Saturday, February 17, 2018

Screeners and so on

It's nearly Oscar time, and I've finally gotten around to watching some of those "for your consideration" screeners which I am fortunate enough to receive every year. I won't go into any depth about my reactions to them; I'll just jot down a few observations:

The Shape of Water is in many ways wonderful, and in some, troubling. A great deal could be said about it, as a study in loneliness, an hommage to classic films (especially Creature from the Black Lagoon, which I remember from my childhood), a spy thriller, and an odd and touching romantic comedy. There are moments which are undeniably moving, but the script is uneven - some of it is downright amateurish - and the message is, well, strange. Ultimately, it is a film about cross-species sexuality, which, even twenty years ago would have been taboo, as well as about frustrated gay sex. Indeed, it is only when the character played by Richard Jenkins fails miserably to attract a young counter clerk (who is much younger than he and clearly out of his reach), that he agrees to help Sally Hawkins' character to rescue her swamp-creature lover.

Now, if in the fifties, when Creature from the Black Lagoon came out, someone had suggested that the young woman, instead of being reduced to helpless screeching by the thing, had actually fallen in love and had sex with it, well, I suppose the sixties era of free love would have been unnecessary. That the film is essentially about sexuality is indicated by the young monster-seductress's opening scene, in which she masturbates in the tub as part of her mute morning ritual. The idea of cross-species attraction was implicit in the film The Arrival, but in Shape of Water it is made explicit, which is, I guess, an index of how far we have come in our search for a solution to societal isolation.

But beyond that, the film takes one more step in the direction of utter the demolition of convention: The mute woman is murdered by the villain (Michael Shannon, a very good actor, who in this case does everything but twirl his mustache), but the creature pulls her into a river where, through some miraculous power it possesses, manages to resurrect her. Quite apart from the fact that, even if she could be resuscitated, she could hardly survive under water, this ascribes to the swamp thing a power formerly reserved solely to the Messiah.

Just two more notes: The sudden appearance of a thirties dance/musical number was for me the low point of the film; just silly and unnecessary. But, on the other hand, at least we now know the real cure for baldness.

Phantom Thread was another odd foray into sexual relations. I won't say much about it except to offer my opinion that Daniel Day-Lewis was not needed in this film. Any of a host of other fine British actors would have done just as well, which is saying something about the script, since Day-Lewis is, in my view, the finest film actor of our time. He wasn't given much to do, and I kept waiting for that burst of anguished rage which he does like no one since Olivier's Lear. When it finally came, it was so delayed and so punctual that it had little impact.

Again, the film ultimately (and I mean after quite a long preface) is about another bizarre sexual relationship. When we finally reach the climax, as it were, it seems that the relationship at the center of the film depends entirely upon... food poisoning. Now, this is not an evocation of the age-old theme of the love-death since nobody actually dies. But whether it is a metaphor for delayed orgasm or it is just plain weird, I really didn't care, having sat through two hours of elitist dressmaking to get to it. Talk about an anti-climax. A final note: the score, which was a mish-mash of classical music and annoying piano tinkling, was intrusive and dreadful.

About Mudbound I will say even less. It was an awful, dreary, depressing indictment of race relations in the Deep South during World War II (as if we needed another one). The script was vastly overdone, continually reaching for a profound poetry which it consistently missed by a considerable chalk. And the climactic scene, which does not bear description here, was horribly explicit, excessively violent, and completely unnecessary. For me, the question which the film raised has nothing to do with man's inhumanity to man or America's perennial race problem, so much as: Knowing what he does about the condition of black people in Mississippi, why didn't the young army veteran go somewhere else when he was demobilized? Vermont, or Massachusetts, or Canada. Anywhere where he might not be reduced to the very muteness of the star-crossed lover in Shape of Water?

Lady Bird was, I felt, an honest and convincingly-written examination of the angst of the teenage years. Well, directed and very well acted, it deserves the attention it has received. There was, however, one major loose thread in my view. After Lady Bird falls impetuously in love with her young drama club colleague and then finds him making out with another boy in the men's room, she is revolted and horribly hurt. Then, she surrenders her virginity to an uncaring lout, which proves another form of disillusionment with sex and the male. And so, when it is time for the prom, to which she has been so looking forward, she abandons her "popular" friends and goes instead with her former best girlfriend. At which point, shouldn't she be considering lesbianism? I expected her to, but nothing more was done with this. Again, a rather odd excursion into the murky swamp waters of sexuality.

For me, the weakest part of the film was the coda. By every standard of drama and audience expectation, the film ought to have ended at the airport when, freed from the awful prospect of UC Davis, young Lady Bird sets off to college in New York. Instead, her mother, who has vehemently opposed the plan, misses the opportunity to tell her goodbye. That she could have done and should have done seems a no-brainer. Instead, the film lurches into a fragmented and makeshift ex-post facto, which struck me as arbitrary, and unworthy of an otherwise endearing film.

Which brings me to Dunkirk, which I saw in the theater, twice. And I must say, much as I admired it the first time, I appreciated it even more the second. It is a brilliant piece of storytelling, which is odd since the script is rather poor, but it has been a long time since I felt that a film taught me something new about structure and interwoven story lines. Despite the rather threadbare script, which is punctuated by Kenneth Branagh gazing significantly out over the Channel and telling us, not once but twice, that he can almost see home, I found the film so compelling, so utterly riveting, that it was almost difficult to watch. It was rather like the first excruciating half-hour of Saving Private Ryan, continuing uninterrupted for two hours.

Added to the powerful impact and artistry of the film is that it is virtually silent, and has no clear main character. It is not a story of relationships so much as of events, which is very hard to pull off in a fictional narrative. And yet the events are so brilliantly orchestrated and so inherently dramatic, that one scarcely notices the lack of conventional character interplay. One further note:  I am not a fan of musical scores in films; I think this is an archaic left-over from the accompaniment to silent movies. However, since Dunkirk is essentially a silent film, the score was necessary and, I thought, absolutely brilliant.

Since I am on the subject of movies, I suppose I ought to comment on the "#me-too" phenom that is sweeping Hollywood. As someone who has written a good deal about priest sexual abuse of children, I am, of course, heartily sympathetic with all those young men and women who have been exploited and assaulted in their quest for a career in films. However, I find the sudden excrescence of empathy on the part of people who ought to have known better, and, I am quite sure, did know better, to be yet another iteration of Hollywood hypocrisy.

I can confidently say that everybody knew that Harvey Weinstein was a brute and a beast, and yet many of the leaders of this black-robed, breast-beating movement worked closely with him, sometimes over periods of years, turning a blind eye to what anyone who was not blinded by ambition could see. I never worked with Weinstein, though I was given two chances to do so, and I declined because I, like everyone else, knew his reputation for mistreating his employees. Call me old-fashioned, but I will not work with someone who lacks the common decency to treat his colleagues like human beings. But many people, including some whom I know personally, did not scruple to do so, hoping to feed at the trough, no matter how ugly and fetid it was.

Having said that, I should like to make a further point: Abuse, not only sexual, but moral, and psychological, is endemic to the Hollywood film business, as, indeed, it is to the Catholic Church. This, I think, will be true in any institution in which the young and hopeful are beholden to the powerful and unrestrained. And while we must take the accusers seriously and hear them out without prejudice, we must remember that our system of justice is based on the principle that one is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

As we reexamine our societal attitudes toward the abuse of power in the workplace, we must remember the Duke rape case and the University of Virginia scandal, in which the accusations proved to be false. Weinstein aside, you cannot accuse, try, and condemn someone, ruining his or her reputation and terminating his or her career based on accusations alone. Now, in cases where multiple accusers have come forward telling essentially the same story, we are entitled to draw our own conclusions, and action must be taken to stop the abuse. But where the evidence is thinner, where there may be ulterior motives in play, we must rely on the courts to make the determination of guilt or innocence, lest we do a damning disservice to those at the center or even on the periphery of the accusations.

That this is a real danger has recently been proved by the suicide of a prominent producer whose name was indirectly linked to Weinstein, and who, apparently, was guiltless of any wrongdoing. Yet, having been dragged through the swamp, she could no longer bear the burden of shame. And that, in itself, is a terrible shame.

Monday, November 20, 2017

To exist or not to exist

I have been struggling recently with Wittgenstein, which is about as fun as a struggle gets. Somehow I had missed him in my education, and when recently I came across his theories about language, I was, as we used to day in the counter-culture sixties, blown away. If I am understanding correctly what he thought, is it very similar to what I've been thinking for years.

Now before I get into the question of being and existence as I find it in his writings, I should mention what an absolutely fascinating person Wittgenstein was. A prodigy born into a very wealthy Viennese family, he had no patience for school, and he found his way into math, and then into philosophy by accident. He never finished college, never got a degree, yet when he began studying with Bertrand Russel at Cambridge, they gave him a PhD in recognition of how absolutely brilliant he was. He was a decorated soldier on the Russian Front in World War I, a high school teacher known for his harsh treatment of his pupils, and an early aeronautical engineer. Wittgenstein renounced his considerable inheritance and lived in a small wooden cabin which he built for himself in Norway. He quit academia to work as a volunteer nurse during World War II, considered becoming a psychiatrist, lived in isolation in Ireland, and designed and built his sister's house. It is clear that he was tormented by sexual misgivings; he apparently was homosexual, but abstained for fear of social disapprobation. He died of cancer in 1951, at the age of 62, having published only one small book in his lifetime, in which he claimed that, through a logical analysis of language, he had solved all the problems of philosophy.

It is Wittgenstein's writings about the relationship of language to existence that I find so absorbing. It is not too much to say that he believed that most of the problems of philosophy were caused by fundamental misunderstandings about the role of logic in language, and that once these are properly resolved, most philosophical propositions can be seen as linguistic nonsense. But it is the specific idea of the relation between being and existence which intrigues me. Wittgenstein argues that being and existence are not coextensive (as I had thought), not interchangeable terms, but that it is possible to posit being without existence. For example, it is possible for you to imagine a unicorn; even to describe it in detail, with its horn, its silky mane, and sparkling blue eyes. But unicorns do not exist in the world. However, Wittgenstein maintains, the fact that we can imagine unicorns in such detail means that they have some form of being -- being without existence. The same would be true of angels. Our culture has believed in the existence of angels from a very early date -- the Old Testament is full of them, and the history of Western art is ornamented with very precise images of their appearance. Yet, angels do not exist in the world; they are what Wittgenstein would label as being without existence. In other words, he argues that the fact that we can imagine a thing means that it has some form of being, even though it lacks existence.

As I said, I have been struggling with this idea recently, since the ultimate form of being without existence would be God. I do not believe that God has an objective existence any more than angels or unicorns. Yet volumes have been written about God, and Michelangelo imagined God quite clearly, and depicted Him with great power and detail on the Sistine ceiling. So Wittgenstein would say that this fact invests God with being, though not with existence. Yet in thinking about this proposition, it seems to me that Wittgenstein has it backwards; the question is not being without existence, but existence without being.

The key to this distinction, I think, lies in an element that forms part of every being-without-existence proposition; namely, imagination. When we imagine a unicorn, it does not acquire being thereby; it acquires existence in the imagination. Though it exists quite clearly in our imaginations, it lacks being in the world in an objective sense. The same would be true of angels: they can be and have been imagined many times in our culture, but their existence is confined to imagination and imaginative expressions. They thereby have existence in the mind, but not being in the world. This is also true of God. We can imagine God, depict God, write about and praise God and create religions to adore Him, but God remains a product of the mind (and perhaps also of the heart and soul), but God is without being in the world.

The question then becomes: how genuine, how meaningful is existence without being? Samuel Beckett said in Waiting for Godot that life has meaning with which we have the power to invest it. In the same way, concepts of existence without being have meaning to the extent that we invest them with meaning. No right-thinking person would claim meaning for the existence of unicorns, a few might claim it for the existence of angels, and most of the people of the world would claim meaning for the concept of God even in the absence of the being of God. This, of course, is the importance of the incarnation of God in Christ: it gave to the existence of God in the mind an objective being in the world. You might say that all of Christianity is founded on this single idea. That is the true brilliance of the Gospels: that they are accounts of the coming into being of the idea of the existence of God.

And yet, if we deny the divinity of Christ (which I think is essential to an understanding of his teachings), God remains, like the other examples, as existence without being. And so I am left to conclude that existence without being is possible, though being without existence is not, since that which has being exists even independent of the mind; it remains only for the mind to discover its existence. But what effect this has on the meaning of non-being existence I have not yet decided. It seems to me that, while you cannot invest existence in the mind with any form of being in the world (as Wittgenstein seems to suggest), it is possible to invest it with meaning. Or, to put it another way, a thing does not need to possess being in order to be meaningful. Thus the paradigm becomes, not existence to being with meaning; but existence to meaning without being. That which exists in the mind or imagination may have meaning even though it lacks being. Which is to say that if you imagine something, it need not be real, but it can be meaningful. As in the case of God.

What is the meaning of the imagined existence of God? Ethics; that is, the implications of that existence for our lives. This is as much as saying that if God did not exist, we would have to imagine Him, since we must have a system of ethical principles to guide our lives, and to distinguish right from wrong. The relationship, then, of the imagined existence of God and ethics is one of necessity. If we did not have a concept of God, it would not be possible to make moral decisions about behavior. This is the meaning of the existence of God as that term is generally understood. Thus ethics becomes a matter of necessity applied to life through the imaginative existence of a divine being, which, nonetheless, has no being. There is thus a dynamic interplay among existence, being, necessity, and ethics which, I think, is the basis for all civilized societies. When God is taken out of the equation, that is, when it is forbidden to imagine the existence of God, as in atheist societies, then something else must replace God in the dynamic chain. And that something is the state, or the idea of the collective welfare, or the cult of the leader, who becomes, in effect, divine.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Living genius

I have long been fascinated by the idea of genius, and I often speak to my son about it. It is a term I apply sparingly. Of course, Beethoven and Bach were geniuses; Shakespeare and Tolstoy; Leonardo and Michelangelo. But the other day as we were driving home from school, my son asked me who I thought the living geniuses are. Now, I can't really speak about math or the sciences, but I had to say that offhand I could think of only two: Hillary Hahn and Yuja Wang. For those who may not know, Hillary Hahn is a violinist, and Yuja Wang is a pianist.

Whenever I hear them perform I am struck by several things: their depth, their emotive power, the poetry of their playing, their technical skill, and their extraordinary memories; both seem to have absorbed an enormous amount of repertoire, which they can produce on a moment's notice, elegantly and effortlessly, as if they had been preparing for weeks.

Their personalities are quite different. Hillary Hahn appears as quite the more serious artist of the two. Her playing is always precise and profound, invoking all the centuries of violin art which have preceded her. I have written here before that to hear her play solo Bach is among the finest artistic experiences one can have. And she is a great champion of modern music, often luring us in with promises of Bach in order to introduce us to music written in the past year or two. The last time I saw her perform, she played a dozen new pieces, among them one written for her just a month before. And she played them all faultlessly from memory.

Then came the Bach, and I just closed my eyes and relished, for it included my absolutely favorite piece of music, the great Chaconne from the D minor Partita. It is by far the longest and most complex of all the movements in the solo sonatas and partitas, and is, I think, the piece by which any violinist must ultimately be judged. Her performance was perfect, as her playing always is perfect, rich with insight and nuance, tasteful, intelligent, intricately precise and deep, and carried off with impeccable intonation and technique. In her hands, the Chaconne truly comes alive in all its variety, and expressiveness. She brings to it, I think, as much skill as anyone who has ever attempted it, and derives from it all the spiritual insight with which Bach infused it.

I have seen her perform the Sibelius Concerto, also one of my favorite pieces of music, and she does so with all the inspired attention to detail that she brings to Bach. Yet in its sprawling, icy virtuosity, the Sibelius allows her to expose aspects of her personality which the Bach does not. Sibelius is a romantic, of course, but his romanticism is always constrained by his Nordic heritage, and this suits her exquisitely, for her character and her technique, while capable of the great romantic gestures of the piece, are always grounded in a striving for perfection of expression. I had the good fortune to meet Hillary Hahn briefly, and I must say that she struck me as being every bit as serious, focused, and utterly unaffected as I had imagined her to be.

Yuja Wang, on the other hand, is all about the celebration of youth and the joy of being alive. She is so delightful, so effervescent, yet when she sits at the piano to play, she is transformed. The first time I saw her I had no idea who she was, but her program was rich and varied and I thought, how bad can she be? I was overwhelmed. She played a stunning variety of pieces with equal skill, virtuosity, and verve, and the culmination was the one I had really come to see, La Valse, by Ravel. This must be one of the most daunting tasks a pianist can undertake, and I almost literately held my breath as she started. She was magnificent: powerful, poetic, technically brilliant, and inspired. I had never heard the piece performed so well.

Last night, unable, as usual, to sleep, I watched a video of Yuja Wang playing the Liszt Sonata in B minor; a monster in one continuous movement, 32 minutes long, varied, intricate, yet with an overarching intellectual integrity that must be sustained through all its dramatic fireworks and lyrical interludes. And again, it was breathtaking. But I must admit that I enjoyed watching her face as much as listening to her playing. That she is completely immersed in the music, transcendentally concentrated, is clear from her expressions, which are not, like my other favorite pianist Mitsuko Uchida, vast and melodramatic, but, rather, they are contained, internal, and wonderfully subtle.  And I realized as I watched and listened that the essence of her playing is not, as I had thought before, poetry and power, it is spirituality.

I have often remarked to my son, when Mozart comes on the radio in the car, that it is difficult to believe that such genius could have been incarnated in a single human being. Yet last night, I saw it incarnated in Yuja Wang. Her playing, and her experience of playing, are a spiritual exercise, every bit as much as those of the great mystics of our tradition, yet much more moving in that she makes them so gracefully and generously accessible.

Two women, both very young, both supremely talented, and both, in my understanding of the idea of genius, living examples of its rare and glistening incarnation.

Monday, October 30, 2017

PC Speak

Lincoln was fond of asking people: “If you call a sheep’s tail a leg, how many legs does a sheep have?” And when they answered “Five,” he’d say, “No, four. Because calling it a leg doesn’t make it a leg.” What he was reflecting on was people’s belief that changing the name of a thing changes its nature. As if language had some magical power to transform reality.

I’m doing a post-grad course in English Literature at Arizona State University on line, which is a fine, convenient, competent program. The work is demanding, the instructors are gracious and fair, but the farther I get into it, the more troubled I become. One professor announced that she would be using the pronoun “they,” even though she knew it was grammatically incorrect, but she feared offending people by having to choose between “he” and “she,” or the clumsy expression “he and/or she.” And so we get a sentence like: “One of my students said that they were sick.” I’m sorry, but that means that the student is talking about other people—other people are sick, not him or her. That’s what the pronoun was meant to convey. A pronoun must agree with its antecedent in gender and number; PC or not, that’s the rule. And God knows we have precious few of them in English.

Just today, one of my classmates referred to prostitution as “survival work,” a term I had never heard, at least not in that context. To me, survival work is any crummy job you have to take to pay the rent and feed yourself. My survival work was vacuuming carpets, and pumping gas, and wiping up the blood on the floor in the basement of a butcher shop. The idea is to avoid using the word "prostitute," since that might offend them. Forget that that’s what they are; we don’t dare offend them since doing so would not be politically correct. And that’s what lurks behind all this, after all: political correctness. It was quaint and kinda cute when it started back in the 90s, during the Clinton presidency—you remember Bill Clinton, who molested women and was accused of rape—but it’s gotten worse over the years, and now it’s out of control.

Now we have “triggers” and “safe rooms” in schools to protect our students from being made to feel uncomfortable. As if they were intellectual toddlers who have to be saved from banging their heads. Well, sometimes it’s a good idea to bang heads, sometimes it’s the only way to get people to wake up and grow up and think. Now we have protests to shut down speech with which we disagree, and riots to run speakers off of campuses. We have controversial thinkers bullied and intimidated and attacked, and classic books rewritten and even banned. My son had to read Huckleberry Finn over the summer, and I got a two-page letter from the school warning us about the language, and apologizing for Mark Twain. I couldn’t help but think how Twain would have loved that. It was exactly the kind of Letter from the Earth which he himself wrote a hundred years ago. He saw it coming; he just didn’t imagine that his own work would be a victim.

History teaches us that the first victim of tyrants is language: Change the way people speak and you can change the way they think. They all did it, the fascists, the communists, the racists and anti-Semites, the homophobes and misogynists, and now it’s the politically correct crowd. And they don’t even realize the company they’re so eager to join. Control language and you control thought, control thought and you control expression, control expression and you control dissent, control dissent and you can enslave people. They did it in the late, unlamented Soviet Union, where Jews were the “cosmopolitan element;” they’re doing it in Muslim countries where the murder of children is “honor killing;” they did it in Serbia where genocide was "ethnic cleansing;" we did it in Vietnam, where massacre was “pacification;” they’re doing it now in North Korea and Cuba and Iran, where anybody who dares to disagree is “an enemy of the revolution.” Language equals thought, which equals expression, which enables dissent, which leads to freedom. So control language, Mr. Tyrant, if you want to survive.

There is a growing glossary of words in our society which we are no longer allowed to use. Not allowed by whom? Government? Media? Peers? Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn; I am a writer, and nobody tells me what to think, and what I can and cannot say. That's in the nature of my profession, woven with words and blood into its history. Writers before me have been persecuted and prosecuted and imprisoned and killed to preserve the right to write what they pleased, and to tell anybody and everybody and sometimes even nobody what they believed to be true, in words of their own choosing. Their only tool was language, their only weapon was truth, and churches and governments and bullies of all kinds who feared the truth instinctively targeted language.

I love the English language; it’s the medium in which I live and think and speak, the language in which I dream and fantasize, mourn, celebrate, muse, and meditate. It’s a living, growing organism, vibrant and rich as spring, as much a part of me as blood and tissue, and I treasure it. So please don’t twist and torment it for political purposes; let it develop naturally, don’t try to force it into faddish shapes to slake your PC fetish. Leave the English language alone, let it breathe and be, respect the few rules it acknowledges; don’t try to make a sheep’s tail into a leg, because we’ve seen where that leads: George Orwell showed us seventy years ago in 1984

Friday, October 20, 2017

Night rain

Last night there was a rain, and it was lovely to lie awake and listen to its rhythm on the roof. A rare rain, living in a desert as I do, or near-desert as the clean-shavers of science would say. How reassuring was that roof-rhythm, neither exact nor arbitrary, but measured with the random vibrancy of Nature, connecting with the rhythms of the self – the beating of the heart, the bloodflow tides, the pulse of breath, the blink of eyes. A melody as soft and soothing as a nightsong or the touch of fingertips on flesh, the finest experience of which is harmony; the fullest expression of which is love. That rinsing rhythm reminds us we are not in Nature but of Nature, and that for all the evil in the world there is a will that wishes well, a vast benevolence which holds us in its palm, a clasp that is the span of space and the timelessness of time. We are not alone, will never be alone, so long as that consoling, cupped caress contains us, and bears us safely through this darkling universe until we reach at last the end of rainfall night.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Managerial Mystification

As I continue to follow, at some distance, the carnival sideshow parade of the Trump presidency, my perplex over the president's managerial style deepens. How could he possibly have run a multinational conglomerate the way he runs the White House? Anybody who has ever managed anything knows you don't contradict and humiliate your staff in public, you don't undercut their authority, you don't criticize and threaten to fire them openly -- in short, you don't wash your own dirty linen in full view of the very people you're trying to serve. Yet that is precisely how Donald Trump is behaving. Which causes me to wonder: How did this genius of the deal become so successful while being so hapless?

I might as well say it: Jack Kennedy was an incompetent president. If he had not been murdered when he was, his presidency would have dissolved in scandals that would have made Watergate look like a junior prom. Yet he had a personal style that was charming, dignified, and reassuring. Richard Nixon was competent, but his personality was so flawed that his abilites made no difference to his fate. Barack Obama was certainly incompetent, but at least he was amiable. Donald Trump is proving himself to be massively incompetent, without even the saving grace of an amenable personal style. He comes across as abrasive, arbitrary, and disrespectful even of his own closest advisers. As I have remarked before, more so than any recent president, his legacy will depend on what he is seen as having accomplished. And so far, he has accomplished precious little. His miserable failure to replace the disaster that is Obamacare was due largely, as far as I can tell, to his inability to deal even with members of his own ruling party. On this pivotal constitutional issue (and I see it as a constitutional and not a healthcare issue), he has managed to alienate just about everyone. 

And talk about messaging! He continues to send out a steady stream of inconsistent, mixed, contradictory, and tendentious tweets that make it virtually impossible either to take him seriously as a chief executive or to discern what his core beliefs and policies may be. This is not only annoying; given the current internal and foreign climate, it is downright dangerous. And yet he will not stop; he seems incapable of learning and of changing his behavior, which are two essential assets in a leader. Lincoln was cautious, careful in his judgments, but he lived by the principle: "I will adopt new views as quickly as they are proved to be true views." Trump appears not only unable to adopt new views, but even to recognize them. 

So far, he has stumbled through his presidency like a non-drinking alcoholic, unable to get out of his own fumbling way. And now he moves on to tax reform. Every president in my lifetime has attempted to fix the baroque, unfair, and irrational tax system in this country, and all have failed. So what makes Trump, or anyone else for that matter, think that he will succeed where his predecessors have not? It appears that he now believes that he can co-opt the Democrats into providing him with the majority which the voters gave him and which he has managed to squander away. That, to my mind, is a degree of naïveté of which this non-political president is perhaps uniquely capable. Does he really imagine, even in his wildest dreams, that the Democrats are going to help him establish a legacy of success, and in the process, contribute to his re-election chances? Schumer and Pelosi, those evil twins of rabid partisanship, as partners, as collegial comrades? What kind of fatuous fantasy is that?

Who is talking to Trump? Who is advising him? Why, the people around him must be as incompetent as he, since they clearly cannot persuade him to act even in his own self-interest. Next he will be trying to coax The New York Times and NBC on board his train to oblivion. And they will be only too happy to oblige, so that they can push the throttle to demolition speed. The Democrats are not going to let Trump have his tax reform, since that would serve only to enhance his prospects in the midterms and 2020. On the contrary, I fully expect that if they do pretend to collaborate with him, it will be only to sabotage any hope we may have of getting meaningful tax reform in this decade. 

Much as I hate to agree with the mainstream media, which no longer even affects the pretense of objectivity, the sooner Donald Trump goes, the better for all of us. And that he will be gone before his term is up I think is clear to anyone who is paying attention, not to the media, but to the Great Deal-maker himself, as he systematically negotiates the terms of his own demise. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017


In the wonderful play, Marat/Sade, the old marquis remarks about Paris in the French Revolution: “All around me, people were turning themselves into strangers.” Well, this is not Paris, and God knows it’s not the eighteenth century, but it’s happening again, to me.

It used to be that I could go to the gym and, despite not being gregarious, I could at least chat with people or nod to them or say hello. Now everybody is in his own world, connected to an electronic device which absorbs all his or her attention, to the exclusion of everyone else. That last phrase, to the exclusion of everyone else, is what I’m talking about. I go to breakfast at the local bakery and glance about, and what do I see? People connected to their devices, smartphones or laptops, uncommunicative, unaware it seems that anyone else is there. It doesn’t matter who or how old they are, something which I cannot even imagine is being sluiced into their ears, directly into their consciousness, while they remain unconscious of the world around them.

In the pre-connected days, married couples would sit reading their newspapers, not talking of course (marriage does that to you), but occasionally glancing up over page tops and half-glasses to say, “Did you see what Dick Tracy’s doing?” Or, “How ‘bout them Dodgers?” To which the other would at least grunt in recognition if not in reply. Now I watch people in restaurants sitting two feet apart, each plugged into an alternative reality, not only not speaking, but not even looking at one another. Couples young and old, children, whole families, each one of them preferring a private piped-in world to the company of others and the world around them. Not connected; disconnected.

It’s happening in my own family. Of the two children still living in my house after what seems three lifetimes of parenting, neither one is accessible anymore. My step-daughter spends, quite literally, her entire day gawking at her smartphone, and my teenage son seems to have purple earbuds surgically attached to his skull, plugged into some kind of sinister device which he guards as if it were the Grail, or at least, his gummies.

How many times have I asked them, begged them, threatened them, to “Put down that damn phone!”? At least a dozen every day, which is why, I suppose, they ignore me, in much the same way that a callous ignores a tight loafer. I find that I must repeat the beginning of every sentence I say to my son, since it is lost in the second or two it takes him to a) realize that I’ve spoken to him, and b) extract the earpiece from his head to say, “What?” Just today, as I was driving him home from school, I began to inquire what he had for homework and, shaking the bud from his ear, he asked me to repeat it. I lost all composure, and in what I felt was absolutely righteous indignation I said, “Stop watching those damn podcasts!” To which he replied with equal indignation, “You don’t watch podcasts, father.”

Touché. Proved once again to be so totally un-hip, so utterly out-of-touch that I was reduced to sullen silence. Of course you don’t watch podcasts; I knew that, right? You listen to them. But what had I done? Handed a teenager a loaded pistol of cluelessness which he could use the next time I tried to interrupt his electronic self-exile.

But the last straw came last night. After a long day of meetings, driving back and forth to school, back and forth to a music lesson, a conference call instead of dinner, and finishing a paper I owed for the online graduate course I really have no time for and probably shouldn’t be taking, I finally stumbled into the bedroom, where my darling wife was watching the Korean news on her laptop, collapsed on the bed, and gasped to her that I was absolutely exhausted. At which she yanked a white earbud from her precious little shell-like and said, “What?” That was it. The ultimate abandonment. The light of my life had become one of those yellow bulbs that are meant to keep pests away.

Nobody talks to anybody anymore. Nobody even looks at anyone these days. Take me, for example. I have lived a long life, traveled the world, have decades of education, read thousands of books, possess a near-encyclopedic knowledge of classical music, Russian Literature, World War I aviation, the history of mountaineering; I can carry on a conversation on just about any topic that doesn’t involve pop culture, but I cannot compete with the Internet. The other day my son asked me a question about the Amish. I answered in some detail, explaining their origins, doctrines, customs, talked about their language, giving a few examples, and explained where they lived and how they got there and why. “Gee, Dad,” he said, “how do you know so much?” To which the answer is: I read, a lot; and I remember what I read.

But books are going out of fashion. They can’t compete with the Internet either. I have about 5000 books in my house, with shelf-space for half of them and a garage so packed with boxes of books that I don’t even fantasize about parking my car in there. I have more books in my home than they have at the local library (I know; I’ve been there). My house looks like a Christian Science Reading Room with cats. But neither I nor my books can compete, it seems, with a five-inch screen and a pair of purple earbuds.

And so I had to make a rule: no cellphones at the table, either at home or when we go out to eat. If we’re going to sit across from each other, engaging in the oldest ritual known to Man, the family meal, we’re damn-well going to look at each other and talk to each other. So tonight, at dinner, the rule went into effect. I put Brahms on the stereo, turned down the lights, lit the candles, and laid out the good plates and silverware. We all sat down to one of my wife’s excellent Korean dinners, and I kicked off the conversation by asking them about their day. With what result? Well, to paraphrase Poe: And the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token, and the only word there spoken was the whispered word… “What?”

At least we were looking at one another.