Any Port in the Storm, Apparently

Well, here we are.  I woke up this morning in a world where Donald Trump is the president-elect of the United States of America.  I woke up in a world where 59,209,854 people (and counting) had decided that the most powerful position on the planet belongs to the man who least appreciates the American ethic, and who is least fit to carry on the American tradition.  The news media is referring to the event as “historic,” and as a “seismic shift in American politics,” and perhaps those deceivingly opaque phrases do muster a modicum of truth– whatever unfolds over the next four years, yesterday will certainly be marked as a pivotal moment in the history of our nation and in the history of the modern world.

Trump’s victory is attributed, by most, to the widespread unrest and dissatisfaction that pervade the electorate.  In the words of Paul Ryan, Trump “heard a voice” in the American populace, and while it is not mine to amplify I can assert this about its timbre: that voice is filled with a grumbling, cloudy-headed petulance that demands change without beginning to understand what kind of change it wants.  People are upset, but the danger of politics in general is always that in a social and political vacuum, in this rumbling, roiling melange of malcontentedness, people might blindly empower any force onto which they can project their most meager hopes and dreams without adequate scrutiny.  And that is what we have seen throughout this election cycle, first in the primaries and now in the general election.

Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, along with Trump himself and several other figures, stressed, as politicians often do, the importance of unity at this time.  Trump declared that he will be the “President for all Americans,” and President Obama, in his remarks, said we should remember that “ultimately we’re all on the same team.”  I think it is important that we remember that this is not the case.  Trump and his supporters,  along with the administration he will build, have very different ideas about what makes America great and about the direction that the country should take, and the differences are not ones to be taken lightly.  Many people talk like unity for unity’s sake is a good thing, but I have always mistrusted the concept when it comes to politics, and especially when it comes to political leaders.  If Trump’s presidency is anything like his campaign, division and opposition will be necessary and, depending on the way things go, essential.

Clinton said in her concession speech this morning that, “we owe him an open mind and a chance to lead,”  and to my mind this is an invitation to forget everything we have learned about the man in the last year and a half, as well as everything we learned about ourselves last night.  Trump’s campaign was built on fear, flippancy, and aggressively puerile ideas, and the public rewarded him handsomely for it. He offered nothing concrete or novel in terms of policy, he demonstrated no sense whatsoever of decorum, and at every turn he further and further lowered the quality and scope of the discourse, and still he was elected.  We owe him nothing, just as it is with any leader.  What we owe over the next four uncertain years is owed to ourselves and to each other: candor, fortitude, and vigilance.

There are 10 weeks left before the transition of power.  After that we’ll all have to see what happens.

A Naked Emperor is Bad for Us All

If you had told me two years ago, before it was something many millions of Americans were not only considering but in fact anticipating with some degree of enthusiasm, that I would have to make a list of reasons why someone should not cast a vote to elect Donald Trump President of the United States of America, I probably would have inquired as to your need for other efforts, such as “Why You Should Not Gargle Drain Cleaner” and “10 Reasons Not to Entrust Your Estate Planning to a Cocker Spaniel.”  In short, I would have thought it was… obvious?

[Regular readers will remember that, upon the announcement of his candidacy, I interviewed a British trashcan because I thought it merited the same consideration for the job.]

Yet, here we are.  Much to my surprise, in spite of the dogged persistence of his own personality and ideas, he remains on the ballot that has come before the nation.  It doesn’t even matter if he wins, though that would certainly be a deeply unsavory prospect to say the least; to me, it’s bad enough that he’s gotten this far.

I guess when I doubted his chances of making it through the primaries I underestimated the American public’s tolerance for crass, impetuous, ill-mannered boors, at least when it came to those who would be put in positions of power and authority over them.  I guess I thought that what worked for reality TV wouldn’t work for, you know, reality, and that there were enough people who could tell the difference.  But over the last 12 months I have been driven, kicking and screaming, to the conclusion that whatever general wisdom I thought was latent in the majority, whatever I thought was common about common sense, has taken its long day off.

In the few election cycles I’ve witnessed I’ve seen people rally behind untenable positions, I’ve seen candidates gain ground through casuistry and fatuousness, I’ve seen political hay made out of the inconsequential– I’ve seen politics at its finest, which isn’t saying much.  But this is far beyond politics at its worst.  The unrestrained crudeness, the brazen demagoguery, the complete lack of anything resembling commitment to values of any kind, moreover the idea that any of this contributes to the greatness of America, and no one has laughed him out of any town hall, no one has hounded him from any debate or forum, no one has demanded that he behave as if he were running for the highest office in the land.

If the farce that it is the candidacy, nomination, and potential presidency of Donald Trump illustrates anything, it’s that this country has lost its ability to recognize insults to its intelligence and to its character.  So many of us have forgotten the emperor is supposed to be clothed.

For the record, I don’t think Hillary Clinton is an ideal or even adequate candidate for the job either, and if she wins as she’s widely predicted to, I’m sure I’ll have much to criticize.  I find Clinton opportunistic and many of her policies misguided, I find her professional relationships and some of the things in her record more than unsettling, and I am categorically opposed to dynastic succession in American leadership.  But when pitted against Donald Trump, it’s no contest; I’ll take the bad politician over the abysmal celebrity.

People disagree about America’s role on the international stage, but few would view the NATO alliance as a conditional, subscription-based agreement.  Many find journalistic mud-slinging distasteful, but few would undermine the first amendment to guard public figures from scrutiny.    Most are concerned about terrorism, but few would accept the unsolicited offer to make a national register of adherents to a certain religion and make such affiliation a disqualifying condition for entry into the country.  There’s a great deal more like this, but criticism of the ridiculous remarks that he spouts wherever he goes involves a lot searching for any real position that can be dealt with intellectually.  Frankly, most of what he says merits (and rewards) very little consideration.

To me, whatever happens tomorrow will be disappointing, and ultimately I think most people this year are voting against someone rather than for someone.  It’s pretty clear that neither candidate deserves the win.  But it’s also abundantly clear that one of them deserves it much, much less than the other.

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the finest piece of real estate in the country, and it’s one that shouldn’t have “TRUMP” emblazoned upon it in thirty-foot gold letters. It comes with things like nuclear launch codes, the capability for executive actions, veto power over legislation, the right to make lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court, commander-in-chief status over the world’s most powerful military, and membership in the same club as Thomas Jefferson. The idea that any of these should be conferred upon a megalomaniacal, narcissistic bully who thinks that the world was a better place when Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein were in power is absolutely preposterous.

No Laughing Matter

I used to joke that, “Americans are a very self-loathing people; it’s one of the things I really can’t stand about us.”  I stopped telling that joke because whenever I did, to my disappointment, no one ever seemed to get it.

The funny thing about America is that when ever you’re trying to be funny people take you seriously, and when you’re trying to be serious, people take you for a killjoy.  There’s no place anymore, it seems, for an authentic, dynamic relationship to one’s experience that maintains a distance from that experience; no place for cleverness, no place for wit.  In the last 15 years or so, comedy has become a deeply serious business, and this is the fault of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

In reality, it’s a problem of centralized media, of September 11th and its repercussions, and of the general contortions of cowardice from which the majority builds their opinions, but The Daily Show, along with its spin-offs and contemporaries (The Colbert Report, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Real Time with Bill Maher, The Onion), have done more than anything else to blur the line between serious and funny in our time.

Comedy in this country has been turned into sound bite speech-writing for the masses, and what Jon Stewart says today will be half of everyone’s earnest opinion tomorrow.  The other half, unfortunately seems to be taken up by the maniacal, over-the-top infotainment of FoxNews, CNN, and the rest.  The news media ruined the discourse, and the fake news media ruined the conversation.

And ultimately this isn’t a cut on Stewart or Colbert, or even what they do; it’s a cut on their audience.  It’s a cut on all of those who allow their world to be defined by the best thing they’ve heard on television in the last week, and who allow the talking box to tell them how they feel, what they think, and what it’s really all about.

Everything is a statement these days, and whether it’s comedy in the media or dialog between individuals, every facet of our common dialog has been conscripted into the political sphere.  People have lost the will to be candid and prosaic, and more importantly, they have lost the ability to be flippant.  There’s no place for an observation, tongue-in-cheek or otherwise, that isn’t meant to cut to the quick of our modern times and explain to everyone what is really going on.  If one is to say something that people can get behind it has to be quotable, or more often, plagiarizable for years to come; it has to be activist, to be useful.  In short, there’s no place anymore for silly.

The rise of political comedy has led to an an arms race of rightier-than-thou, an epidemic of laughing overseriousness, and it’s caused this inversion where regular people care more about how others jest than what either party actually believes.  Perhaps, what’s worse, it’s gotten people to forget the difference.

I don’t know what the remedy is for this kind of non-committal always/never point-making, but it couldn’t hurt for people to watch less TV and read more books.  Maybe if people tuned out for a while and stopped rewarding themselves for echoing the pseudo-sophistication of the mass communication networks we might get somewhere.  Maybe if people thought for themselves we might be able to laugh again.

You Don’t Have to Be Charlie, But You Must Fight for Those Who Are


Last Saturday night (or, well, I suppose by then it was Sunday morning) I found myself in the kitchen of a Parisian apartment, in the genial company of wine, music, and conversation, and as the latter found its way through the former to the infamous assault on the staff of Charlie Hebdo, I took the opportunity to enjoy what may be the most pleasant form of argument– one with someone who agrees with me, but perhaps doesn’t agree with me enough.

By the time I arrived in France, in the week following the attack, the drama of the event had already concluded. The killers were dead, the public had rallied, and all that remained, so it seemed, for the return to business-as-usual in a free society was the million-strong publication, on schedule, of the “journal irresponsable”’s next edition.

I hadn’t written on the subject, and didn’t intend to, because I thought it was well in hand with others. The coverage was thorough, and the case for free speech against such a blatant and obvious foe was well-enunciated by all. I shared common cause, indeed, but it seemed opportunistic to snatch at the low-hanging fruit by echoing what everyone had already demonstrated that they knew, and somewhat hollow simply to issue my praise to the French for their displays of solidarity and support (well-deserved though that praise would be).

But now I think there is something left to be said, in particular to those who equivocate their support for free expression in society, and who nurse an embarrassment over what other people do with it. As always, the radical position must criticize the liberal position.

My friend had submitted, somewhat murkily, that it was a question of different values, and in the lull of our agreement, when I tested the waters by saying, “Yes, but we shouldn’t be afraid to assert that our values are the correct ones,” he winced slightly. He had taken the position that, horrible and intolerable though the attack was, the cartoonists had brought it upon themselves by going too far; “[they] crossed the line,” and worse, they did it “too many times.” I countered with the idea that, however important these “lines” may be to individuals, whether in terms of religious sanctity or of social propriety of any kind, it’s a free society’s job to maintain that no such lines exist, and that these codes of piety can’t be enforced on the group. This much he conceded, but he was still uncomfortable with the idea that the sanctity of other people’s religious faith had been compromised, and he seemed to wish for an admonished societal correction after which we all would be more polite.

When it’s media outlets refusing to reprint the cartoons in question (something that Charlie was brave enough to do with the Danish cartoons in 2005), or a feeble politician failing to assert the values of the society they represent, it’s appropriate to see this position as cowardice. But when I put it directly to my friend whether the capitulations of political sensitivity are motivated by concession or fear, and he said, “concession,” it was true. He was one, like many, who admired religious devotion in itself, and who felt alienated from a society that allows the objects of that devotion to be denigrated.

But it’s different for an individual invited into the home of a religious person, over tea or dinner, perhaps, than it is for a public magazine. Yes, Charlie Hebdo frequently said things that you might not say in the polite company of a devout religious person, things that even I might not say in the same situation. Yes, if we approached the subject we might handle it more gracefully, more delicately for the sake of the person with whom we were speaking. But just because we find such decorum admirable in individuals doesn’t mean we can demand it from society.

Perhaps it’s an effect of the personalized tone of media and advertising, the way mass communications are almost unfailingly directed at the impersonal “you”, but people seem to volunteer the idea that the existence of blasphemous materials in media is the same as running into a mosque and interrupting a prayer service to wave incendiary cartoons in people’s faces. I assure you, it is not.

A secular society doesn’t demand that no one is religious, or that no one treats archaic objects and texts with the reverence for which they were designed. In fact it specifically makes room for, and guards from discrimination, those who do. It simply demands that no one is compelled to do likewise, and that’s what this whole thing is about.

Pluralism, the right to live and let live, is one of our values, and the likes of the murderers in this case and jihadis of all types are not fighting for the right to be treated pluralistically. They are not fighting to exclude only the most acerbic mockeries from public consideration. They are fighting for the day when a death sentence for any criticism at all will be the norm. They are fighting, if their own words can be believed, for the day when their beliefs are the singularity.

That’s what gets lost in the question of sensitivity and the self-flagellation over the fear of some kind of cultural collateral damage. For the thoughtfully and authentically faithful, the brash and pointed satire of this kind may be a nuisance or, at most, a challenge. For the idealized, good-hearted Islamic grandmother who doesn’t care what other people believe and wouldn’t hurt a fly, at worst it might be an undue insult, for which we all must be apologetic. But for the would-be dictatorial administrators of theocratic fascism, it’s the clearest way of saying that their day will never come, and that is too important to do without.

We have to preserve the right, in principal and in practice, to treat these things without sensitivity, without grace, and without a respectful, enlightened, congenial tone. In short, we have to preserve the right to be crass. When it is sinisterly and bullingly implied that we all should genuflect before someone else’s god, we have to say then more than ever that the appropriate response isn’t, “No, thank you.” It’s, “up your nose with a rubber hose, you dirty son of a bitch.”

You don’t have to be Charlie, but in order to maintain the backbone of a free society, you must fight for those who are.

Incidentally, I can report that the demand for that new issue I mentioned has been very high; a lot of places have started waiting lists and many people have been placing orders for copies in advance.

Also, as I searched for images of the cartoons I found I was unsure of which to post– it appears that, unlike the case of the Danish cartoons which were about a specific set of drawings, the killings were in response to Charlie Hebdo’s Islamic cartoons in general; I have reposted what appear to have been the greatest offenders below, and I’ll update the post if I find any that I’ve left out.  If you haven’t seen them yet, this is what all the fuss was about:

All images property of Charlie Hebdo.