly comprehensible assemblage that serves to settle the senses. Or, it so confounds the senses (at their most corrosive, they confound all the senses at once… what’s that smell?) to so confuse them as to demand the respite of a self-imposed mental abandonment, as in “fuggedaboudit,” because it’s too painful to try to deconstruct into reason. We are left with pinning a sentence on the chief perpetrator of obliteration of all well-being into a state of chaos and woe with no more evidence than his own words. And spinning tales, in all genres of formal and informal rhetoric: essays, documentaries, texts (and equilibrating and neutralizing counter-texts), and doubtless what will be a long, possibly unending stream of creative formulations – fictions, certainly, but inevitably, metafictions, and speculative fictions, and the whole spate of formal ironic counterpoint, satires and parodies, not the truth, but not really ever untrue.

However, for now, until the current major engines of substantive content: the movies and series and mini-series, the blockbusters, and streams, and likely even TikToks, not to mention the book-length treatments, the one-offs, the tell-alls, the multi-volume compendious and comprehensive authoritative scholarly accounts, with all the apparatus providing the mass and weight of relentlessly factual gravity, for indisputable credence, begin to grind out, as a sub-industry in and of itself, we must content ourselves with the mainly moralizing, alternatively finger-pointing or hand-wringing, “who-could-have-known” and “didn’t-I-tell-you-so” opinion mongering from the hordes of usual suspects, and the inexhaustible supply of others who, absent a platform, simply construct their own – with instant credibility, because what is a network and connectivity for, but self-anointment?

What inspires for me this, that is, my own not so extraordinary meditation on the power and the meaning of words, of, I can say by extension, without stretching the pertinence, the meaning of language constructed of verbal forms, is this piece by a duo of senior NYTimes reporters, that is, by the attached link to a NYTimes story, not so extraordinary assessment, on the eve of Trump’s departure from the center ring of the political circus that has been his tenure in office, are two things about this account, from the necessarily salient voice – who other than Maggie Haberman has served, sometimes precariously, as an avatar of the phenomenon that occurred in full view and yet in strict terms of mindful probity as it happened, and that is the transformation of what had been undeniably the closest thing to reliable for a source (“source,” from the French, *source,* that is a spring, spurting unimpeded, pure, uncontaminated, and always refreshing and, if need be, restorative) of truth, that is, in English, that is, in the United States, that is, The New York Times. Truth, like the Times, had, in ways that will require clever analysis indeed to disentangle the actual process – somewhat like a re-enactment of the discovery of DNA, but not for the code of life itself, but something as inchoate as it turns out, the code of unassailable truth (if sometimes requiring a correction or retraction or reconstruction) – truth, as I was saying, has become now the neglected step-child, ragged and dirty, unkempt and maybe even sniveling a bit, of belief, the beast that had been tamed it was thought, but was the veritable rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem. Aside: You can’t talk about this stuff without an allusion to the poem, The Second Coming, named for the imminence that has been the core of the doom anticipated throughout the 20th century, and prefigured the further spiritual decay of this present time; and what is what we fear most, but that for all of our sense that it can’t get any worse than this – the state of mind that prevailed through the course of major wars that have dominated our global history since September 1, 1939 (another reverberative poetic touchstone) and continue to do so, not to mention, the concomitant and co-extensive reign of terror, which has proven to be a weird melange of the sharp shocks arriving without warning and leaving ever greater masses of rubble and toxic clouds in the wake of explosive events mixed with the prevailing atmosphere of doom encased in the ruling rhetorics of state policy (buttressed with stockpiles of the apparatus of true universal annihilation).

But I was saying… two things, almost unnoticeable, surely innocuous, as are most banal verbal markers – surely meant to be no more than declarative, and possibly at least orientating, if not definitive. First, the NYTimes calls this article not reporting, and not opinion, but a “political memo.” A “memo?” I know who it’s from. To whom is it addressed though? For whom is it meant?

Second, buried in there is the very briefest phrase, applicable to the man himself, “functional self-delusion,” which I suddenly (even in the moment; nothing stealthy going on here) understood to be part of some new taxonomy about the behavior of paper tyrants (like Donald J. Trump), the kind that he invented, the first of its sort, seemingly familiar, but really never seen before, because of one fact (if it must be reducible to that, the form we Americans have come to prefer for our truths to go down, especially in the absence of sugar in the spoon), and that is, this tyrant had his finger amazingly, and unbelievably for four anxiety-dominated years, on the nuclear button.

So, I have to ask, what is “functional self-delusion?” Whose self-delusion? What, if there was something functioning, exactly was functioning? If this was “functional,” what’s dysfunction like?

And do we really want to know? Don’t waste any words telling me.

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Paranoia Porn

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

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.

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The Poses of Dotards and Madmen

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

I may dip as far down into my being as I care to and come up with the solid sense that what I feel is what must be the right way to feel. It is. For me. That’s not to say I doubt my beliefs and interpretation of how to go about life and get around the world I inhabit. I’m thoughtful and analytical, and prudent and careful. I can be punctilious, and, even more, scrupulous in my choices. I am rarely rash. Nevertheless, I have to keep reminding myself that what I think is right is not necessarily what everyone who is right-thinking in their own minds believes as well. As of this morning, the clash between North Korea and the United States has taken an incremental change to the status of personal feud, between two tyrannical egomaniacs—both small change when it comes to their worth as moral and ethical leaders, but each with his fingers on very lethal nuclear buttons.

It occurs to me, as I ponder the possible outcomes, that at least part of the analysis of what strategy will work in terms of neutralizing a rogue threat—lest there be any mistake, I am talking about Kim Jung Un and his small but deadly arsenal—now must take into account matters of character, role-playing, and the myths we all cherish about heroes and champions, and how the latter are supposed to behave in times of peril. No matter how bellicose in many other regards, especially behind the faceless abstractions of military strategies implemented on a grand scale with talk of “forces” and “troops” and “armies” and “civilians,” that is, always plural and mass nouns (so there is no incentive for the ordinary citizen to think, even for a minute, that in actuality we are talking about the actions of individual combatants, ordinary men and women like ourselves, under orders, or merely about the individual victims of execution of a particular order of battle, the dead and wounded of bombings, errant drones, missiles, and small arms fire), American presidents and then down the chain of command, pretty much without exception, tend to try to appear to be grave, serious, sober, rational, and above all cautious, so as not to make it a contest of individual wills or personalities. They work mightily not to have it appear personal, for sure, but they also work mightily to wear the mantle of responsibilty for the actions of the mightiest military force that has ever existed. They pay a price for proceeding cautiously, at the hands of critics who, at least philosophically, embrace a posture of displaying greater strength and the ultimate ability to crush virtually any enemy—short of bullying, of course, though there are those voices, always, in the halls of government, and among the rabble, who believe that the label “champion” is synonymous with “tough guy.” And tough guys talk tough.

Trump certainly talks tough, and it repulses me, more than anything else. But I sit in my zero-gravity chair (there is enough tension in my life, in the personal sphere and in the global sphere, that I don’t want to put any more strain on my back than I have to, on top of ingesting unpleasant news about the state of the world) reading today’s New York Times with its account of the exchange of school yard taunts traveling around half the world between Washington and Pyongyang and I am left to ponder what’s going on—to examine the meta-text so to speak, and compare my spontaneous reactions to what I imagine are the responses of others, especially those unlike myself. First, the shot across the bow, while Trump stands defiant and bristling with menace on the deck of the good ship United Nations: “dotard,” that now rare, vaguely British and hence vaguely charming and formal epithet—and, so, given the source, vaguely comic and yet apt… would that we all had the presence of mind, the nous (that Greek philosophical term, with its overlay as a quality of intellect: that determining affect of “gumption”) to call Trump what he is, among other things, and that is just another alter kacker. And, with his enfeebled and meager arsenal of taunts and insults—with which he is admittedly quite effective, there’s something to be said for a limited range of weapons, used repeatedly and in volume—Trump counters with “madman,” quickly abandoning the actually jaunty (and probably mistaken) provocation of “rocket man,” well intended, but in a different way than Kim’s use of an archaism to belittle he who is, indeed, an ancient one, falling comically into the swirl of spent cultural memes.

If only we needed to look forward merely to a battle of words. I’ll put the latter-day masters of the language that gave us Wilde and W.S. Gilbert, Shaw and Joyce, Orwell, the Python, and leaping across the ocean to our shores, also gave us Twain, Mencken, Parker, Kauffman, Perlman, and Marx (and I don’t mean Karl) up against a post-adolescent who nevertheless does throw across some incisive verbal weaponry, albeit with the added burden of having to work in a language other than his own, for the sake of the larger audience (and because he doesn’t have to work very hard to shore up his constituency, which he has, for the time being, let us concede, largely by the short hairs). But there is always the risk, as there has been on the Korean peninsula since the ascendancy of the Communist Chinese on the mainland in 1949, that it will become a very hot war of deadly weapons.

And what I wonder, after a lifetime, mine, of living with such a threat, which flows and ebbs like the proverbial tide, over us from so far away in the world, how many people—sick, perhaps, of the dread, of the nameless anxiety, at once ridiculous and real, fomented by a backward country of 25 million subjugated people who have withstood possible annihilation in the form of hot war, cold war, famine, and the ravages of capitulating to the demands of a regime, now three generations old, whose sole reasons for being are to be venerated (for whatever complex set of reasons) and to be self-perpetuating—are thinking and feeling the same thing, opposite those feelings of nausea and repulsion of mine. “Yeah, it’s about time.”
“Who are they to push us around?”
“We need to talk tough, and stand tall, and not take any guff [use whatever other euphemism you like here].”
“Thank god. Trump will show them! And teach them a lesson.”

At this stage, it little matters what the actual consequences will be of “talking tough” in a way that materially is no different than the resistance, cajolery, diplomacy (both visible and behind the scenes), and cautious but prudent policies we have exercised for over 60 years, while two armies of Koreans eye each other across no man’s land. That there are now significant rhetorical differences is clear*, but even these have consequences, which will not become clear until we learn exactly what Trump thinks he is doing, beyond imposing on as many people as he can at once with the mere tactics of swagger and braggadocio (and I don’t pretend to believe for a moment that he is unaware of exactly what maneuvers he has at his disposal to deploy—and even taking into account that he is also likely aware by now, eight months into his fragile tenure, that in Kim he is no longer dealing with a business adversary akin to those he faced while trying to build a hotel in a Middle East oasis). He does not do well with humiliation—which he is courting, if he actually has no desire to act like the monster he would be if he attempted to unleash our forces, in any way that exceeds a token show that somehow manages to be effective in humiliating his adversary, the scion of a tradition that has its own monstrous ways of neutralizing much smaller incidents of being humbled.

* One problem is that political discourse has become coarsened, and generally less civil, as a result of the past five cycles of presidential politics—with all of the more localized interstitial contests increasing the opportunities for vulgarizing and debasing not only the vocabulary, but the general rhetorical tenor. Now, with the most proficient perpetrator ever of applying the vernacular to the previously fairly elevated, if not polite, stage of addressing opponents, adversaries, and even colleagues and allies, with some degree of tacitly accepted decorum on a world stage, it is that much harder to assess the impact—never mind the underlying significance, at least in terms of degree, if not force of influence—of street language that could as easily be bluster as it is mere verbal prelude to mortal physical engagement. Parley is an art that was invented in the days of leather and steel armor, when potential combatants rode on horseback. It is an art, I am afraid, that has had its methods and techniques fade and wither. Today, the battle is usually for people’s “minds,” that is, the inclination, hopefully favorable, to those who are the authors of the utterances. But the effect of Trump’s words—the ability to differentiate real intent from figurative manipulation of popular sentiment is beyond me, and as far as I can tell, beyond every commentator, interpreter, analyst, pundit, you name the expert, that I have seen—must, at some point, do more than keep an entire population in thrall. At some point, actions will occur. And it is what they may be that I dread, far more than the largely inept usages he deploys.

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