United States

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.

Chez McDo

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Right when you walk in, you can tell you’re not at a truck stop on the border with Kansas any more. The French incarnation of McDonald’s has wallpaper, it’s got light fixtures, it’s got plants, and it’s altogether different from the injection-molded booths, fluorescent lighting, and off-white tiled floors of the American version I remember.

You might think it’s just a haven for nostalgic expats and curious tourists from countries where the franchise doesn’t exist, but let me assure you, Chez McDo is very popular with the French.  The company’s website boasts that it operates more than 1,285 restaurants in the country, at which it serves nearly 1.8 million meals a day.  Anecdotally, every time that I’ve had occasion to visit (mostly for the free and unlimited wifi), the place has been packed.

If the lines are too long, or you’re just feeling anti-social, you can order and pay at one of a half dozen kiosks equipped with credit card readers and touchscreen computers, and afterwards you can pick up your meal in the purpose-dedicated express lane. But there’s no compulsion to avoid the counter; the staff is quick, cordial, and professional.

When you get to the menu, the differences compound. There’s Le Big Mac, of course, and the McChicken (although in Franc everything is “Mac” rather than “Mic”), and there’s the famous Royale with Cheese, although it’s actually just Royale Cheese, sanks to ze French aversion to ze phoneme “th”. Those, however, along with their signature fries and the majority of the soft drinks are the the last of the similarities.

There are several items suited especially for the French palate; though there are McDonald’s burgers around the world, I’m fairly sure that France is the only place you’ll find one with sauce Béarnaise, served on a baguette, or topped with chèvre. And there is a version of the Croque Monsieur, known of course as the Croque McDo.

If you don’t fancy a soda to wash it all down then beer is available, in the form of Heineken and 1664 (though for the time being there is no such thing as McVin), as is Badoit, a brand of sparkling mineral water.

When it arrives on the tray, it looks and tastes very nearly like food. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nothing gourmet; it’s still fast food and it still gives you the McGas. But it tends to approximate what’s on the picture, and you can eat it without feeling that you’re the punchline of some elaborate practical joke. The portions are of reasonable size for a human– the largest is about the equivalent of an American medium, and Super Size is nowhere in sight.

As you eat, you begin to realize what else isn’t there: there’s no Ronald, no Grimace, no Hamburgler. There are the jungle gyms, yes, and a few balloons, but the childish aspect doesn’t take over and the kids, too, are treated with a modicum of dignity; the prizes in the Happy Meals aren’t just cheap plastic toys, they’re often board games and DVDs. I mean, I lived through the Beanie Baby craze, so it’s strange to see the chain distributing something one could be glad to receive without displaying a profound mental illness.

And that’s what really surprises me about all of this. It’s been so long since I was actually inside a McDonald’s in my home country that I can’t say for certain whether the changes in atmosphere and the decline in corporate cynicism have made it across the pond. Perhaps there too, in the wake of Super Size Me and the criticisms of those who would call a spade a spade, McDonald’s has changed its tune.

But there was a time in America, whether it’s passed or not, when it was as though McDonald’s was punishing you for giving them your money. The food they served was a shriveled and sickly-sweet mess. There was something predatory in the way they treated families, trying to get at the wallets of parents by driving the little ones to a manic and rabid distraction. Their wages and business practices attracted only the desperate. The place itself smelled of many things, but the heart cord of its perfume was despair.

This is the McDonald’s I remember outgrowing, and for that reason in particular the most surreal thing about Chez McDo isn’t the McCafé breakfast, which is stocked with better-than-average tarts, macaroons, and croissants rather than McBiscuits, McMuffins, or McGriddles.  It isn’t the odd way that English words reintroduce themselves, such as a large combo being a “Menu Maxi Best Of”, or a particular dessert being called a “Very Parfait.”  It isn’t seeing American culture depicted in sandwich form, with burgers called the McFarmer, McRancher, and McPioneer (for full effect, I recommend reading these out loud in your best French accent).  It’s the fact that you can actually consider it as an option for a quick meal, and that if you decide to give it a go, you’ll be able munch away and get out of there with your dignity intact.

I think if it proves anything, the existence of this kinder, (cleaner,) friendlier version of what was once the epitome of all that is wrong with corporatism and American dietary sensibility proves that corporations will try as hard as they have to in order to profit, and it shows that if our standards are high enough and if we vote with our dollars, we can all make them treat us the way that they should.

It may not be the greatest restaurant in the world, and it certainly isn’t somewhere that I make a habit out of going, but the French McDonald’s is at least as good as fast food can be, and really, that’s all it had to be in the first place.