Duncan Howard is My Name

Approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes

Well I’m tryin’ to get some sleep

but these motel walls are cheap
Lincoln Duncan is my name
and here’s my song
here’s my song.
My father was a fisherman,
My mama was a fisherman’s friend,
And I was born in the boredom and the chowder;
So when I reached my prime
I left my home in the Maritimes
And headed down the turnpike for New England,
Sweet New England.
—Paul Simon

Some children are prodigies. I like to think every child has some prodigious talent. Some parents think their children are prodigies in every way. Those parents should look a little closer.

My father always looked closely at me, and he wasn’t shy about suggesting there were ways in his eyes that I came up short. But from early on, there was one way he made clear that to him I had a precocity he admired. It made him laugh, which was a rare thing.

It concerned food. And even if not a demonstration of some gift, my obvious obsession with what I considered, at the age of seven, great food presaged my later life. I mean the one long after I left hearth and home.

How I developed a taste for beef, medium rare at that, I have no recollection, but some inner radar always alerted me to the opportunity to chow down. In retrospect it was probably not all that deep an intuition, so I don’t credit myself for that particular perspicacity. We mainly would go out to eat on weekends, because my father worked, of course, and excursions during the week were out of the question. In any event, weekends in and of themselves were only in the best sense triggering for little me. Saturday arrived and my taste buds tingled.

Howie at age seven

Portrait of the artist as a young restaurant critic

Probably our first, or at most our second, excursion on a brief road trip were primer enough for me to be alert to the potentiality for having meat. I know we went out often enough, and to a variety of destinations, that I quickly learned to indulge what has proven in the fullness of time to be a natural penchant for criticism. I thought I knew the difference between good and bad. Further, I was not shy to declare a particular meal to be prime or to have been a disappointing sub-par performance. As the case might be. The first time I declared my share of a bloody bit of steak to be “excellent,” I know my father burst out laughing, and not because I was being funny.

He immediately dubbed me “Duncan Howard.” It’s probably a designation that, as a review of a biography of my putative moniker states, needs explaining for most people under the age of 55. I’d make it even older, but that’s neither here nor there. With the age of the short memory of almost everyone, it’s best to explain it altogether.

Duncan Hines, Road Warrior and Cake Mixer

Duncan Hines was the name of a real person. A traveling salesman in his young manhood, and later. Hines loved driving the open road, and open it was in the 1920s and 1930s, when he did his major drumming (as the profession was called). In those days, not only were there no Interstates, there were few maps for the roadways that did exist. What he came to realize was there simply were no guides for travelers—whether itinerant and regular like him and all his sales brotherhood (I assume it was largely mostly a male profession), or occasional, for leisure weekends or the odd vacation excursion.

There simply was none of the apparatus for guidance we take for granted. Especially now in the age of the internet, when all we need do is reach in our pockets, and pull out a hand-sized device and instantaneously have access to, say, 4500 recommendations as to the best places to eat from here to Rangoon. There was no Tripadvisor.com. And to reach further back, to the ancient days of print, already nearly totally forgotten, there was no Fodor’s, not MobilGuides, and in this country there was certainly no Michelin guide (which has its own distinguished history, it’s true, and it dates back to 1900, but it helped *French* motorists, all 3000 of them back then, but only with information about the location of mechanics, gas stations, tire repair outlets, and the like; they didn’t begin listing restaurants until 1922, and ratings didn’t appear until four years after that).

Duncan Hines eventually took it into his head to let his fellow road warriors know, after his myriad experiences in hundreds of establishments had informed him, which were the best places for lodging or dining, and with the rarest of luck for both in a single venue. He turned it into a business, with the help of his wife. He was, at that point, it should be noted, 55 years old.

Duncan Hines, in an unattributed photo, designated Fair Use image in Wikipedia, the source.

In 1935 they prepared a book of listings for the benefit of friends, for a start, of hundreds of good restaurants – mainly local establishments, as there were but very few chains in those days. Hines was middle-aged, well into it, when he began his great work, and he had been on the road since at least the ’20s, plying his trade selling press time for a Chicago printer. That book about where to eat sold so well, he added another volume that recommended lodging. By the late 1940s he had a national newspaper column that appeared three times a week on a syndicated basis, called “Adventures in Good Eating at Home.” He had spread out his franchise by then, associating his name with the growing institution of home cooking. The column mainly featured recipes that the home cook could replicate from the restaurants he had come to know and recommend.

By 1953, which was the year my own burgeoning career as a junior version of the irrepressible Hines began, he had sold the use of his name to a partner who created a company to package products under that name to be sold in supermarkets and groceries. The “Duncan Hines” brand, which made its mark in particular with cake mixes, is still a familiar one. If anyone recognizes it, it’s as a cardboard box filled with flour, baking powder, and not much else.

The point is, so powerful was the brand that its other manifestation: recommendations to dine at a particular restaurant, were a guarantee to the consumer of a pleasing experience. And so people came to look for theelegantly lettered signs in black and white, as I remember them, hanging outside the door of a restaurant (or hotel), as near the main signage as possible. They declared simply that this establishment was “recommended by Duncan Hines.” And it became enough said.

In our family, my father insisted that we could not declare a meal dining out a success unless it received the imprimatur of myself. And he dubbed me, “Duncan Howard.” He’d ask as we finished, and around the time the check arrived, if this restaurant was “approved by Duncan Howard?” My sole criterion was the experience of eating that bloody bit of steer, and I was not generous in offering a recommendation. I have no memory, I’m sorry to say, as to whether I took into account the ambiance, what has come to be called in the Millennial shorthand, the “vibe” of the place.

My predilection for beef hasn’t subsided, though it’s sporadic, and I am not all that indulgent. Somewhere along the line from the seven year-old me to the present I learned about other cuts than sirloin, which was about the only one I knew back then, and it was I always ordered – again a source of mirth for my dad, who I think got a kick out of being able to afford to indulge his junior league restaurant critic of a son. These days, I order hanger steak when I see it on the bill of fare. This is a rare occurrence, so I don’t worry about compromising my smug self-assurance that I am not unduly endangering my health by consuming too much animal flesh.

Much more recently, I had occasion one spring about seven years ago to make regular visits to Philadelphia – what turned out to be prelude to my moving here permanently. Part of the routine that quickly ensued, and again, as a kind of reverberation of my youthful triggering associations, these excursions (at most a couple of hours portal to portal, from Boston to Philly) occurred on weekends. And I looked forward to them with an anticipation far transcendent of my childish fondness for red meat. We’ll just leave it at noting that these latter-day satisfactions had a much more powerful component of emotional fondness than they did any atavistic hunger for blood.

Downtown Philadelphia, showing City Hall, at 6am April 2011 from my room in Loews Hotel. (photo: Howard Dinin)

Nevertheless, not every moment was stocked to the brim with the fulfillments of deep amatory bliss – largely because the object of my hebdominal visits was not always free to get away. Yet, a man has to eat. And not knowing the city after a forty year absence – my last extended sojourn in Philly was as a graduate student – I was ignorant of its culinary riches, if any. And, ironically enough, given the theme of my writing today, I placed little stock in the recommendations of any self-appointed Anacharsis Cloots* on the internet, “citizens of humanity,” who seek to universalize and broaden the culinary interests of all by removing false criteria of old values and any mention of “the full dining experience.” I simply trusted no critic I could find readily who could point me to a decent meal.

What I needed was a revival of the Hines ethos. But what I gave myself was a slow tour, weekend by weekend, of the usual suspects to be found in any large cosmopolitan city. That’s right, one after another I knocked off the local installations of the finest chain steak houses in America: Ruth’s Chris, Morton’s, Capital Grille, and so forth. No place really stood out, but I can’t say either that I was ever disappointed. Not a bad piece of meat among them, though no hanger steak alas. All in all, for a few brief weeks of spring, Duncan Howard rose again.

*Anarcharsis Cloots was the pseudonymous identity of a Prussian nobleman who emerged as a singularly important figure of the French Revolution. Jean-Baptiste du Val-de-Grâce, baron de Cloots, argued strenulously (and donated a small fortune for fighters to do battle against tyranny) for the cause of world rule according to the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” He preferred the title, by which he was known, as the orator of the human race.

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Capossela in a Car Drinking Coffee

Approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes

Dom, my very good friend after what is now more than 50 years, is about to embark voluntarily on an automotive adventure. It will be the second of what he, in what is to me characteristically droll usage, calls an “existential auto trip.” Indeed, so inspired has he been since his first such trek, he has created an entire website, now clearly a personal calling, a vocation, which he also entitled “existential autotrip.” The second word of the title, at least in the Capossela lexicon, is a portmanteau – appropriately enough – that is, a single word.

 

Dom Capossela at Café Pompeii

Our hero – here, closer in age to Lewis & Clark on their Expedition than he is to the age he is now (H. Dinin)

He means these trips, solo flights into the heartland of our great nation, and I mean that in the classic sense of that phrase, “once great nation, still great nation, always great nation,” to be an adventure, an exploration, and a journey into the self as much as it is a bold foray into what William Gass called “the heart of the heart of the country.” In short, Dom is leaving quite soon, that is, two short days from this precise moment of my composition, to drive from Boston, Massachusetts to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and back again. All during the course of a month.

 

He has been preparing for this escapade for months. As much as he is bound up in the increasingly complex business of posting a daily blog, with the attendant responsibility of being the editor of what he now calls his magazine, he must attend as well to the minutiae of assuming responsibility as what he has styled himself – again, drolly – and that is, “Web Meister.” Quite a bit to juggle, especially as he traverses tens, did I say “tens?” when I meant hundreds of miles of U.S. Interstate, not to mention whatever by-ways and diversions he may discover en route.

 

Lewis & Clark

Lewis & Clark (public domain)

The occasion for my writing is not to announce this trip, as he has already broadcast it and adverted to it—even beyond the scope of his domain name being eponymous with his periodic peregrinations—for the edification of his followers. In fact, unless I miss my guess, and I also somehow have missed the intent of his asking me to assume some autonomy in posting relevant material to his blog as I see fit (in order to relieve the burden of his providing daily material, even as he logs his diurnal ration of miles), these words will appear sooner than later on said blog. Rather, as is my wont, being a curmudgeonly sort by nature, and a worrywart, I want to provide at the least a cautionary note to the expectant and triumphant melody it is his wont to warble as he speaks, always with a full heart, of his expedition. Speaking of which, part of his strategy is to emulate, if not literally to track portions of the trail, the expedition of two of his personal heroes, Lewis and Clark.

 

My note concerns coffee. Coffee, not surprisingly, was just one of the provisions that the original Lewis and Clark included in the seven tons of dry goods provisions they packed for their trip (cf: http://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/what-lewis-and-clark-ate/). But, despite the auroral status in our history as a nation of the Lewis & Clark outing, coffee was already sufficiently American to demand a place of that most American of beverages in the diet of those stalwarts. Imagine trying to map the origins of the great Missouri River without starting the day with a full ration of (presumably) hot java. As Vizzini lisps, “inconceivable.”

 

It is of at least equal moment to me that, according to the PBS food historian, the daily consumption of animal meat on average for each man traversing the Louisiana Purchase to the shores of the Pacific was nine pounds. Nine pounds of meat a day, my friends… However let me note that this is not the occasion to ponder the characteristic American appetite for protein in mass quantities. Rather, I’d suggest it is of equal significance that such an atavistic impulse — and a need that could not possibly be provisioned in advance in Saint Louis; they expected to hunt and kill their daily meat ration live — was rivaled by the need to make sure they packed coffee. The existential elixir!

 

But I am here not to laud the heroic virtues of my friend. Suffice it to say that in many dimensions he dares to go where I would prefer not to. Not at our age, not alone, not over such distances, and not in a vehicle with no driver other than myself. Not to mention the vagaries of internet connectivity in the hinterlands of our expansive mainland. And there is the perpetual, the daily, question of what to do when, long about three or four o’clock in the afternoon somehow the cells of my body are utterly aware that it is more or less 12 hours since I lay, suddenly, broad awake, and that it is now time, regardless of what I may be doing, and succumb to their imminent depletion of all energy – a compensatory metabolic state to balance all that bright energy in the middle of the night. In short, it turns nap time long about the same time each day. I’m not saying there are no remedies, even on a lonesome highway, even on the “blue highways” of that famous book of William Least Heat-Moon of 1982.*

 

*A book that also tells of a journey, if I might digress for a moment, though in fact the substance of this diversion is eminently apt, as you will see. Before you get too far into his book-length journey Heat-Moon shares this trenchant exchange:

 

… It was cold and drizzling again. “Weather to give a man the weary dismals,” Watts grumbled. “Where you headed from here?”

“I don’t know.”

“Cain’t get lost then.” [Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, Little Brown, New York, p. 35 (1982)]

 

I hasten to add that I am also not in the least concerned that Dom will encounter the young man’s plight in this encounter (which takes place, charmingly, in a town called Nameless in Tennessee, under the smiling gaze of a poster of Senator Al Gore, Jr.). In addition to planning and organizing down to the last pair of socks his solo expedition’s provisions, with the same fastidious care, down to that last pair of his socks, that the Lewis & Clark escapade required though the one is outfitting himself in the space afforded by the trunk and backseat of a Honda Accord of late vintage and the other is, well, seven tons my friends, and not one ounce of it, we know, was meat. Well, maybe a little beef jerky. But I am getting beside myself, and there is no passing lane here.

 

No, Dom will always know where he is, as he has AAA triptychs, a GPS device, an iPhone, maps, and a destination. What’s more as I infer from our conversations, he has a strong sense that there are no detours or blind trails where one loses one’s way, but in life, with the right attitude, there is only opportunity.

 

However, what he also doesn’t have is a particular article of travel gear – though I am not confident of this, as I have only anecdotal evidence on the strength of his testimony regarding his most recent road trip (hardly existential: it was only from my house just across the city line from Philadelphia to his condo on Boston’s waterfront) and concerning a recalcitrant, not to mention, in his word, “flimsy” coffee cup. Well, actually, there’s no reason to beat around the coffee bush.

 

What he said was, and I have it on record, “hot coffee in well of car  cup too flimsy to pull out w one hand,” and, further along, “must bring solid cup w you.” Which tells us two things. He’s got some last minute shopping (or a last minute scouring of the kitchen) for one of those insulated travel mugs. What I call “adult sippy cups.” Which, let me add, in case you don’t immediately infer this, I hate.

 

And, two, he intends to drink hot coffee (or something hot, and I think he’s ambivalent about tea) while engaged in the operation of a moving motor vehicle.

 

clear glass mug with handle

Duralex “Gigogne” Mug

To be honest, I don’t hate coffee. It’s one of my favorite beverages, hot or cold. I suspect I don’t love it quite to the extent of my friend Dom, who seems to love the aroma and flavor well enough, but nothing on the passion with which he loves the temperature of it freshly brewed. I have now witnessed him dispense, from an insulated carafe, brewed minutes before (by me; just so you know) into a very hip glass mug (Duralex, very French) and proceed to zap said portion of existential elixir for 30 seconds on high in our prosumer-grade General Electric microwave oven. This man likes his coffee hot. In case you missed that part of his blog, way back at the beginning.

 

All well and good. I don’t begrudge my old friend his pleasures. His coffee. The temperature of his coffee. His quest. His dreams. It’s his life, not mine. Existential indeed.

 

What I am not ashamed to set down and admit to, here, after all this verbiage, are my fears concerning hot coffee (he mentioned Starbucks, so I know he has go-to suppliers on the road, and I happen to know that Starbucks serves coffee that is, in the American style, freaking hot). And so even with his sippy cup, Dom is disposed to try to handle his cup o’ morning joe while also engaged in other activities. Could we imagine he will quaff while driving? He did imply a requirement of one-handed stability in the vessel containing his coffee while in his car. I can say no more.

 

It could be said I have, possibly, too strong an imagination for someone of my delicate sensibilities. And I have my own take on existential questions – which, even at this late stage, still far outnumber the answers. So all I will say is, knowing Dom will barely have time to have these words register, I think he might consider the pace of his journey yet again. Consider the virtues of starting the day with a quiet contemplation, lingering over a light repast, whatever the resources of Nameless, Wherever can offer for one’s roving petit déjeuner out there somewhere on the prairie or in the inspiring vistas prelude to a view of the Grand Tetons themselves. Consider a nice quiet cup, even as the scalding infusion of Coffea arabica burns your lips, even as you feel the tug of the open road, before you can sense the blistering qualities of the decoction cooling all too quickly under your fingertips.

 

So my final advice my venturesome friend (and to all who would listen). For the road, a nice cold bottle (preferably with a narrow neck and a replaceable cap) of something refreshing; might I suggest water? And for those intervals of contemplation, coffee as hot as you like in a durable container, while seated in a comfortable chair, or chaise, or lounge, a loveseat, maybe, or a sofa. We don’t want that steaming tincture of java to turn (as in overturn) suddenly from being a philosophical lubricant of deep thought to a truly existential rupture providing a gateway to far deeper places in the cosmos.

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Hope for the Wrong Thing

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes
Persian kitten

Persian tabby kitten on a bed

(adapted from notes and a draft, written in 1975)

When l was first married, for the first time, what is now more than half a lifetime ago, it was a freakish kind of autumn, especially in Philadelphia, the city nearest to our first brand-new apartment. Snow had already fallen three times in October, and by the middle of November, the streets were thick with sullied, mealy brown slush, renewed and augmented every other day by another deposit of wet flakes that fell, when it fell, seemingly ceaselessly, slowly, from the perpetually grey sky.

The weather did nothing to dampen our moods of bright expectancy mixed with apprehensions of great promise. We had just moved to our airy “railroad” flat a month before Thanksgiving, lugging my books and Ann’s clothes time after time after time up the long narrow staircase that led to the second floor of our building. Our only furniture, the pieces decided upon only after lengthy debate, and assiduous searching, were a double bed and a kitchen table with two ladder back chairs. Although married for a few months, we knew, if not consciously, where our priorities lay.

We had little thought of guests; an elegant service was a remote dream. We entertained ourselves. Our chief entertainment was ourselves. Not entirely blind to the opportunities provided by formal occasions, Ann and I had decided to make such an “occasion” out of Thanksgiving, our first opportunity to eat luxuriously at home, with no thought of the expense, or having to get up the next day for graduate school, in my case, or the telephone company, in Ann’s.

Out of a quirky, whimsical, habit of mind I was cultivating I had decided that instead of turkey we would dine on duck. There was no demur from Ann. Neither of us knew anything about duck. This somewhat precipitous change, for us in the throes of secretly longing for Thanksgiving dinners of many times past at home, lent an even more finely energized air to the days preceding the holiday.

We shopped on the Tuesday previous to Thanksgiving. While at the shopping center, and as was our ritual, we looked at the puppies in the pet shop next to the supermarket. This time there was a litter of eight week old kittens as well. In what was to become a rare moment of spontaneity we decided to buy one, then and there, after hurried and feverish consultation with our checkbook. “It’s all right,” I said, “we can do it.” Then came the anguish, welcome as it was, of choosing which Persian (so the sign on the cage said) to adopt. Two of them immediately attached themselves to us, one to each, as we communicated by fingertip through the narrowly spaced bars of their crates. Making a choice became unconscionable. Ann said nothing, yet I knew we either would have both or none.

I looked at her, and doing furious calculations in my head, borrowing mentally against Christmas funds not even earned yet or promised to us, said, “Let’s do it.” And in paroxysms of justification about not splitting up brother and sister, animals keeping each other company in the empty daytime apartment, and because, well, we deserved it from each other, Ann rather painlessly, it seemed, paid for our charges.

We proceeded to the supermarket, kittens in tow in a large cardboard box. Choosing the duck was considerably easier, with every frozen hulk a twin to the next. Despite the minute differences in weight, we chose the lightest, as if the economies of an ounce or two could belie our weltering feelings of ostentation and self-indulgence. At this stage, we were also not too sure that either of us really liked duck all that much, and a lighter bird surely meant less waste, if we discovered we didn’t.

We were thus slaves to my whim, and to a certain vague fear that somehow on this duck hinged a declaration that that we had greater things to look forward to than the stodginess of turkey at home, with the family, year after year, the migration done with the same regularity, out of the same primal urges as those of the beasts, and the birds of the air. In small fits of a kind of anxious intuition we mindfully fought the tyranny of our instincts.

One mishap in the aisles of the Acme Market almost squashed our vain hopes for the day and our general mood of anxious ebullience as surely as the groceries we were buying, piled ever carelessly higher and higher on top of the lid of the box holding our two new family members, suddenly crushed the container. Certainly, we both imagined in the first few fearful moments, it had also pulverized the little bodies inside. We madly threw the cans and boxes, and finally that weighty frozen carcass, out of the carriage. Before we could see anything, we heard the barely perceptible mewing from within.

Until we checked out, Ann kept the kittens in her coat; they were ruffled but unhurt. Chastened, we drove home, mumbling entreaties for forgiveness of the kittens, through yet another snow squall.

On Thanksgiving Day, Julia Child in hand (a book I had studied with far greater fastidiousness and attention that week, than any Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, or Imaginations of William Carlos Williams) we began the great preparation of the duck. It had been thawing solemnly, a monolith of avian flesh, for several days in our tiny refrigerator. I prepared the duck stock, the orange sauce, and the duck.

Ann made soup, and dessert, and the vegetables. We cooked slowly, ritualistically, to the raucously inappropriate music of The Beatles, recently defunct as a group, but the subject of interminable homages on the radio dial – stations desperate for respite from the standard holiday repertoire. We danced as we cooked. We sang. And outside the temperature dropped, as the snow fell silently. Our new kittens mainly slept, on our new bed in the last room of the long train of our flat.

We seemed to cook all day. Finally everything was ready, except for the duck. In the still unfamiliar to me, apparently criminally inefficient, oven the bird sputtered lowly, interminably. It took hours to brown. In my ignorance and inexperience, I didn’t dare raise the temperature. Night fell.

By now we were both fearful that the duck, as good as everything else was, would be as tough as old moose, and our first Thanksgiving would be spoiled. We set the table, cleaned the kitchen to spotlessness. The last traces of our labors were erased. Ann lit candles.

She disappeared into the bedroom, and re-emerged in a dress, a rare, a holiday, treat for me. Finally, as it happened, the duck was done.

We sat and we doled. Ann and I had used every dish that we owned, to serve this sauce or that garnish. As I carved the duck, the radio now silent, the snow having ceased, we realized simultaneously our fatigue. We were nearly too tired to chew, our energies spent, our excitement dissipated. We had a slice or two of duck, a bit of sauce, some peas. It was delicious, better really than we had in the end expected, but we hurriedly surrendered. We went to the bedroom to sleep.

While we lay there, me next to my wife, on our new bed, I knew somehow in my last wakeful moments that I had begun the process leading to some future atonement. Our meal lay on the kitchen table in the darkness, to be cleaned up the next day; very small penance for what felt like a much greater reckoning. With hardly an effort I turned my head to gaze toward the window, bare of shades or blinds or drapes. The sky had cleared completely. Suddenly and unaccountably alert, I watched as the moon, throwing powerful analytic beams into our bedroom, rose beyond the frame of the opening, rose out of my range of vision. A wind rose and blew powdery billows of snow out of the branches of unseen trees. Just as abruptly it fell.

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What We Are Supposed to Believe

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

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.

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French Lessons

Approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes

I have, in what feels like a harmless way, been enjoying observing passively my wife’s dauntless efforts to learn French, conversational French, on her own, using various brands of the most popular form of self-education tools that exist. I mean, of course, computer-based apps, for smart devices and computers.

They seem mainly to work on the principle of going blah blah blah at you in the language with which you are challenging yourself, and you go blah blah blah back, repeatedly. There are exercises, with recursive quizzes built-in to assess progress, wherein variously you listen to a native speaker (they all claim native speakers, and eavesdropping, sometimes I wonder; I’m not a native speaker so I keep my mouth shut… usually; let’s just say maybe some of them are, like, natives of the docks in the old port of Marseille) and try to decipher what they’ve said, or you try to repeat it, phoneme for phoneme.

Your mastery is measured in various ways, and there is regular, if not altogether constant feedback. You accumulate points, or other rewards, receive praise, and are gently corrected. This is the fundamental paradigm of most of these apps as far as I can tell, regardless of whether they charge you, and most of them try to get you to “subscribe” at some point one way or another. Surprisingly some very good software for picking up the rudiments are completely free – after which, frankly, I would move on to a more efficacious methodology even if it costs a few coins in the currency of your chosen tongue.

What else strikes me about these exercises is that one of the essential requirements of the seemingly universal pedagogy deployed is to come up with a reliable steady stream of stock phrases that somehow simulate (or are meant to) the kind of everyday palaver used by native speakers. The classic example (from my French tutelage back in the junior high school I attended in Providence RI) is the immortal, “La plume de ma tante est sur le bureau de mon oncle.” We pre-adolescents of the mid-20th century were supposed to believe this is the way genuine French people addressed one another, impossible as it was on the face of it to imagine that our real aunts and uncles would behave in this way such that we ourselves would have occasion to declare, boldly and with confidence, “The pen of my aunt is on the desk of my uncle.” In case, that is, some interlocutor should inquire of one of us, “Hey kid, where’s your auntie’s fountain pen?”

There was for me the added circumstantial impediment of my having only one aunt, a widow, at best semi-literate, who was, except for the marriage of my father to my mother, not related to my only uncle, a life-long bachelor. Further, given the proclivities, life style, and stated preferences, not to mention a highly introverted nature, of my uncle, I knew it was impossible, should he ever have indulged himself by joining the holy state of matrimony with a literate woman, he nevertheless would never have countenanced his soul mate poking around his stuff, never mind violating the sanctity of his personal desk, which presumably, further, would likely have been in a room, which he would have kept locked, dedicated to the purposes to which one puts a personal desk.

And who used fountain pens any more in that day and age anyway?

Similar antinomies still occur even in the most up-to-date software products it seems. Developers clearly are facing the same struggle to come up with not only credible dialog that is not merely authentic and idiomatic, but similar to real quotidian discourse that might actually occur between real people who find themselves in real situations doing, let’s face it, essentially ordinary things. One of the first revelations of learning a language sufficiently to comprehend most of what’s said within earshot when you happen to be, let’s say, sitting in a café in the south of France next to a married couple from the next town over on what happens to be market day is that, not to put too fine an edge on it, they’re not talking about Proust. Or Mallarmé. They’re not discussing the finer points of Sartre’s thoughts on Nothingness. They’re not amusing themselves exchanging bon mots by way of noting the advances that feminism has made in La Belle France since the days of de Beauvoir. They’re saying the same inconsequential, mundane, homely, and sometimes largely inarticulate things we all do in what passes for conversation about our basically contained, safe lives as we comport ourselves in the unremarkable enclaves of our quotidian wherever we happen to live, and whatever we happen to utter when addressing our intimates.

An additional deficit to these language learning software apps, from my perspective, is, as well, that there’s not much effort given to giving a clear sense except by inference and that blasted continuous repetition of phrases in that stilted scripted language they’re teaching you – which within the specifics of my particular observation is not French, but near-French, Simu-French – about what the cultural norms may be of the societies within which real French is unself-consciously the, pardon the expression, lingua franca of everyone, from the elite to the hoi polloi. Which is to say, there are some ways in which it’s polite to speak to others, especially mere acquaintances and strangers. And let’s face it, there’s no reason to learn French intensively and immersively for casual reasons (though I know there are some otherwise temperate and good-natured souls who pick up other languages as a hobby, with no prospect of ever actually putting them to active use). Not unless you own property in France which you hope to enjoy on a regular schedule of visitation, or you’re ex-patriating yourself for reasons about which it would be certainly a rude and presumptuous intrusion for me to inquire, or you are marrying into a family of exclusively native French speakers and who, your intuition alone so far has told you, are OK kind of people, maybe even your kind, and you’d like to converse in something other than an impromptu sign language plus an awkward mutual but inadequate command of the limited vocabulary of Franglais we all seem to share, plus a lot of smiling while engaged in eye contact of the most earnest sort. Because Franglais is good, maybe, and mainly, to find yourself a toilet in an emergency and for getting ketchup for your frites.

You do want to learn the language so as to reveal some finesse and sensitivity for it, even if your motives are purely touristic however, and intended not only to smoothe your sojourn in a foreign country as a visitor, but to enhance the pleasure of actually being there by having an ability, however limited, to engage with natives in some polite conversation where you might compare views about such matters of universal interest as the weather, or the beauty of the countryside, or the tender yet toothsome je ne sais quoi of the volaille forestiére (chicken breast, hunter style) you ordered with such aplomb and confidence. In short, there are few people insensitive enough or so supremely self-possessed as not to care if they come across as a dork or, worse (though sometimes the sadly stereotypically expected behavior of an American in virtually any EU member country), as an exuberant kind of gorilla with a talent for what resembles the power of intelligible speech.

These thoughts occurred to me today, as I happened to be musing on this on my daily commute to the local bakery, in the context of trying to come up with ways to encourage my wife in her thoroughly successful efforts so far in learning a language using such sometimes tragically impaired tools. Her efforts are heroic and deserve not just encouragement but assistance of a kind based more solidly in the real world of the France and its people with which we have become familiar in an affectionate way through our regular visits.

What I thought, as I encountered, among other things, some of the usual sights along the way, and had to deal on the road with some of the usual impediments one encounters on the highways and byways of rural Provence, was how much deeper would be the experience of gaining mastery of conversational French if it addressed some typical sitations with what someone might actually wish to say to the individuals one encounters randomly, if not serendpitously on such rounds.

So, here are some phrases I came up with, just this morning, that I’d like the neophyte speaker of basic French to tackle. And let them decide how much more fulfilling it is to be challenged by these phrases.

Bicyclists (in summer especially there are many many of them on these country roads and the rules of those roads requires, in fact, that motorized vehicles must honor their right of way – I’ll leave it at that, otherwise my language might get unduly colorful):

“Hey, can’t you and your gang of eight manage to ride single file on this road?”

“I’m not sure you realize this, my friend, but you and your buddy there on the side of the road with no shoulder, having a cool drink of water, are practically invisible in the shade in this blinding sun. I came close to sending you flying.”

“Say, my ancient friend, I know very well you have the right of way, and I must pass on the left at least five feet away from you, but I think if you meander up the hill in the middle of this two-lane road you may be putting yourself in danger. I do worry. So, move over, if you don’t mind.”

Personal Needs (you will quickly note a theme here):

“I am so sorry to disturb you during your cigarette break, especially as you are the only waiter in this restaurant, but I wanted to bring to your attention that your washroom has no toilet paper, or soap. Oh, and you are out of towels.”

“I am sure it is very rude of me to comment, but might you consider putting a sign on your restroom door warning people that there a few centimeters of water on the floor they might wish to avoid?”

Cuisine

“I did want to tell you how fascinated I am to observe that your chef has figured out how to add some crême fraîche to every dish you have on offer.”

“Would it be terribly inconvenient to indicate in the menu – you can even do it only in French – that all of your salads include pork lardons and chicken gizzards? I appreciate these added bits of savory protein, but your portions are so generous, I would be happy to eat only the vegetables.”

Fellow Bewildered Tourists to the Region

“Well now, my good fellow, I see you are a little lost, as you entered the cramped parking area of the bakery in your large luxury car in the wrong direction, and have managed to make it impossible for me, in my little compact rental, and this other stout fellow, a local resident in his tiny van with his dog, to remove our vehicles, even though we have finished our purchases and wish to go home. But I’ll just sit here as I have plenty of time. I am sure you will figure out how to extricate yourself, and good luck my good man, as you do so.”

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Normalization, Again

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes

Normalization is a problem of the past, not the present

I have said repeatedly, usually, I admit, to no one in particular, from the first time I heard the usage as a warning, usually screamed (figuratively) in my (virtual) face from a (virtual) hysteric in that inevitable nearly impossible place, all too real, for all its virtuality, Facebook: “Don’t talk about normalizing Trump!” There’s no danger there. It too is impossible. It’s not entirely what the word means anyway.

What we have to fear is an adjustment and periodic readjustment in our perception of all that has come before, which was never normal at the time (and the farther back you go, the farther goes one’s sense of the craziness of the errant behavior). As Corey Robin points out in his essay “Forget About It” in the current Harper’s [paywall], though it’s here, if you want to take a shot at getting access (see below), it’s our constant reassessment upwards of the assault on our notion of normal during the administrations of Richard Nixon, and then later George W. Bush – “Hey those guys weren’t so bad, after all, were they?” – that is the real danger. And it’s a danger not because of the infamous reality distortion field identified by Steve Jobs in one of his P.T. Barnum moments. We’re not likely to accept anything that happens today, that is, any time at all during the tenure of the current incumbent of the White House, will register as normal, not to anyone with any vestige of sanity. It’s the extent to which by comparison some future rough beast (to use that particular, but miserably and perpetually apt trope) may make today’s beast look not half bad to our future selves. Or whoever has managed to replace us.

In short, the dangers of normalization are not to the future or even the present. We like to think we are always capable of vigilance, resistance, and clear-headedness. The danger, because we are never sufficiently in possession of those qualities, is to the past, where we think some pastoral and salubrious notion of normal resides. After all, it’s to that instinct that Trump so scurrilously adverts with his now patent cynicism of a slogan about what we can make of America. What we are making of it, because we suffer the distortions of sensibility that alter our notion of what is normal. And as we seek our way back to some semblance of it, we discover, as we have done repeatedly, that we have lost our way. Possibly irrevocably.

‘“There can be an appalling complexity to innocence,” the political scientist Louis Hartz observed in his classic 1955 study The Liberal Tradition in America, “especially if your point of departure is guilt.” That nexus of guilelessness and guilt, depth and innocence, is usually [Philip] Roth country, but in this instance we’ll have to take the master’s tools and use them ourselves.’ — Corey Robin

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

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Human Error

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

Designers in silico (link to an essay on the OUP blog)

Having just undergone the relatively unpleasant, but fortunately rare, experience of having a shipped package from a reseller (in short, merchandise paid for by me) go astray, I am particularly sensitive to the matter of imperfect heuristics in the most banal of interactions. My concerns are amplified personally, because at one time in my career my income derived in part from having in my designer repertoire of skills the need to design and, unfortunately, implement user interfaces on computer screens.

In the case of my package gone astray, the Fedex Ground delivery route driver (I did encounter him the same day, because he managed to deliver the second package from the same reseller accurately) seemed harried and confused. It’s not surprising. These folks are required to deliver the day’s assignment of parcels before being able to quit. They have to account for every package, get signatures for those cartons and parcel requiring it, scan every single item delivered as to time and date of leaving it at its destination. And of course, all of this must be done accurately, that is, trying to ensure that the package goes not only to the right address, but the correct recipient.

All of this must be done, moreover, under the unique constraint of the carrier (and all of them are alike in this regard, but especially the major ones, because they carry the bulk of the freight and their logistics are particularly dicey as they have all those individual residential addresses to which they must deliver) being required to deliver within a certain promised window and, if the purchase cost threshold is exceeded according to tariffs and fees that have been negotiated to the fraction of a cent, they must do so at a contracted rate, with razor thin margins. In the case of sales over a stated amount (anywhere from $25 to hundreds of dollars) the reseller is picking up the cost, and the services are very competitive, but especially so these days as the U.S. Postal Service, in its struggle to reach profitable operations (at the mercy of a refractory congress, which otherwise takes up the slack of the cost of operations), is now carrying a lot of the water for the other two major national delivery services, FedEx and UPS. The most costly part of any route is the proverbial “last mile,” which is the figurative representative distance between the last rational distribution point and a recipient’s address.

In the case of my errant delivery, the package did require a signature. And the last mile, like all the preceding miles of transport, was being covered by FedEx Ground. The driver obtained a signature. Unfortunately it was the signature of whoever answered the doorbell or knock of the guy when he brought the package to the door of the wrong address, somewhere in my neighborhood (but now, four days later, I am as much in the dark as to where it went as any other ordinary shmoe just waiting for his purchase). The signature, according to the tracking data I am allowed to see as the addressee, was by someone named, apparently, Sshishaanna. If you know this person, please let them know I’m still waiting for the package they took out of the sweating hands of the FedEx route guy.

You’d think anyone accepting a package would, among other things, first check to see where it was coming from, especially if you weren’t necessarily expecting a delivery, and two, to check to see who in the household it is to whom it’s addressed. But no, we, in our general mindlessness, apparently just sign, scribbling whatever indecipherable nonsense appears on the crude screen of the tracking device the route driver hands you along with the plastic stylus that doesn’t seem to register half the time anyway. It used to be you signed and that ended it, but these days – and let me guess, could it be because more and more packages go astray and more and more efforts to trace the package fail because the signature is indecipherable, for starters? – if the driver can’t make out what you wrote, they ask for the spelling of the name you wrote. I’ll also guess it probably took more time for him to type in “Sshishaanna” than he took to read the label before ringing the bell.

I could suggest some things that, germane to the topic of this essay about how to make interfaces not only more friendly and efficient, but more accurate in the everyday contexts of costly logistics as the last step in the process of getting merchandise into the hands of the paying consumer. And this is true especially in these days of more and more retail trade being conducted on the internet, and with a lag (as small now as two or three hours, given Amazon’s intrepid advance to abbreviate the wait for your precious consumer goods) before what you’ve purchased is in your anxious little mitts. Why doesn’t that tracking gizmo that the driver hands you for your signature show in a conspicuous way the name and address of the recipient in clear and readable text with the caveat that you are about to sign for a package shipped to this individual and to please make sure it’s correct? That’s just for starters.

I don’t know how you train route drivers cost-effectively so that you reduce the kinds of imbecilic errors they perform routinely. And which even mistakes that result in sanctions they feel in their own wallets and purses do not encourage them to behave more mindfully in the performance of their salaried duties. But I do know there is clearly a great deal more to be done with the materials and technology at hand, which is being used anyway, and which would produce more and more accurate results (at greater cost-effectiveness) with the small adjustments that an informed methodology applied to the design of labels, device screens, and the mechanisms, both mechanical and electronic, used to ensure that the participants in a transaction are given the best chance of not screwing up. The untoward consequences in most cases are a small amount of frustration that most adults can shrug off, especially in a day or so. But sometimes the result, as this OUP essay adverts to, can be as disastrous and anxiety provoking on a mass basis as the goof that sent the entire population of Hawaii into a panic because of an alleged nuclear attack. The warning was an error of monstrous proportions in its effects, but tiny in terms of the mechanism deployed to trigger it on the simple assumption that no one who was thinking and paying attention would do absent-mindedly or in error.

The denouement of my package disappearance is that the reseller has to ship me another one, that is, as soon as they get more items in stock, because it’s back-ordered. Popular item you see. Flies off the shelves. Even if the cost is high enough that I get “expedited shipping” for “free.”

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Only Human

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

Harvard Professor Will Retire After Chronicle Investigation Revealed Harassment Allegations

Since I was a boy I’ve wondered at the ability of people to own up, or not, to their failings and mistakes. Somehow I grew to expect that this is what responsible humans did, usually adults, and I understood it was at great personal cost at times, often in terms of humiliation, shame, and what required many more years of maturity and experience on my part to understand was a painful rendering of one’s personal sense of worth and esteem.

What took me considerably longer to understand – my earlier apprehensions about confessing one’s fault and conscious assumption of responsibility having been more of an intuitive perception, subject to the invisible hand of my parents’ moral suasion (if not, in retrospect, as well, in seemingly inconsequential episodes from time to time in my childhood, the more palpable stern upbraiding I took from my mother) – were the ways in which cultural forces have reshaped the methods and the narratives by which we remove ourselves from the forum of social engagement. We never openly admit guilt, and certainly not in some earnest and transparent heartfelt rendering of such feelings, but we take actions that are signals, or perhaps even more formally signifiers of our acknowledgement of that desultory state of conscience that itself signifies dishonor and mortifying embarrassment.

In the current climate of daily broadcasts of the untoward behavior of male authority figures toward their female subordinates – in plain language the constant stream of accusations of sexual harassment, abuse, if not outright violation, which justifiably goes largely unchallenged as to veracity, because there are inevitably multiple victims testifying – the inevitable response, the usual one, the one that seems almost autonomic in its spontaneity and lack of reflection, is denial of all charges. Inevitably the miscreant attests to his utter lack of such debased character as to behave in a matter contradictory to his innate respect and support of women and his lifelong championship of feminist causes, in spirit, if not in name. Given the preponderance of evidence that is all but sanctioned by the gravity of the charges even in the absence of formal testamentary oath-taking by the victims, there is a farcical quality to the defense offered by the offender. It would, indeed, be funny, if the circumstances and the repercussions of the prior acts did not redound so disastrously on the victims, while perpetrators too often retain their powerful tenure.

In the fullness of time, there are never worse repercussions, despite allegedly exhaustive inquiries and what is lamely often put under the rubric, as it is here, of “full and fair process of review.” Severe penalties are defined. If they are ever imposed, they seem never to hit the headlines with the same force as the original exposure, which usually is the culmination of years, if not decades, as in this case, of abuse and concealment (if not outright contemporaneous dismissal or minimalization, in those rare instances that victims brave the virtual institutional skepticism of accusations made at the time of the violation). As the promised new order of better vigilance and active fostering of an atmosphere and environment of safety and protection of the interests of vulnerable populations, but especially women who remain largely in positions of subordination and powerlessness, has yet to be established, the question remains about how seriously society is willing to punish, never mind speak of the remote potentiality of reform and rehabilitation, and vilify offenders in such a way that the prospect of the depth and extent of humiliation once publicly exposed will be sufficient to deter the behavior that occasions it.

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Some Things I Can’t Reconcile in Today’s News

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes

Doesn’t “compute:” The apparent perception that the shutdown of government is either a viable political tactic or, more importantly, part of some larger political strategy – especially by the party not in power in any sane and predictable course toward overturning the present ratio of power in an election ten months hence. The plight of the Dreamers is now going on 20 years. The crippling of liberal, never mind progressive, objectives is an ongoing current crisis, in which the left continues to be at a disadvantage.

Makes no sense: The expectation that officeholders, especially congressional Democrats with seats in peril in the next national election, should vote along ideological lines for positions they know do not square with their constituencies. And that they should do so at peril of being challenged for those seats by more hardline partisans of progressive principles in a primary. If I were an incumbent trying to reconcile a successful campaign strategy for reelection with my own sense of adherence to principles, I’d say to challengers, bring it on. Either one argument will win the nomination or the other will – presumably the incumbent knows more about holding onto the seat. When did the electoral process get subverted with a preference for brinksmanship in legislative standoffs?

The New York Times today reports this:

“The grass-roots are rightly furious with a slew of elected Democrats,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director of MoveOn.org. “In the Obama years, Republicans learned to be more afraid of primary challenges than general elections. But Democrats are still operating as though the Tea Party is more powerful than The Resistance.”

What I’d like to know is, how did the Times know that “The Resistance” was in upper case capitals? And whatever the case, what exactly is “the resistance?” To what? Who comprises it? How large a percentage of the electorate is it? This sounds discouragingly like propagandistic rhetoric of the left. MoveOn has a not too unblemished history of its own.

from today’s NYTimes:
Senate Democrats’ Vote to End Shutdown Infuriates Some on the Left

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/22/us/politics/liberal-activists-democrats-betrayal-shutdown.html

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Michael Wolff, Rabbi Warshaw, and the Washington Press establishment

Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes

So, given the vagaries of surfing on the web (yes, I’ve been doing it that long that I still call it that… I started doing it in 1994; when did you start?) I ended up reading filtered accounts of the new Michael Wolff sensation of a book. I am speaking, of course, of Fire and Fury, just published, filled with “insider” revelations of the true tenor of life not only in the Trump White House, but the inner workings of his campaign leading up to the election. I’m not here to flog those confidences, though. There’s enough of that still going on.

I’m not even here to flog the reputation and working methods of Michael Wolff, whose reputation as a professional journalist among those who know his work long precedes him apparently. I am not ashamed to admit that I didn’t know his work. However, his reputation is not so great, especially among his presumptive colleagues, one would gather in the cataractous light of hindsight. His fellow scribblers had pretty much been keeping mum about his flagrant breaches of decorum, to hear them tell it, until he, in effect, opened his mouth with what is turning out to be a red-hot bestseller—no thanks to them and their overwrought efforts to subdue their anguish, especially once the president’s Tweets hit the fan. American journalists are particularly adept at not sounding like they’re choking, as they contort themselves into strangulated postures to retain their air of restrained dispassion. What they love to call the hard won perspective of “objectivity.”

Even as Wolff has been branded now variously a “liar,” “unprofessional,” “devious,” “mendacious,” etc. etc., there is a still barely audible counterpoint, call it a trickle of true neutral observation, that one must accept that book, having come through the apparatus of established publishing protocols by a reputed, if not an esteemed, publisher, has been vetted as far as a rushed account can be (it is still, after all, less than a year, if only barely, since the inauguration of our 45th chief executive). Presumably, and no doubt as will turn out reliably, it has been largely fact checked, gone over for the legal niceties that publishers – especially – worry about, and edited as well as a substantial book of nonfiction, 335 pages of it, can be in what is relatively short order, especially given its topicality and even more given the slipperiness, shall we say, of the sources.

Rather, my subject, as little attention as it deserves in this specific instance, is the attitude evinced by that aforementioned establishment press, especially in Washington, and in particular the so-called White House press corps – let’s face it, the heart of the monster that Trump has anointed with the epithet, used as much as an abstract noun as anything more precise, of “fake news.” Let me just observe for a moment here that, in the latest figures I can find from what I am satisfied is a more than reasonably reliable source, the U.S. adult public, with regard to the information they get, wrings this level of trust out of themselves for “national news organizations” as determined in a survey by the Pew Research Center in March, 2017 by political affiliation:

  1. Democrat: 34%
  2. Republican: 11%
  3. Independent: 15%

It should only be noted, and I add this significant detail somewhat bemusedly, that the question posited the level of trust being queried as “a lot.” There was no indication of what amount a “lot” is in either relative or absolute terms. The only sources that fared worse on this question of trusting the information to be derived “a lot” were “friends, family, and acquaintances” and “social networking sites.”

It is clear enough from the remarks I have seen in the casual conversation pits that form on Facebook of working journalists, past and still working, including many who worked national and international beats, including the Washington DC bureaus of their organizations, with a sprinkling assigned to the White House itself (I have not personally seen any remarks from present members of the Washington press corps) that Wolff has evoked a lot of feeling among his putative colleagues. Not a few people, and most of them are men, have had not merely exposure to the dispatches of Michael Wolff in the past, and not merely immersion in the gossip and scuttlebutt about his work, his methods, and the arc of his career, but had some acquaintance, most of it nodding or purely transitory, with the man himself. And very little of the first person accounts of any of the substance of these points of contact with either the person himself, or merely his work, and certainly of the unsubstantiated remarks shared about his character or his modus operandi, indeed possibly none, were what I would characterize as commendatory.

Few of these critics, as there’s nothing else to call them, have anything really revelatory to say that would represent a concrete argument for refuting the assertions of the book, as they’ve been reported in summary in the first news reports from leaked copies or as the actual text quoted in the usual places online or in print, sometimes at length. Rather, the remarks hint vaguely, I would call them rumblings of disquiet clearly meant to discredit without actually venturing into the territory of bald accusation and condemnation. His would-be censors apparently feel free to call him a “known liar,” but stop way short of calling any of what is in the book outright fabrication. Whereas, of course, the president himself and his usual corps of defenders have no problem concentrating their wrath on the veracity of the published accounts, rather than worrying the character of the author of them. Curiously, of course, and this is duly noted by the “fake news” sources, very few, possibly none, of the sources quoted in Wolff’s book have denied what was said.

The New York Times published one account that opined there was nothing particularly original about either the book or its purport – suggesting that it conforms readily to a genre of political confession that is not new, except to the extent that one would expect such embarrassing revelations to see print years after the first inauguration of a sitting president. In the case of George Bush one such book by an insider in his White House was published not too far into his second term. Thereby such books, meant to provoke readers at least to the level of fueling significant sales figures, but not to stir its most invested publics up to the pitch of kicking a hornets’ nest. Hence, Wolff has not so much created a new game, as he’s moved the goal posts – however one might state the objectives, beyond the realm of moving the book into the status of bestseller strictly for the financial rewards entailed – a lot lot closer.

However obscure the objectives of Mr. Wolff, his agent, his publisher, et alia, it is more fun, though admittedly no less unexplained, to speculate on the state of mind, at least, of his apparent detractors.

They all don the tone and demeanor, as I hope I’ve suggested, of the sang-froid for which the most trusted newscasters and reporters of our cultural past as a nation were always praised. Through blitzes (literally), through battle, through disasters, through political debacles, American reporters and the later phenomenon of the news anchor (who came to prove his –usually “his” – or her mettle by unchaining from the news center desk and going into the field, even unto the mouth of hell) were always expected in a stalwart way to appear imperturbable. Further, in a way that is uniquely American in terms of the canons of neutrality and objectivity that are the core of curricula in professional schools of journalism, at least through the 20th century, that imperturbability extended to an ethos of never revealing either a bias, never mind an opinion. I, never bound by such constraints, am willing to venture the observation that it was not until the advent of a Trump presidency, first in prospect as his candidacy became legitimate and then in fact, as it became, well, a fact, one that cannot be denied by a sane person, that any visible cracks appeared in the cloak of neutrality donned most steadfastly by the foremost adherents of the papers of record—it has always been papers, specifically newspapers, the only surviving artifacts of our national cultural history that constitute their own fully anachronistic existence. Something cracked, for sure, when the grimly determined policies enrobing the grey lady were loosened sufficiently that the most exalted of poobahs of the press, the editors, permitted in print (and, for sure, in pixels) and not merely buried below interior “folds,” but emblazoned in headlines on the front page, that the lies of our president be labelled as such.

It is in the same spirit of impartiality that, in time, rendered the practitioners of this noble craft (to paraphrase Fielding, one may say that the professional pursuit of truth fills a person with nobility, and it does, as long as it’s filling a noble person… it’s an ocean away, but we should remember that Grub Street is readily the counterpart to Times Square) susceptible to a tendency to tendentiousness, and hence, given any bona fides as a reliable practitioner, being halfway there, an inclination to suffer the pangs of sanctimony. It’s a danger in those of weak character, in that it becomes sometimes impossible to keep mum about one’s own purity, if not piety—which leads to the intriguing possibility, which I will just hang out here and move on, that perhaps, like conjoined twins, perfecting the pose of utter neutrality can so easily be mistaken for having attained to a purely pious nature.

I say all this, because I am reminded of nothing so much as what follows below when I read the twisted impostures of writing with utter coolness and a disinterested air – a hard thing to do in the cramped confines of a Facebook comment, which, after all, has an optimum length, short enough, for effective impact – even clearly while seething with contempt, and stewing in the juices of sanctimoniousness.

I am left with no other impression than this: on two counts, Wolff has made myriad enemies among his brethren (again, I have to say, though without trying to be definitive or absolute, that it seems mainly to be men; men of a certain age, some retired, some about to be, some still in harness, so to speak, with equally notable but unremarkable careers until now). First he has, to use the lingo, scooped a great many people trying to report, and somewhat fitfully and fragmentarily so, dating from the beginning of the Trump tenure, about the internal mayhem of the administration. Second, he has done so, clearly, by winning the trust of those whose mouths should have never opened in his presence, especially given the presumed tenor of his prior reputation—assuming you accept that he is nothing but a mountebank himself, a sensationalist, and a liar, and no journalist. Even as he presents no outward signs, in any event, of the same piety, if not sanctimony, in which they have wrapped themselves, like judicial or academic or liturgical robes (is there any other gowned profession I am forgetting whose stature is so entwined with its relation to defining the nature of truth?).

What I am finally reminded of – to tell the truth, and now that I’ve introduced the clergy to the discussion, however slyly – is the satirical rage of a hero of the Age of Narcissus, specifically of the 60s in the United States, Alexander Portnoy, created by a master vocalist of satire and rage in virtuoso recitals, Philip Roth. At a certain point, stuck on the hypocrisy of his boyhood rabbi, Warshaw, who shepherded our hero through his triumph (to hear him tell it) of a bar mitzvah, as a first step on a path to the glory of exalting justice and truth in a career in law, Portnoy lets loose. I hope my pulling together so many seeming disparate strands here is not irrelevant to what I have chosen to comment on, from here in the bleachers, looking down on the spectacle occurring at this moment with such topicality – and whose freshness is no doubt as fragile and evanescent as a perfectly ripe berry. I am sure what I’m trying to convey here concerns a fruit of somewhat greater longevity, paradoxically durable, given that it’s borne by the trees of one of the orchards we call knowledge.

I am no less passionate about not abandoning the quest for truth in our very misshapen times, even as the pathways to it become more twisted and convoluted, than Portnoy is about he has discovered in his tortured dismay—that surrendering to anxiety or wallowing in a narcissistic pool are no means of shelter. Finally, I’ll leave you with this anguished, if comic, condemnation in absentia of the rabbi, from Portnoy’s prolonged monolog to the ever silent Dr. Spielvogel. Read it slowly, as it’s filled with resonant allusion to matters that are proving, minute by minute literally, in these first few days of the new year to be the stuff that will prove, ultimately, to be either some kind of dreadful apocalypse or of some kind of redemptive salvation:

Ah-hah, I knew it. It’s no Devil in the proper sense, it’s Fat Warshaw, the Reb. My stout and pompous spiritual leader! He of the sumptuous enunciation and the Pall Mall breath! Rabbi Re-ver-ed! It is the occasion of my bar mitzvah, and I stand shyly at his side, sopping it up like gravy, getting quite a little kick out of being sanctified, I’ll tell you. Alexander Portnoy-this and Alexander Portnoy-that, and to tell you the absolute truth, that he talks in syllables, and turns little words into big ones, and big ones into whole sentences by themselves, to be frank, it doesn’t seem to bother me as much as it would ordinarily. Oh, the sunny Saturday morning meanders slowly along as he lists my virtues and accomplishments to the assembled relatives and friends, syllable by syllable. Lay it on them, Warshaw, blow my horn, don’t hurry yourself on my account, please. I’m young, I can stand here all day, if that’s what has to be. “…  devoted son, loving brother, fantastic honor student, avid newspaper reader (up on every current event, knows the full names of each and every Supreme Court justice and Cabinet member, also the minority and majority leaders of both Houses of Congress, also the chairmen of the important Congressional committees), entered Weequahic High School this boy at the age of twelve, an I.Q. on him of 158, one hunder-ed and-a fif-a-ty eight-a, and now,” he tells the awed and beaming multitude, whose adoration I feel palpitating upward and enveloping me there on the altar—why, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if when he’s finished they don’t pick me up and carry me around the synagogue like the Torah itself, bear me gravely up and down the aisles while the congregants struggle to touch their lips to some part of my new blue Ohrbach’s suit, while the old men press forward to touch their tallises to my sparkling London Character shoes. “Let me through! Let me touch!” and when I am world-renowned, they will say to their grandchildren, “Yes, I was there, I was in attendance at the bar mitzvah of Chief Justice Portnoy—“an ambassador,” says Rabbi Warshaw, “now our ambassador extraordinary—” Only the tune has changed! And how! “Now,” he says to me, “with the mentality of a pimp! With the human values of a race-horse jockey! What is to him the heights of human experience? Walking into a restaurant with a long-legged kurveh on his arm! An easy lay in a body stocking!” “Oh, please, Re-ver-ed, I’m a big boy now—so you can knock off the rabbinical righteousness. It turns out to be a little laughable at this stage of the game. I happened to prefer beautiful and sexy to ugly and icy, so what’s the tragedy? Why dress me up like a Las Vegas hood? Why chain me to a toilet bowl for eternity? For loving a saucy girl?”

Roth, Philip. Portnoy’s Complaint (Vintage International) (pp. 201-203). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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