"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, May 30, 2024

The Elegance Of Stupidity - Electoral Politics In America

The American political arena has never been known for its quick thinkers, eloquence, sparkling wit, or crackling intelligence.  In fact politicians who might have been worthy of rhetorical flourish, some irony or pith have kept their language simple - farm speak, down home homily, uncomplicated here-and-now talk. 

Americans are suspicious of men who put on airs.  Anyone who marches to the iambic pentameter rhythms of Shakespeare is queer, not to be trusted.  Their Bible is not the airy fairy Elizabethan poetry of the King James Version, but the straightforward, common man's English New Revised Standard Version.  Their rhetoric is vernacular, their language is as unadorned, unembellished as a fencepost. Americans have no Winston Churchills in the wings, nor would let them on stage if they had them. 

 

Bill Clinton made sense, reflected and considered before he spoke, chose his words carefully, but crafted his speeches without metaphor or simile.  He was an exegete who could disaggregate, reassemble, and organize his thoughts, but he was no Mark Antony whose speech before the Roman Senate dripped with irony, marvelous in its insinuations, canny in its use of political asides.  Antony was brilliant, a calculating, scheming, but principled politician who knew that language and its magnificent subtleties could win any crowd.

Bill Clinton took his measure, spoke slowly and thoughtfully, shared his intelligence in teaspoonfuls, never went more than a half-cup, and kept his audiences attentive and nodding in approval. 

John Kennedy was as close as any American politician has come to geniality and access.  So quick on his feet, so agile and deft that one could imagine him with the likes of Cole Porter. Both were masters of internal rhythm, catchy rhyme, and cultural whimsy. 

 

Lyndon Johnson who followed Kennedy after his assassination almost spitefully spoke in Texan with drawling home-on-the-range references to sagebrush, saddles, and campfires. 'Like a steer loose in a barnyard', LBJ he said, or 'A rattler with no rattle'.  He was proud of his Texas bullying, bull-riding, and corralling.  The patrician East Coast hated him after their man, the elegant and sophisticated Kennedy had been gunned down; but the rest of the country knew that Johnson was one of theirs. 

Prime Minister's Question Time is a display of British wit, sharp intellect, and hilariously ironic humor that American politicians can only wonder at.  Margaret Thatcher was the best at political repartee and rapier wit.  Dripping with contempt at Labor PMs who dared defy her, she shamed them, neutered them, and ridiculed them, all with diction, flourish, and agility. 

The current President of Italy, Giorgia Meloni and the rising star of the French Right, Marion Marechal are both smart, determined, and sharply eloquent women.  No interviewer or political opponent has been a match for their quick intelligence, wit, and reserves of history, culture, and political reference.  Theirs is a machine-gun delivery, never an 'um' or an 'ah', rapid fire, on target, precise, unhesitating, sophisticated in their use of language, and brilliant for their mastery of subject, time, and audience. 

For anyone familiar with these two European figures can only wince at American politicians who have trouble making sense let alone weaving a complex theme.  Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States often makes no sense at all, but hilariously and ironically thinks she does

The significance of the passage of time, right? The significance of the passage of time.  So when you think about it, there is great significance to the passage of time...  We must work together. Work together. To see where we are.  Where we are headed, where we are going, and our vision for where we should be. But also see it as a moment to, yes. Together address the challenges and to work on the opportunities that are presented by this moment  

President Biden is even worse.  At least there is some kernel of meaning in what she says once one untangles it all; but Biden often drifts into some unimaginable places.  At a brewery in Wisconsin he said, "The beer brewed here, it is used to make the brew beered here." While most of the sentence was unintelligible, he seemed to add, "Ooh, Earth Rider, thanks for the Great Lakes. I wonder why…"

During a CNN town hall, Biden said: "And the question is whether or not we should be in a position where you are — why can't the experts say we know that this virus is, in fact — is going to be — or, excuse me — we know why all the drugs approved are not temporarily approved, but permanently."

The President speaks only from prepared texts, rarely takes questions, and his speeches, prepared by doctrinally pure aides and written by the most lowest common denominator writers are the worst sort of pandering, insulting nonsense.  George Floyd this, George Floyd that, racism here, there, and everywhere, cotton pickin' neo-slavery, he hammered on to graduating seniors at Morehouse College, a traditionally black institution. 

The graduates were having none of it, these middle class, upwardly mobile, well-educated students who had long ago gotten past the street cred, 'hood caricature laid on them by the President.  They wanted to be spoken to as mature adults, responsible citizens, intelligent voters and instead Biden gave them black blarney, complete, irrelevant nonsense, 

Imagine Margaret Thatcher in her heyday, the era of revolutionary social, political change in Britain, talking down to voters, caramelizing, sweetening her message, pandering for votes; or Meloni or Marechal? Or can one imagine Donald Trump pulling his punches, cheating his supporters, talking down to them?

God only knows what Americans would make if a Meloni or Marechal were on the ballot here, other than being befuddled, lost, and confused by the unadulterated stream of logic and, God forbid, the unvarnished facts.  We must resist the corrosive, corrupting, divisive, and hateful influence of Islam in Europe, Marechal insists.  Not 'radical Islam', covering her tracks, but Islam, the religion, pure and simple.  No accommodation, no retreat from brutal honesty. 

American politicians like Joe Biden stumble over Dick and Jane, McGuffey reader basic English but hem and haw when it comes to geopolitical reality. We love Islam, Biden says repeatedly, one of the world's great religions, a religion of peace, when everyone can see that it is nothing of the kind, that Hamas, ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, al-Shabab, and Hezbollah are not simply terrorist organizations but religion-based, religion-fueled ones. 

Instead of Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Meloni, and Marechal's undiluted, unhedged principles, American politicians are afraid - in this penitential, censorious age - of offending regardless of the truth.  

The most unsettling thing of all is that Americans endorse this dumbing down, this cowpoke talk, and the downhome political imposters who can't get past it.  Biden and Harris, the so-called 'leaders of the free world' talk gibberish, pander, and make no sense at all; and yet they are forgiven.  

The electorate, alas, is complicit in their ignorance.  Oddly and depressingly, many Americans actually swallow their cant about Trump the Satan, the neo-Hitler, the Great Destroyer of Democracy.  Not a cogent argument, not one cohesive, intelligent speech has come from American politicians about geopolitics, the economics of energy, social dynamics, and the socio-cultural context in which decisions are made. 

We deserve the leaders we elect is the only meme applicable here; but the deliberate rejection of intellectual astuteness, perception, and insight is bloody depressing 

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Epiphany Of Travel - When A Walmart Greeter Visits The Tower Of London

Jackson Billips was first in line for hiring at the new Walmart recently opened at the crossroads of three West Virginia hollers.  It was long anticipated by the residents of Bowlder, Upton, and Little Marvel who had relied on the company store since as far back as anyone could remember.  

Nothing much had changed in the hollers since the Wellington mine opened, and most families still lived in tarpaper shacks, bought sacks of cornmeal and flour, a rasher of bacon when there were a few pennies left in the cookie jar, and wore hand-me-downs from three generations. 

Walmart was not going to rescue them from the life of the hollers by any means, but the fatback and corn flour would be cheaper than at '456' as the mining store was locally known, and when Bangladeshi-made frocks were on sale, they were affordable on the layaway plan.  

No, the benefit of the new Walmart store would be employment - a chance to get out of the pit, clean up, and make some decent money.  The mining company had fought Walmart for years, since it could not afford to lose the hundred or so employees that the store had promised to hire, but in the end gave up their resistance and drew from Rider, another community not far from the mine. 

Jackson knew that being first in line did not guarantee him a job, but felt that by the time the last person in the queue, now winding two times around the block, got to the front, all positions would be filled.  

He dressed up as best he could - clean shirt and overalls, shined boots, and his grandfather's New York suspenders.  He practiced his diction and his demeanor.  He had listened to the banker, the pharmacist, and the doctor and tried to lose the worst of his Appalachian drawl.  He shaved, washed his hair, and made his way to the offices of the new store at four in the morning. 

The recruiter must have seen something honest and sincere about him, but because he had no sales experience and was a bit older than the rest of the applicants, he was hired as a greeter.  All that he needed to know was product placement, courtesy, and customer service.  

He did well and thanked God for giving him a reprieve - an above ground job in a well-lit, air conditioned, magnificently displayed place of employment.  The pay was low, lower in fact than wages in the mine, but the working conditions alone compensated for the difference.  He was happy, proud, and satisfied, 

After five years Walmart decided to run a lottery, the first prize of which was an all-expense paid trip to London.  The cost to Walmart was not what it seemed - the winner would go as part of a quid-pro-quo deal with the last of the independent airlines serving the area, the London hotel was little more than a youth hostel, and the expenses were barely enough to cover three nights of fish-and-chips - but to the lottery players it seemed like a bonanza.  Thanks to God, Jackson won and packed his wife and himself off to England. 

Now, for all the holler's penury and harsh living, it was not completely isolated from the mainstream.  Thanks to a television tower on the top of Harper's Ridge and pro-bono wiring by the Chamber of Commerce, there was reception from Wheeling and families who were able to afford the second-hand black and white televisions sold at Brady's Discount Home, opened their homes on Friday nights to friends and extended family.  There Jackson had had a glimpse of where he was going.  The only channel with decent reception was PBS, and he and his co-workers watched reruns of Upstairs, Downstairs, and Downton Abbey. 

 

The carriages, the splendor, the elegance and sophistication were all things he could never have imagined, never even thought possible. High school history had only brief mention of the redcoats, Lexington and Concord, the Boston Tea Party and King George; but nothing like this.  Nothing of the palatial luxury of the British well-to-do. 

No grubby hotel, no stale fish and chips, no indifferent crowds at Trafalgar Square, no airless Underground cars could possibly have dispelled the very idea of England.  England! What a marvelous place; and his ancestors came from there, ironically from the collieries of Wales in 1850, but still to be able to trace one's lineage back to kings, queens, and courtiers was indeed special. He appreciated London.  

The Tower of London where Clarence and the princes had been put to death and had seen executions, torture, and chains was not far from Buckingham Palace and the sense and the reality of his ancestral past became clear.  He didn't have to know Shakespeare, Dickens or the legacy of the Tudors to understand. 

Jackson was Mark Twain's innocent abroad without Clemens' satirical irony.  Everything after the dark limitations of Little Marvel was bright and clear.  The palace, the tower, London Bridge, East London, and the Thames were only intimations of what had come before; but they were enough.  The world in one short visit to London was decipherable.  No places could have been as different as Little Marvel and London, but no places more similar.  

Bob Fleck had been found murdered behind the woodshed of the old Parker place, victim of some incestuous rivalry. Billy and Hank Carter were killed at Khe Sanh like their father had been at Iwo Jima and their grandfather at Ypres; and like the Yorks and Lancasters who died in the thousands during the War of the Roses and the Hundred Years War. The mine owners lived in million dollar homes on top of the Blue Ridge while overseers managed the mines, the pits, and the labor. 

Tourism is big business, and Paris, Rome, and London welcome millions of visitors each year.  The Eiffel Tower, the Tower of Pisa are, despite their familiarity, perennial favorites.  Why, exactly?  The Eiffel Tower, other than an iconic image of Paris, is no more than a Victorian, early-Industrial Age construction, surprising and remarkable at the time, but only an architectural curiosity now.

The  leaning Tower of Pisa even less remarkable as a structure and insignificant as a historical moment with no particular iconic value is on most Italian tours. 

Why, then, do we configure our vacations around monuments, places of interest and historical significance about which we know and care little?   Why do we not spend our valuable leave time on more intimate and modest expeditions.  Was a trip up the Eiffel Tower worth more than a week on the Chesapeake or in the Shenandoah?  What is the relative value of a random trip to Vienna?  How relevant is it to our lives?

Travel, particularly solitary travel, for some has always been a spiritual journey.  Paul Theroux in his The Tao of Travel has reprinted the thoughts of many explorers who have found enlightenment or at least something profound in their voyages.

 

You go away for a long time and return a different person –you never come all the way back.

Travel is at its best a solitary enterprise: to see, to examine, to assess, you have to be all alone and unencumbered…..It is hard to see clearly or to think straight in the company of other people.  What is required is the lucidity of loneliness to capture that vision which, however banal, seems in your private mood to be special and worthy of interest.
Travel which is nearly always seen as an attempt to escape from the ego, is in my opinion, just the opposite.  Nothing induces concentration or inspires memory like an alien landscape or foreign culture.  It is simply not possible (as romantics think) to lose yourself in an exotic place.  Much more likely is an experience of intense nostalgia, a harking back to an earlier stage of your life….What makes the whole experience vivid and sometimes thrilling is the juxtaposition of the present and the past.

Jackson  Billips was one of these unique travelers.  Perhaps because of the stark difference between Little Marvel holler and London; or more likely because he like Shelley, Matthiessen, and Conrad were born that way, native visionaries.  It only took a reluctant Matthiessen a few weeks in the Himalayas to 'see' them; a minute for Shelley to 'see' Mt. Blanc as the fog dissipated.

Shelley wrote:

Power dwells apart in its tranquility
Remote, serene, and inaccessible:
And this, the naked countenance of earth,
On which I gaze, even these primeval mountains
Teach the adverting mind...

 Image result for images poet shelley

 Vladimir Nabokov agreed:

To a greater or lesser extent there goes on in every person a struggle between two forces: the longing for privacy and the urge to go places: introversion, that is, interest directed within oneself toward one’s own inner live of vigorous thought and fancy; and extroversion, interest directed outward, toward the external world of people and tangible values 

Authors Stavans and Ellison talk about how travel has become commonplace and mundane, far from the voyages of discovery of travelers past:

For the most fortunate among us, our travels are now routine, devoted mainly to entertainment and personal enrichment. We have turned travel into something ordinary, deprived it of allegorical grandeur. We have made it a business: the business of being on the move. Whatever impels us to travel, it is no longer the oracle, the pilgrimage or the gods. It is the compulsion to be elsewhere, anywhere but here.

So Jackson Billips was a true visionary, a mensch, an innately privileged man without ever knowing it, one of a kind, fortunate to be a Walmart greeter and win the travel lottery, but a genius, and the best innocent abroad.  

 

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The Surprising Sexual Turnabout Of A Small Town - Where Women Were The Serial Adulterers

Amy Lord grew up in New Brighton, a small New England town known for its industrial past - the hardware and armaments industries served the Union Army well in the Civil War, and the Remington repeating rifles saved many a doughboy in WWI - and thought she would never leave.  There were the Sandersons, close friends of her parents, godfather to her brother and champion golfers; the Reitbarts, celebratory Catholics who served at St. Joseph's; and above all the Parkers.  

Barrington Parker (Barry) was the most attractive man she had ever seen, more handsome than Gary Cooper, Alain Delon, and Clark Gable all put together. A man with charm, wit, manners, and generosity that her mother flirted with, that Mrs. Carlson had had an affair with, and that all the women in the West End bridge club talked about. 

 

The gossip about Parker and his assignations made the rounds so many times that they became epic, far beyond any man such was his allure and desirability.  He had what these proper, well-tailored, settled women wanted in those days - a man who paid attention, who showed genuine interest, who cared. 

Take Penny Lord, for example, wife of Ardmore Lord, Vice-President of the Burritt National Bank and Trust, a dull man, dutiful in his attentions but desultory in his affections.  She, mother of two children, logged in to housework, tea parties, and golf, wanted only some reference - some clue to the fact that she was a woman, not just some disposable unit; not love necessarily, nor sex, just more than a common denominator. 

 

There was Herman, the plumber who said he would 'fix her pipes', the breadman who offered her an extra loaf of rye, the pharmacist who suggested drugs, and a lawyer who said he would defend her in a divorce; but all these men were just incidental distractions. 

She finally took her intentions and ambitions elsewhere - to the big city where men were many and available and sexual indifference the rule.  That is to say, while not interested in becoming a Belle du Jour, patrician legatee to a family fortune with untamed desire and free afternoons, she was not adverse to some sexual liberty; and so it was that on Tuesdays and Thursdays she took the New York, New Haven & Hartford to the city and sat with a glass of sherry at the Oak Bar of the Plaza until she was noticed. 

It was only a matter of time until word got back to New Brighton about her New York dalliances, but by that time she didn't care.  Her husband Ardmore had hardly noticed that she was gone two times a week, and rumor had it that had his own little cinq-a-sept with a boy from Branford.  

A marriage of convenience, but all in all an unusual one for the likes of conservative New Brighton - a part-time escort and a gay man sharing the same bed seven nights a week both hoping for some kind of reprieve from the shameful duplicity of it all.

Norma Levin never thought she would have sex out of the faith.  Born and raised a conservative Jew, celebrant of weekly shiva, temple attendant, and volunteer for the Hartford chapter of the United Jewish Appeal, affairs were for Shiksas, not for a nice Jewish girl like her; and besides, her husband's furrier business would suffer if anyone found out.  If all the hook-nose, money-counting, hunchbacked Merchant of Venice caricatures weren't bad enough, imagine the Jezebel,  Delilah Jewish temptress remarks which would follow her. 

 

Yet, she was not an unattractive woman, and was noticed in company.  There were not a few men who wanted to bed a Jew, and since marriage, divorce, or even a long term paramour relationship were never possibilities, assignations could be ended as easily as cutting a bolt of gabardine. 

So she surprised herself with her sequence of lovers - none particularly unique or sexually inventive, but adoring in their own way; and by and by became part of the trade. She had little in common with Penny Lord, the Catherine Deneuve Belle du Jour. They lived in different worlds but shared this surprising life of anonymous sexual favors. 

 

If a Jew and a patrician New Englander could end up in the same West Side day rooms, what did that say about sex...or class for that matter? 'Women are like that', offered one of New Brighton's alderman when the other life of both women came to light. 'Othello', he said, reminding us of the general who killed Desdemona to save men from yet more female perfidy.

All women of New Brighton were definitely not like that - or at least not to that extreme. Infidelity among the wives of the community was de rigeur, almost a rite of passage.  In an ironic turnabout of classic male adultery, the Stepford Wives of the town left their homes every afternoon between three and five and came home to cook dinner.  It was the men who were faithful in New Brighton. 

'What's going on here?' asked the men at their weekly Rotary Club meeting. 'Are we sheep?' but as each member shared his experiences - obliquely it must be noted given male ego - the group knew that something was indeed up. Sexual dalliance was their territory, their prerogative, not their wives'.

The New Brighton Rotary Club became a venue for male bonding.  Men who had been cheated on, cuckolded, formed a natural, indissoluble bond; but for all the unity and resolution, the train had left the station and they could only look on from the platform. 

 

Amy Lord, the young woman so attracted to Barry Parker, the Casanova of New Brighton, who despite her romantic interests was one of the few women of the town who kept her own counsel, an outlier, a 'One of a kind', said the Rotary men reflecting on how their town, once a redoubt of male privilege and place, had become a place of sexual indiscretion and female errancy. 

Yet herd mentality and the dynamics of small towns being what they are, Amy had been spotted on the 10:13 headed for New York, an innocent trip to Bonwit's or Saks perhaps, but that, the women of the town concluded, was as unlikely as a trip to the moon.