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

Monday, June 29, 2015

Older Men–Besotted By Youth, Fantasy, And The Impossible

Potter Liggett was a mensch – strong, principled, compassionate, and understanding. He could always be counted on to do the right thing.  Whether it was defending a friend or arguing a case in court, he was always on the side of integrity and honor. He kept his own counsel, was never arrogant or dismissive, and was always respectful and tolerant.

He was a consummate professional and had been a faithful and loving husband until his wife of many decades left him a widower at 52.  For a number of years he lived quietly alone, rarely went out or socialized, and had resigned himself to later years of celibacy and solitude. Until Beyhan Akyildiz came into his life, and he fell completely off the rails.

Mark Antony fell for Cleopatra; and despite the warnings of Octavian, his own lieutenants, and minions, he paid more attention to her than to Rome.  After years of heroism and battlefield brilliance, he seemed to lose his military acumen; and although a ruling member of the Second Triumvirate, spent more time in the sybaritic East with Cleopatra than where he belonged – in the austere tribunals of power.

Antony was so besotted with Cleopatra that he gave her vast lands, assured Egyptian independence from Rome, and provided her with the security that only a member of the ruling Triumvirate could afford.

Antony was so besotted with his beloved Cleopatra that he foolishly followed her lead in the battle of Actium, the decisive engagement in the last civil war to shake Rome. His career was over, his legacy forever tarnished, and only an ignominious death awaited him.

Antony and Cleopatra

How could a man of such intelligence, strategic brilliance, and political savvy be so badly deceived by Cleopatra?  Some say that he knew that his professional life was ending, and before it was too late he wanted to fulfill the longings he had had since a young man – love, the satisfaction of sensual lust, and a life of opulence and leisure. Others have said that like most older men, he fell for a younger woman. 

As the Coleman Silk character says  in Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain about his much younger lover, “Granted, she's not my first love. Granted, she's not my great love. But she is sure as hell my last love. Doesn't that count for something?” Still others have said that Cleopatra was indeed the most remarkably beautiful and alluring woman in the entire Roman Empire who bedded Julius Caesar and the son of Pompeii the Great and was the dream of hundreds more of the Empire’s best and finest.

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The comparison between Antony and Potter Liggett is apt up to a point.  They both were 52 years when they began to disassemble, old for a man in Roman times but certainly not for a health American in the early 21st century. They both had been seduced by the allure of the East; and although Izmir was nothing compared to Imperial Alexandria, a combination of childhood fantasy and the Arabian Nights, and the dark, seductive, irresistible allure of Beyhan Akyildiz was nothing to dismiss.

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After his wife died, Potter began to put his life in perspective.  What, after all, was the value of public service within the context of the Almighty and Eternity. And more to the point, before he spent eternity in the cold, hard ground of St. Anselm’s Cemetery in Silver Spring wasn’t it time to live a little? After due course of grieving and reflection, Potter finally emerged back into the light of day.

At first, no one noticed the subtle differences in his comportment and behavior.  They overlooked his tardiness, his surprisingly flippant remarks about race, gender, and ethnicity as he prepared his defense of offenders from the 7th and 8th wards, and his sallies into the single bars of Georgetown and Petworth. A mensch was always a mensch, they reckoned; and their respect for and admiration of him did not diminish by one iota.

It was as though Potter Liggett had spent his whole life preparing for Beyhan Akyildiz.  Once he had met her, he was convinced that he had fooled himself into thinking that he had really loved his wife of Shawnee Mission, Kansas and Nantucket; and that her propriety, manners, and calm intelligence were what mattered most in a relationship. How could he have been so mistaken?

“I am the great-granddaughter of pashas”, she said to him on their first date; and from then on he could only see her as a veiled wife of an emperor’s harem – perhaps not Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile; but the seductress of the most powerful, the anointed, and the select. That had to be worth something.

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The real reason for Potter’s total and irremediable passion for Beyhan was her drama; and thus his bondage to a woman for whom staging, costume, and theatrical entry were the be-all and end-all, was no different from that of Antony.

To most men Beyhan was impossibly melodramatic. She was an operatic diva, Sarah Bernhardt, Elizabeth Taylor, and a thousand other women who overdressed, over-performed, and over-acted what was a simple role.  To Potter she was the answer to his dreams; and he willingly suspended his disbelief.  “Who cares”, he said, “what really happened?.”

So he listened to her stupendous tales of the Turkish Thousand and One Nights, drifted off to sleep to her tales of sumptuous banquets on the Bosporus and dancing girls, and recitation of verses of Sufi poets.

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Every psychiatrist since Freud has known that we marry our mothers and our fathers; and that unfulfilled incestuous lusts are what fuel our sexual passions.  The more modern analysts have concluded that the most exciting and complete sexual experience is that which is based on fantasy.  Not only did Potter Liggett make love to Mommy but also to Cleopatra and the Circassian beauties of the Caucasus.

Meanwhile, Potter lost case after case in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.  It was not that he had evolved politically and espoused the views of the conservative Right – i.e. that deviant behavior was indeed a social problem, but due to the irresponsibility and dereliction of the communities in which it was born and nurtured – but that he was a faux pawn in God’s plan.  A vaudevillian at best (viz. The Devil – Ivan’s Nightmare) and an insignificant bit-part player at worst. 

“Who cares”, he shouted into the mirror as he adjusted his tie and brushed his hair for the gala at the Turkish Embassy.

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Unfortunately for Potter, Beyhan Akyildiz was more like Cleopatra than he had imagined. Cleopatra never loved Mark Antony.  She admitted as much to her minions and said that he was no match for Julius Caesar. She joked about riding him, bringing him to heel, and enjoying his attentions; but little more.  Antony was political security – an investment as much as Caesar was – but without the former Emperor’s intelligence, wit, and humor.

For Beyhan, Potter was an amusement; a diversion.  As much as he loved to hear her tales of the Turkish empires, she loved reciting them. For her, stories of the legendary Dede Korkut and Timur evoked memories of her childhood when she sat on the lap of her grandfather who recounted stories of the greatness of Turkey.  She enjoyed the special encounter of myth, mystery, and sexual intrigue; but was indifferent to Potter’s response.

Mark Antony fell on his sword and Cleopatra died at the bite of an asp; but the relationship between Beyhan and Potter ended far more unceremoniously. She tired of him and left him on the curb. It was as simple as that. No battle of Actium, no theatrics on the catafalque, and no half-hearted and unsuccessful suicide.

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Beyhan was no Cleopatra.  Her theatrics were only skin-deep. She willingly played the role of veiled princess to Potter’s pasha; recited lines of poetry and legend like a traditional Turkish storyteller to his romantic, expectant American:
 A long, long time ago, when the sieve was inside the straw, when the donkey was the town crier and the camel was the barber. . . Once there was; once there wasn't. God's creatures were as plentiful as grains and talking too much was a sin…
But she was an American lawyer just like Potter.  If she had any real interest in Turkish  history it was the period of Ataturk and the secularization of the country; or the politics of the Ottoman Empire and the institution of law and administration. She had a temporary and very temporal view of Turkish history. The romance of the harem and the princely courts was uninteresting and irrelevant.

“Now what am I going to do?”, Potter Liggett asked himself after Beyhan had left him.  His professional reputation was now suspect, his moral rectitude and social probity questioned; and worst of all he was caught between an existential Scylla and Charybdis. He was no longer committed to his work, was disillusioned at the frailty of love, a widower who had betrayed the legacy of his wife; but titillated and energized by the May-September relationship of all time.  It didn’t matter that it had ended badly. “Better to have loved and lost, etc. etc.”

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The only question was whether he would return to the settled probity of life with his wife; or turn again to the sybaritic East.

Unfortunately I lost track of Potter Liggett, and the reader might only guess.

The Culture of Victimhood–The Corrosive, Damaging Nature Of Identity Politics

The United States certainly has a race problem and has ever since the early days of the Antebellum South. Northern ghettoes are the legacy of slavery and Reconstruction, and given the isolation, dysfunction, and alienation of inner city black communities, the issue of race will not go away soon.  White Americans cannot possibly know what it must be like to walk down any street in America and be looked at with suspicion, prejudice, or hostility, and yet most commiserate with and support the cause of African Americans. 


    Reconstruction, Georgia Legislature www.georgiaencyclopedia.org

They also know, however, that if anything the race situation in America has deteriorated; and the conditions of the inner city remain unchanged. Worse, after sixty years of government attempts to right past wrongs and to set the African American ship on a more favorable course, progressives are still reluctant to call for systemic change within the black community. Worst yet, the inflammatory if not incendiary demagoguery fueled by the media and community leaders has aggravated matters and turned issues of race into bitter warfare not reconciliation. For every progressive embracing ‘Black Lives Matter’ there is at least one conservative angry at the perceived hostility toward whites, the police, and the capitalist system held responsible for these and all social ills.  

Considered from a feminist perspective, women have had a rough time, and still need community and male support to help them over the last hurdles or up the last step of the ladder to the trapdoor in the glass ceiling.  Of course, victimhood of women is a relatively new theme.  The women in every one of Shakespeare’s Histories, Comedies, and Tragedies are strong, determined and defiant.  There was no way that Lady Macbeth, Dionyza, Cleopatra, Volumnia, Tamora, Beatrice, or Rosalind were going to be the pawns and playthings of the men who courted them.

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Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, and Hilda Wangel are strong,willful, Nietzschean heroines. Laura (Strindberg’s The Father) is dismissive of men, ably manipulates her husband, driving him mad and in so doing gaining custody of their daughter.  Martha is a match for George (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and Christine Mannon (Mourning Becomes Electra) rules all the men in her family and in her life.

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More and more Americans are tired of feminist whinging when it is clear to them that women are strong, determined, and – if one is to believe Shakespeare – far more intelligent than men.  Women are quite capable of taking care of themselves, thank you very much; and the double-speak about protecting women against predatory men simply doesn’t wash.  Strindberg understood that since only a woman knows for sure who the father of her children are, they have a fundamental power over men.  Men have to play catch up in gender games and pull out the heavy artillery in gender wars.

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Because women are doing so well, feminists like any other interest group, need to expand to other minority groups to assure their continued relevance and to keep their activist agenda alive.  Most older feminists cut their teeth on the Women’s Liberation movement in the Seventies and are discouraged that younger women have little interest in their ragged and strident attacks on men.  The increased coverage of rape and abuse is fueled by this political agenda.  Academic feminists are hoping that young women will overlook the inherent contradiction in their message.  Women are strong and able, they say; but also weak, vulnerable, and in need of institutional protection against rape and abuse.

Male progressives like their feminist colleagues, also see one-issue campaigns as self-limiting and ultimately life-threatening  So, like feminists, they have taken up the cudgel of gay rights.  Homosexuals, they say, are the legatees of the civil rights movement, and need the same boost that blacks did.  Despite the fact that most surveys suggest that the percentage of LGBT in the population is well under 3 percent and closer to 1, progressives are tireless in promoting their agenda. Yet gay activists showed their considerable political clout and cultural savvy when thirty-five years ago they asserted that “AIDS is everyone’s disease” and were successful in neutering CDC’s argument that it was in fact not everyone’s disease but had vectors and routes of transmission.

Far more Americans are in favor of gay marriage than they are of homosexuality itself; and the recent SCOTUS decision may be only a pyrrhic victory; but the gay community is taking care of itself just fine as it always has done – organization, reconfiguration of its culture to flow fully into the middle-class, heterosexual mainstream, and political activism.  Since homosexuality is not simply a civil rights issue but a religious one (Biblical injunctions against homosexuality) as well, the row will be a difficult one to hoe.  However the rule for gays is the same as it is for women and minorities – once one adheres to majority norms and values, subscribes to American ideals of work, enterprise, and success, the way is clear.

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Ethnicity is of least concern to progressives who worry about the state of the nation. It takes only a generation and Latinos are speaking English like a native and more importantly have subscribed totally to the American work ethic and promises of prosperity.  They are Christian, here to earn a living and send remittances home, not to destabilize the country, become radicalized, and work for the overthrow of the government.  It is only a matter of time before they join the mainstream.

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The point is that Americans are not unsympathetic to these causes.  Most people do in fact express interest in and concern about the progress of those segments of society which have had a harder time than others. They are simply weary of the secular evangelism; and ready to return to issues of immediate and more fundamental importance.

America is a profoundly religious country and fundamentalist Protestants who make up a significant proportion of the population are concerned with salvation, redemption, and God’s grace.  They look to the Bible for instruction, guidance, and sustenance – not liberal and inflexibly secular activists.  Many of these same people are doing the best they can to keep their heads above water.  If there is any secular issue of relevance, it is economic progress.

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Older people are increasingly concerned with putting their moral and spiritual life in order as they see the dimming light at the end of the tunnel.  The more educated and intellectually challenging focus their interests on literature, art, philosophy and how these disciplines can enrich their lives if not help to explain them.  Young people are getting on with their lives, focused on marriage, children, and good schools. 

If one simply pulled the plug on The Nation, The Guardian, Upworthy, MoveOn,and the hundreds of other print and online journals of the progressive Left, most people would give a sigh of relief – not because of idle self-interest or egocentric dismissiveness, but because this thin race-gender-ethnicity ground has been mined until all resources have been exhausted.  There is enough in the Bible, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Dostoevsky alone to fill a thousand newspapers; and this does not even touch upon the genius of Anselm Kiefer, Sargent, Vermeer, or Picasso. Perhaps as importantly, reading Faulkner and Shakespeare are likely to produce more insights into human nature, the human condition, and why people do what they do than any money-and-politics driven Nightly News.

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One chapter of Augustine’s Confessions is enough to make anyone reflect on morals, ethics, and one’s relationship to God. Even a history of a small war, like The War of 1812, can give untold insights into early America and its foundational philosophy.

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The differences between liberals and conservatives in this country is profound.  The Left believes in the perfectibility of Man, progress, and the eventual creation of a secular utopia.  The Right believes in the ineluctability of human nature.  History repeats itself because we are hardwired to be aggressive, self-interested, territorial, and protective. Like Nietzsche conservatives understand that in such a determined if not meaningless world, the only validation of humanity is the expression of individual will.

The twain shall never meet.  The progressive Left largely due to its intolerance of American fundamentalism and mainstream conservatism is losing credibility and salience. The events of the last few months, as encouraging as they may be to liberals who see a revolutionary change in American society, a final confrontation with evil and immorality, will only harden the opposition and strengthen the hand of conservatives who already hold the reins of power. Progressives blame conservatives, religious fundamentalists, the South, and radical Right Wing extremists for the nation’s ills; but they do not realize how their own intolerance and incendiary arguments do more to widen the socio-political split in the country.  As much as they talk about healing, the compassionate benefits of diversity, and civil rights; they do little to convince many people of their sincerity.