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

Monday, December 31, 2018

Existential Disorder - The Spiritual Disruption Of Getting, Keeping, And Throwing Away

There were only a few things of value in the Pritchard house – a 10th century Hindu head from Khajuraho bought in a Calcutta market, shipped in a lift van home from Bombay, and displayed on the mantel for 30 years, a late 18th century gold plated Revere silver creamer, a 19th century Edo print, and a rare 17th century Korean koan-inspired calligraphic brush-and-ink work of grasses.  Rowan Pritchard paid little attention to anything else, although nothing had been bought thoughtlessly.  There were Turkish ceramics, Victorian glassware, and British prints of India from the days of the Raj – all of series or common for the genre so not valuable per se; but such value was incidental to Rowan.  He could not look at the Khajuraho head, a piece of remarkable grace and subtlety, without reflection – of his days in India, his own immature but serious search for meaning, and the surprising spiritual energy of India’s most holy places, of Benares, Hardwar, Allahabad, Nasik, and Allahabad.  He would miss nothing else in the house except the Khajuraho head.

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The house had never been decorated, nor had thought ever been paid to interior design, what should go where, or what went well with what.  The Pritchards had found things they liked, displayed them because they liked them, and after many years of travel had settled on the best.  There was not only no need to add to their collection, but doing so would have disturbed the particular personal artistic and even spiritual integrity of the place.  More acquisitions would have meant making room on the mantel, displacing the pre-Colombian terracottas , moving the Mogul miniatures, edging out the Bolivian Aymara silver spoons.  Not that there wasn’t room – the Pritchards’ walls, windowsills, tables, and highboys had ample space for new things –it was that the intimacy of the rooms would be disturbed.  Every house, especially one as carefully considered as the Pritchards’ has a character – not just ‘character’ but a distinctly personal character, as innate and unchangeable as the characters of its owners.  It is a matter of equilibrium.  The house had ‘settled’ years before and nothing should alter its now essential, unchangeable character.

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Rowan Pritchard’s sense of this unchangeability extended to other rooms of the house, those where the most important objects were displayed.  His office had grown from a desk and chairs to his own personal space – one not unlike the downstairs living room, had been carefully although not deliberately arrayed with pieces from his personal, intimate past – photos of his children but as importantly of him as a child.  Their clay ashtrays and dragons, but also his childhood sketches and mobiles.  There was nothing that reflected his long marriage – no pictures of his wife or their times together, no familiarity, no intimations of their relationship which in itself suggested more than he was willing to admit – but everything about his life, his travels, his adventures, his tastes, and his preferences.

His sense of place and surroundings even extended to the practical, more mundane areas of the house – the kitchen, the patio, the landings, and the porch.  The cane furniture on the porch had long since outlived its utility and had begun to crack and fray after many hot Washington summers and cold winters.  The kitchen appliances, cabinets, and floors had long since fallen into semi-disrepair.  Things worked, but not well.  Enclosures enclosed but barely.  Rice, beans, anchovies, and Turkish figs were crowed into old, narrow storage space.  The pots and pans were stored too low; the pasta and teas too high; the sink too small, and the dishwasher old and obsolete.  Yet Rowan wanted no part of renovation, especially re-making – transforming the old, cranky kitchen into a gleaming, track lights-and-tile, butcher-block, high-performance workplace.  Although he did the kitchen, and he would have benefitted from the improvements, he resisted.  There was something upsetting about disrupting the settled nature of the place.

Perhaps it was because as he grew older, change was more and more upsetting per se.  Although he might say he was concerned about feng shui and the native, settled place in which he lived, his wife thought him simply old and obstinate.  Khajuraho head notwithstanding, what was the problem with a new ceiling fan, more spacious refrigerator, and more room?

Neither she nor any of their DIY friends understood.  A house was not a home, but a place in which to live, one subject to age, deterioration, and inefficiency; and one without the essence and personal integrity upon which Rowan insisted.  Nothing was fixed, immutable, or sacred. 

On the contrary, thought Rowan, retention was not a crime, nor a old man’s folly.  It was as important as the permanence of the Khajuraho head – an expression of being not subject to vagary, taste, or efficiency.

An aged aunt of his wife had died recently, and while the old woman had not been a compulsive hoarder, she had acquired more than her share of crockery, flatware, pots and pans, utensils, fans, and throw rugs.  It would be a shame to give all that to Goodwill, said her children, a waste of good things.  So the clarion was blown and the distribution des biscuits began.  Rowan’s wife had been offered the pick of the crop – the blender, the heavy-duty pot, the juicer, and an array of cutlery collected and cared-for since the aunt’s marriage.

Rowan wanted none of it.  He was doing just fine; and except for the lower shelves (it was becoming harder and harder to reach the baking dish in the back), saw no need for any improvements, replacements, or additions.  Goodwill was the benefactor of his obstinacy (ref: his wife), his hopelessly old-fashioned ways (ref:his children); and his stupidly, idealistic, and romantic ideas (ref:his own).

While it is true that older people do indeed get stuck in their ways and hopelessly stuck in the past, Rowan was not a hoarder, someone whom the first responders would have trouble locating because of the piles of old newspapers, New Yorker magazines, cat food, baby clothes, and wedding outfits blocking the way; and would die unencumbered.  His would never be the spare, existential, simple, perfectly-ordered Kyoto ryokan, but it would be the Western approximation – more things and appurtenances, but simple, well-defined, and meaningful nonetheless.

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The typical American house is recyclable, transformable, dispensable. Items are bought, displayed or used, stored, and eventually thrown out, given away, or sold.  The basement is a very American institution.  It originally served to provide a layer of underground insulation against the harshness of New England winters, but was transformed into a storage space – a place for continued storage of items still thought too valuable to discard but not valuable enough to display or use.  It was the essential link in the American consumer chain.  A holding pen, a deciding area, a last resort for those who could simply not throw out Grandma’s settee.

The more the modern American family buys, the more the basement fills up; but the more quickly are its contents disposed of.  If anyone were to look, they would find the repository of American consumerism.

Given Rowan’s attachment to old things, both valuable and practical, and given his resistance to the legacies of dead aunts and great-grandmothers it was not surprising that his basement was uncluttered. 

There are always stories of old women whose hoarding has become so obsessive that there is no way out.  They live within abandoned walls of newspapers, phone books, old correspondence, hair dryers, pamphlets, and children’s toys and are hard to extract.  They are at the excessive, extreme end of the American dream.  Rowan Pritchard was at the other – spare, uncluttered, unencumbered, unbothered, and unmoved. 

No one really needs a pot with a heavy duty base and more circumference, an extra set of kitchen knives, a crocheted blanket, or set of dessert spoons.  Yet they have an insistence.  Grandma’s kitchenware cannot be discarded without finding a family home; nor her Mother Hubbards, lace shawls, and Easter hats.  Only the Rowan Pritchards of the world can resist them, discard them, and be done with them as though they never existed.  Like Grandma herself.

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There was no ulterior purpose to Rowan’s particularity.  His rejection of things had nothing to do with either the things he kept or threw away or the people who owned them; but only some vague sense of order – disruption was a greater sin than fornication . Yet his was indeed a spiritual life, one whose existential mandates, although not consciously realized, were imperative.  Keeping, preserving, withholding, maintaining – even when it came to appliances or silverware – had more to do with existential order than any old, fuddy-duddy, old man’s persnicketiness.

Rowan Pritchard was more than a survivor.  He was a latter-day prophet.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Good Girls And Bad Boys–A Sexual Attraction Made In Heaven

Good girls love bad boys, the kinds their mothers dread – Deadbeat Doug, the high-school dropout, Army recruit, he of the long rap sheet, the only one of a hundred tame classmates, harnessed and tethered well before puberty, trained to march in line, be respectful, and do one’s duty, to give full rein to the bits and pieces of Great Grandfather Hiram’s DNA – that Hiram Mycock, the black sheep not only of the immediate family but of generations of Mycocks, the bad boy who was a petty thief by the time he was ten, a numbers runner by fourteen, a gofer at Mme. LaMotte’s by sixteen, and a well-to-do procurer, boulevardier, and man-about-town by twenty.  Doug Mycock couldn’t help himself, always in trouble with priests, teachers, and police, all of whom wanted to give the benefit of the doubt to this smart, socially precocious, and canny young man but who could not ignore or forgive serious breeches of the law.

By the time Petty Bingham had met him, his die had been cast.  He was always on one side of the law or the other, impatient with its rules and restive behind its unjust bars; but not only did girls never mind, they flocked to him.  He had swagger, attitude, and confidence all of which had been squeezed out of his classmates.  To the law, to parents and teachers, and to priests and counselors, he was something the genetic potting wheel had cast according to plan, thrown with taste and care, but because of some irregularity in the wheel, the clay, or the hands of the potter, had come out unlike the other figurines on the shelf – not exactly misshapen but unmistakably different and unsalable.

To Petty, however, he was irresistible.  No matter what her parents said or how much they warned, she couldn’t keep her hands or mind off Deadbeat Doug.  While she read pioneer journals, did advanced calculus, and learned French, Doug hung out in Rockville packs, hustled Georgetown day-trippers, and made enough off of low-grade, below-the-radar dope deals to keep him solvent. 

Petty met him at a rave, wasted on E, sexy as hell, dancing with anyone who crossed from Aisle A to Aisle B and then heading up and dancing through the after-hours parties on the Anacostia.  He was always what she wanted – the fuck-all piss of her father, the Prince Charming of her childhood fairy tales, and the incarnation of everything her proper, conservative mother hated.

Mr. and Mrs. Prentice Bingham both came from solid, upper middle-class stock.  He from a proper New England family, captains of minor industry (millers and hatters from Danbury); and she from the best society that the Midwest could muster – a respectable matron by way of Saint Margaret’s, Shawnee Mission, Kansas, and Vassar.  They were careful to enroll their daughter in the best Washington private schools.  Especially in the culturally porous, multi-ethnic, diversity of the Capital, one had to take certain precautions - build firewalls and no-fly zones, monitor phone conversations, install mini-cams, and vet every non-academic interchange on the calendar; but to the surprise of no one, these attempts were vain and bumbling.  As much as they tried, no friendship with the son of Senator Billings of Missouri or the daughter of Fed Chairman Randall ever matured; and if it had, it would have resulted in trouble – the same trouble that Deadbeat Doug got into, mitigated only because of connections and political influence.

So Petty hung out with Doug Barker no matter how much her parents objected until all the training, high-class education, and downright, old-fashioned Protestant rectitude kicked in.  Following Deadbeat Doug to Alabama, betting on the dogs in Mobile, and hanging out with offshore oil riggers and displaced Haitians was not in the cards.  As much as Doug appealed to her sense of adventure, sex, and defiance, she knew that he would never be more than what her parents suspected – a deadbeat ne’er-do-well with sexy overtones.   By the end of her sophomore year at Brown, Deadbeat Doug was history.

Petty had a number of affairs in her early post-college years, and the spirit of Doug Levitt was invested in all of them.  There was Cameron Wright, a mixed-race Princeton graduate, graphic artist for a Hollywood studio, who, thanks to his stunning good looks and irresistible sexual allure was what Deadbeat Doug had always wanted to be but could never muster.  Chris Martin, another unstoppable bad boy who had tamed his wilder instincts, kept the most attractive, and slept and wangled his way into the best Burbank stables.  And finally Piotr Alexandrov, a Russian émigré with an aristocratic pedigree, a European playboy history, and a coldly indifferent attitude towards women.

Petty of course was not alone in her attraction to bad boys, whether lowlife Deadbeat Doug or high-toned Count Alexandrov.  All girls wanted nothing to do with the bridled, tamed, and sexually neutered males of the feminist, post-modern generation.  While academic canons, popular media, and received wisdom all pointed to the sensitive, respectful, orderly male, young women were having nothing of it.  They may have marched in solidarity with the MeToo movement against sexual abuse, enrolled in in post-modern courses on feminine ‘natural autocracy’ and will, and demurred on any invitation to dance; but they never hesitated before the advances of the Apollos, Casanovas, and Lotharios of their generation.  Petty and her girlfriends were no different from generations of women before her who had been nurtured, brought up, educated, and trained to single out the best of the best, but who fell for the worst – the rakes, Don Juans, casual seducers, and top dogs of the street.

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The New Age, sensitive man was simply not what God had planned when he created Adam; but women ended up with one, a man easily seduced by Eve, a moral weakling, a man without principles or the insatiable sexual will to populate the world.  He is the feminist ideal, not Darwin’s male – aggressive, insensitive, male to the roots, dominant, and unalloyed.   Women are not such easy marks.  They get the difference, know that they want nothing to do with the Adams of the world and are far more seduced by the likes of Milton’s Satan, a creature of intelligence, will, determination, sexual poise and confidence, and ultimate power.

Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat'ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.

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D.H. Lawrence understood sexual dynamics better than any author – better than Henry Miller, Albee, or even Shakespeare.  Men and women sought sexual mutuality which could only be attained after a struggle of wills.  Sensitivity, appreciation, and gender fluidity are irrelevant to the centrality of sexual will.  Sexually timid, uncertain, equivocal men and overly dependent, longing, idealistic women are part of this irrelevancy.  They will always search for sexual completion and satisfaction but will never achieve it because of their lack of focus, purpose, and desire.  

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Women may want supportive men at feminist conferences, but not in their beds.  They may respect male solidarity in the fight against sexual abuse, patriarchy, and male dominance but want a man who will, like Lawrence’s characters, refuse to be feminized, accept their maleness and aggressive pursuit, and never back off or back down in the essential struggle between male and female.

Until human DNA has been recombined to change sexual nature, urgent demands to reject male-female polarity and substitute for it a fluid gender spectrum, will fall on deaf ears.  The sexual battles fought by Shakespeare’s powerful women – Tamora, Dionyza, Goneril, Regan, Cleopatra, Rosalind, and Beatrice - and the willful power of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Strindberg’s Laura will continue to be the essential, determining struggles of women.

Powerful, determined women will never look for male sensitivity, accommodation, or complaisance to satisfy them.  They will always look to society’s bad boys – the ineffably irresistible males who offer confidence, strength, and sexual prowess.  Canny men understand this, know how to negotiate the flimsy and artificial constraints imposed on them by a politically-motivated society, and always win the most desirable woman across the floor.

Pipes, Curtains, And Grouting–The Stuff Of Marriage And Ways Of Escape

The Painters were to all appearances a couple in a good marriage of many decades.  They had divided responsibilities equitably, brought up two children well, and were loving grandparents. They co-existed, each in their own spheres of interest – different friends, occupations, diversions – rarely got in each other’s way, and all in all rode even rails with only an occasional loose shunting.

Their early years had been good, although it was not long after their marriage that Robbie had begun his affairs.  At first short, desultory pairings in exotic locations; then more serious ones but necessarily brief.  Robbie had no intention of leaving his wife or children, was perfectly satisfied with the short shelf life of his meet-and-mate liaisons, and eventually they became part of a well-balanced life.  As his marriage became more and more predictable, and as his wife became more and more occupied with house and home, forgetting the adventure and romance of their earlier years as if it had never existed , Robbie felt the need to chart his own course and navigate by very different stars.

“I just work here”, said a friend, following the instructions of his wife, admitting the less-than-ideal relationship with a woman of fixed ideas and assuming that since all husbands were complaisant helpers to insistent, practical wives, he could be honest.  Robbie understood the predicament.  Despite claims to the contrary, women were indeed nest-builders, even those who had lived much of their lives in the boardroom.  It was not that women wanted a secure place for their families as they always had.  It was that there were no natural brakes on the impulse.  The earliest women had little to build their nests with – more mud and wattle, tighter weaving of the sticks and twigs, deeper swales to catch and channel the rainwater – but the modern woman had everything. Not only to repair leaks and cracks, but to redo – reupholster couches, repaper the walls, reconfigure the family room, bump out the kitchen, add a sunroom, retile the bathroom floors – and remake for no other reason than some vestigial impulse to rethatch the roof. 

Men, Robbie thought, either helped, got out of the way, or reconfigured their own lives.  Bill Lincoln, for example, had always been scarce or unavailable for Sunday morning outings.  Margot wanted him to grout the bathroom tub, replace the screen doors, or repoint the chimney.  Bill never complained, was always a dutiful husband and companion, and placed his wife’s concerns over his interests.   It turned out, however, that shortly after his death, his wife discovered email correspondence between Bill and his Honduran lover with whom he had been having an affair for ten years.  Those trips to Tegucigalpa were not as innocent and work-related as they had seemed.

Dark-eyed beauty

Bill had simply traded uxoriousness for a life of sexual adventure, love, and intimacy with another woman.  His dutiful obligation, his deference, and his constant attention to his wife was the perfect cover.  She suspected nothing.  The revelation after his death came as a shock and complete surprise.  She not only felt cheated, but tricked.  It was one thing for a husband to stray; another thing to act the part of dutiful spouse with such fidelity than even the most critical audience would have suspended disbelief. 

“It served her right”, said one of Bill’s friends during their coffee post-mortem.  Far better for her to have found out after his death than before.  He had to suffer no screams and recriminations.  No pound of flesh, no hectoring, harping, and surveillance; and she had to endure years of painful, frustrated anger and unrequited revenge.  He couldn’t have engineered a better or more fitting end to a woman who had been bsimply too difficult to get rid of.

Robbie’s route was ironically more honest than Bill’s ever was.  Robbie refused to help re-grout the shower and help select new drapes and kept a mistress in Port of Spain.  It was a question of personality.  His wife was so preoccupied with the mud-and-wattle of her life that she ignored the cost.  It was far more important for her to have a new kitchen and bumped-out sunroom than it was to get any spousal support; and that enterprise kept her nose out of Robbie’s affairs.  When he finally pulled up, settled for a nice bed of hay and a warm stable, his wife was none the wiser.  She was only happy that his busy professional life was winding down and coming to an end.  He would be underfoot to be sure, as unwilling to help out as before, but still, it would be nice to have him home.  Their relationship had always been skewed in his favor.

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Perhaps it was motherhood that so defined women’s mud-and-wattle character.  A baby cannot simply be left to the elements.  Cold air whistling through the cracks has to be stopped, the leak in in the thatch repaired, the dung floor resurfaced, and the briar fence replaced.  Home improvements are not for the mother but for the baby; but just as Australian shepherds will herd little children when there are no sheep in the pasture, women cannot stop refurbishing, redoing, and renovating once their children are out of the house. 

Perhaps it had more to do with historical legacy.  Women had been confined to house and home for centuries, so it is no surprise that they busy themselves with drapes, curtains, rugs, and glassware long after they have entered the competitive male workplace.

When the reshuffling of the furniture, the in-and-out of sofas, highboys, and tables, and the replacement of the flagstones got too much, Robbie headed out to meet his lover in Miami Beach, or drink rum punches at the Oloffson, or even rekindle old affairs in Sioux City. 

Robbie and his wife stayed married for decades, their home had been featured in House and Garden, and their family remained intact.  Robbie assumed that either his wife knew about his meanderings and ignored them, intent as she was about her own, very practical ends; or that she had no idea what he did after he closed the front door.  In either case she was happy to have him out from underfoot as she reupholstered and refinished, and he was happy to leave this workshop.

They had never shared a ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ moment either before their marriage or after, so perhaps it was that diffidence or patient indifference that kept them together.  Who is to say what marriage should be, as artificial a social construct as it has been? And perhaps the best marriages are those where husband and wife follow their own hardwired, pre-historic instincts but still manage to co-habit.

Many women might claim that such duplicitous and deceitful marriages such as Robbie’s and Bill’s are fundamentally wrong and the ends do not justify the means.  An intact, ‘happy’ marriage cannot justify treachery and dishonesty.  Yet many marriages come apart for a lot less, and most are unhappy, dreary, affairs.  What is wrong with one built on the honest desire to be busy, constructive, and hearth-building; and on the faithful, although temporary, return of a sexual wanderer?

Nigel Nicholson wrote Portrait of a Marriage, a memoir of the unusual open marriage between his mother, Vita Sackville-West and his father, Harold Nicholson.  Literary critic Nava Atlas describes it this way:

Sir Harold, distinguished writer, scholar, diplomat, and statesman, was a social, extroverted being; Vita, a poet and novelist, was the product of mingled Spanish and English blood, once described as “romantic, secret, and undomesticated.” They both thought marriage “unnatural,” but realized that, “as a happy marriage is ‘the greatest of human benefits,’ husband and wife must strive hard for its success. Each must be supple enough, subtle enough, to mold their characters and behavior to fit the other’s facet to facet, convex to concave.”

Image result for images vita sackville west

Robbie’s marriage was neither as open nor dramatic as the Nicholsons’.  By comparison to the English couple’s sexual adventures, high-living, fame, and wealth, his was ordinary and conservative.  Yet given the precariousness of marriage, it is hard to criticize either one or any one.

The fact that few men would want to be married to Robbie’s wife – a life of pipes, curtains, and grouting sounds very unappealing– most applauded Robbie for his evasion and his commitment.  Marriage was not to be dismissed lightly; but avoidance of the worst sequelae was not only necessary but expected.

Robbie and his wife stayed together until the end.  Admittedly once Robbie had accepted the hay, feed, and stable he was not as happy as he once had been; but he adjusted. He kept out of his wife’s way when she was involved in one of her projects.  His daughter was particularly sympathetic and welcomed him; but once the dust had settled, he returned, not exactly with enthusiasm, but a return nonetheless.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Diary Of A Trump Hater–A Fairy Tale

Marfa Poitiers grew up in a normal, serious, politically moderate family.  Her grandparents on her father’s side had been conservative Republicans, but in an era before Barry Goldwater and the naissance of radical conservatism.  They were Eisenhower Republicans who believed simply in the greatness of America – and who could doubt that proposition after victory over Germany in World War II, an America with unshakeable beliefs in God, family, community, and country, and a powerful economic engine which would drive recovery in Europe and power American industrial revival? 

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Her grandparents on her mother’s side were moderate Democrats who believed in the New Deal and government instrumentalism.  They had loved Roosevelt, voted for Stevenson, ‘the little man’, small business, labor unions, and the welfare state; and looked to European social democracies as the way forward. 

Both sets of grandparents hardened their positions as they aged into their eighties and nineties.  By the time Marfa was a young adult, her grandparents had slid off moderate political rails and shunted themselves onto more extreme sidetracks, but were still within walking distance of church, community, flag, and country.

Her parents had both begun their political lives as 60s quasi-radicals; but bred well-enough within an upper middle class ethos of moderation within a patriotic framework and educated within patrician rationalism and social probity to stay within bounds.  They sympathized with the Far Left but intellectually not actually.  They never rode the Freedom Ride buses, crossed the Pettis Bridge in Selma, or demonstrated with Martin Luther King on the Washington Mall.  They were serious enough in their political convictions, but never throttled up, joined, or insisted.

Image result for images sixties radical demonstrations

Perhaps because of her parents’ political diffidence – only the fainthearted and weak-willed cheered on the sidelines while blood was spilt in the cause of freedom, civil rights, and moral rectitude – she felt obliged to take a more principled and active stand.  Looking more to her grandparents – both outspoken in their political opinions and in a day before street protests, as loud and unintimidated as any – she made a choice.  Liberal progressivism with a storied intellectual political history from Karl Marx, Samuel Gompers, Saul Alinsky; and a radical revolutionary history from the Black Panthers, Mark Rudd, and the Weathermen, had more staying power.  It had moral authority, religious sanction, and social relevance.  Conservatism, while originally based on Enlightenment individualism and Scottish free market enterprise, had become deformed into a chaise longue patriotism, Sinclair Lewis small business boosterism, and Biblical sanctimony.

Marfa not only veered Left, she careened off any intellectual, rational, moderate rails and ended up in the radical fringe.  Unfortunately she came of age in the Donald Trump era, and whatever reasonability she might have had; whatever innate patriotic moderation she might have inherited from her grandparents; and whatever intellectual diffidence she might have adopted from her parents, were set aside, ignored, or jettisoned.

She became a Trump Hater, a woman of absolutely confirmed righteousness and moral outrage.  She hated Trump for his misogyny, his racism, his crass materialism, and his absurd, bourgeois, uncultured, ridiculous persona.  She hated Trump before he ever signed a bill, an executive order, or political directive.  She made up her mind during the 2016 campaign, convinced herself that the man was a boneheaded, macho, self-centered ignoramus.  His one-liners and ad hominem tweets were examples of his simplemindedness – a man incapable of considered political thought, enlightened social judgement, and anything but capitalist greed incarnate.  He hated women, gays, blacks, and Native Americans.  His vision of cultural homogeneity, Christian hegemony, and economic elitism were not just wrong, but hateful.

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Her hatred was so deep, pernicious, and corrosive, that she lost any sense of balance.  Anyone who considered even or a moment the ideas behind the hyperbole, the motives behind the grand guignol or the purpose behind the vaudeville was a traitor.  There was only one way forward – the complete, total, destruction of an American Hitler.

Marfa was not alone of course, and she found a sense of belonging, community, and family in the progressive movement.  Here there were brothers and sisters who shared the same hatred, who all despised the villainy and retrograde ignorance of the President and his sycophants.  They were a team out to win, a progressive avant-garde, a phalanx of the righteous.  It felt good at night after the hoopla, the banners and signs, the tear gas and dogs, the courage of African Americans and the transgendered, and the great emotional sweep of generational good.

Hatred became a positive good.  The Movement to remove and destroy Donald Trump had nothing to do with Christian tolerance or Buddhist acceptance.  Jesus and the Tao were irrelevant, too soft, generous, or philosophically wobbly in the face of such malevolence.  Trump was no less than a Hitler, a Stalin, and a Pol Pot – a vicious, amoral, dangerous, and destructive force.

Of course from a more rational, objective perspective Marfa was disillusioned – an impressionable young woman who had paid too much attention to her parents and grandparents, too little to Adam Smith, John Locke, Rousseau, and Voltaire, and far too much to Cuban apologists, unreconstructed Marxists, and European Social Democrats,  It would be too much to say that she was lost, a victim of idealism and a deformed reading of history.  She was far more intelligent than the MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, opportunists whose one claim to fame was their manipulation of the gullibility and idealism of their supporters.  She was a micro part of macro-history.  She was part of a local zeitgeist which meant nothing when considered within a larger historical context but which was characteristic of the times.  In effect, she was an unsuspecting, willing pawn in a hysterical political moment.

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Perhaps for the first time in recent American history has there been such vitriol, profound hatred, and hysterical frenzy over a president.  A dispassionate observer would quickly conclude that the violent opposition to Donald Trump has little to do with the man, his policies, or his governance than progressive idealism.  Such a man and such a populist, conservative movement was not supposed to interrupt the progressive movement towards a better world.   Progressive, it was thought, was part of the end of history, a final movement of social justice which would resolve international conflict, configure a multi-cultural, tolerant, and inclusive American society, even out capitalist excesses and inequalities, and balance faith and secularism.  How could such an intrusion into a beautiful, purposeful, ideal vision ever happen?

Hatred was the only responsible response to such a man and his deformed vision.  There could be no such thing as a loyal opposition, no reasonable, moderate, and temperate response to perfidy and evil.

Marfa, like most of her progressive colleagues, either wore out, had babies, or gave up.  The conservative, populist juggernaut of the early 21st century, extending throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas simply had too much inertia.  It was and never would be a question of right or wrong – history has no favorites – just staying power, desire, will, and numbers.  Radical conservatism will not last and liberal social democracies will return but not for a while.  Anyone old enough to have lived through one or two iterations of both pays no attention to Donald Trump or his progressive haters.  Time will not tell, but will only illuminate the endless cycle of pros and cons. 

There will always be Marfas.  Idealism dies hard.  Not only do few people believe the lessons of history, but many insist on defying it – to their peril.

Donald Trump is no better or worse than any American President.  He is simply one of a kind, and no one seems to know what to do with his bourgeois, Hollywood, Las Vegas, New York mean streets, glitz, will, and showmanship.  He is not acting ‘presidential’. Yet he is President, so whatever he does is, ipso facto, presidential.  Time for Marfa Poitiers to relax.

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Trump Show Continues With Its Merry-Go-Round, Side Shows, And Lion Tamers–But Honestly, Isn’t It Fun?

It has been two years since the Democrats lost the Presidential election, and are still licking their wounds.  They have never understood how such a buffoon, a circus carny, carnival huckster, and moral reprobate could possibly have become president, and have therefore focused more of their energy on removing him from office rather than working with him as members of the loyal opposition.

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All this is understandable up to a point.  No one was prepared for the Trump Show, and not even his populist, hungry supporters could have imagined such bombast, peep-show intrigue, and unalloyed entertainment.  They knew he would take no prisoners and run roughshod over those without the gumption to stand up to him; but had no idea of the sheer chutzpah of the man and his super-confidence.  They knew he was a street-fighter, but had no idea of his determination and will.  They knew that he was a man of Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the streets of New York, but never imagined how little patience he had for insult, disrespect, and disloyalty. 

Democrats claim that he is not ‘acting presidential’ – as temperate, conciliatory, well-spoken, and respectful as Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, or Ronald Reagan – and should be taken to task for his braggadocio, media hype, and outrageous disregard for the truth. Only a president who governs reasonably, without arrogance or personal showmanship, and with the country’s interests in mind, can be a good president.  Anyone else simply cannot be considered.

“Who says?”, say his supporters. Trump is what they bargained for and then some.  Not only are they getting a president who is faithful to his promises – rollback of the progressive social agenda and government interventionism, overbearing regulations and taxes, and pusillanimous dealings with mighty adversaries – but they are loving the choler of the progressive Left who are befuddled, frustrated, and disassembled.  No matter what they do, no matter how many attacks on Trump’s veracity, principles, or interests; no matter how many presidential advisers come and go;  no matter how many Special Prosecutors, investigators are appointed; and no matter how many alleged misdeeds the press can uncover, the juggernaut rolls on.  Everyone but they know that while Trump may be impeached, he will never be convicted.  Trump knows it, would relish a Congressional battle reminiscent of the dirty street fights of his real estate days, and in the end could care less about his legacy.

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Trump’s achievements rarely get the press they deserve not only because they are less compelling than the White House soap opera, but because they are considered successes only by his supporters.  Nevertheless an international foreign policy governed by Kissinger-esque realpolitik and uncomplicated by traditional concerns American moral exceptionalism have led to ‘adversarial compromise’ in pursuit of common aims.  The US is less interested in Putin as an autocrat or czar-in-waiting than as a canny Machiavellian leader.  China’s treatment of the Uighurs, Tibet, and other ethnic minorities is of little relevance given its rising geopolitical, economic, and financial influence, and its powerful cultural nationalism.

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The insistence on due process at universities and the insistence on adherence to Constitutional principles has been long in coming; and the Administration has not been shy about threatening the withdrawal of funds from those institutions which continue their imbalanced and preferential campus policies.  Its support of religious rights especially in light of the the ‘diversity’ movement which has focused uniquely on secular rights and been prejudicial to religious ones also relate to due process. Its demands for a border wall, while only symbolic, are correct in focusing the nation’s attention on immigration.  Its refusal to join the climate change bandwagon has less to do with the facts of environmental change than it does with social equilibrium.  Environmentalism comes with a price tag, and investments must be made prudently with due attention paid to economic liability.

This having been said, all but the most offended, hurt, and angered Americans tune into the White House soap opera because it is more entertaining than any reality TV.  How would the family squabbles among the Trump children and in-laws play out?  Would Jared and Ivanka have the inside track to the President as expected, given his fierce family loyalty and suspicion of outsiders? How long would opportunist Washington power players stay alongside the President, take his insulting and defamatory tweets and precipitous changes in course in stride? What new, scurrilous, and damaging revelations will be revealed?  Who will the President fire and disgrace in their wake?

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More than Donald Trump’s real estate deals, beauty pageants, high-risk, high-roll investments, oratory, arm candy, and his outsized, outlandish personality, he is remembered for ‘You’re fired!’.  Who will be next? No one parses the difference between reality TV and the Presidency.  The man who has acted in both hasn’t changed and never will.  Only the stakes are fired when he gets rid of someone in the White House.  That’s real entertainment.

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This is all played out not in the demure, socially conservative Kennedy White House – the White House of Pablo Casals, cuisine, and elegant appointments – but at Trump hotels, resorts, and golf courses.  He hires and fires from Mar el Lago, completes deals before the 9th hole, wines and dines not for political interests but for his own kicks. 

The man is irrepressible, and anyone who grimaces at his antics, chases out to the Mall to protest his treatment of women, watches Fox News to add fuel to the fire, is simply missing the fun.  The Donald Trump Show is the Greatest Show on Earth because it combines a three-ring circus, sideshows, clowns and the best of soap opera.  None of the best Turkish dizi or American daytime television series can match the family intrigues, suspicions, conspiracies, and dirty dealings of the Trump White House. Not only is it entertaining but it is on every day.  We are used to smarmy news about Trump and his coterie from the NY Times , Washington Post, and MSNBC, but what about E! ,People, and Entertainment Today

It is surprising that so many people take the  Donald Trump persona so seriously.  Of course he is antic, unpredictable, impossibly arrogant and dismissive, and critical; but afer two years, the country is well-off economically; the threats of ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Shabab, and al-Qaeda, once thought to be globally dangerous and destabilizing, have been largely neutered.  North Korea is more conciliatory than ever before.  Iran is more circumspect in its support of Middle East insurgencies.  A positive nationalism – one that insists on a return to the principles of the Founding Fathers, faith, and individual moral responsibility discredited by sectarian, ‘identity’ interests – is being reinstated.  Trump may act the buffoon; may have played NY-style rough, down-and-dirty politics and not the expected patrician, faded, old boy, Old Blue camaraderie kind; but the country, despite naysayers and Trump-haters, has not fallen apart.

Many Americans have turned off their televisions and stopped reading newspapers.  They have never watched soap operas, are old enough to appreciate how human nature acts itself out again and again, is remarkably consistent, and offers few surprises. Of course politicians will be self-centered and self-interested.  Of course they will do anything to get and retain power.  Of course they will resort to the dirtiest tricks, lies, and chicanery to do so.   Why should today’s news be any different? Why should they watch?

Shakespeare understood human nature and its determinism.  Laid out in chronological order, the Histories would repeat the same, familiar, common tales of greed, ambition, jealousy, and desire again and again.  What interested the playwright was not in providing insights about the nature of power but in providing dramatic, humorous, ironic, and memorable displays of human nature.  The genre and its major themes may not change, but what a delight to see how Tamora, Dionyza, Goneril, Regan, and Volumnia do their dirty business.

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For the same reason, Americans should turn the television back on, renew their print subscriptions, and have a good laugh.  The admission is free, and the show will always deliver.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Face-Lifts And The Restoration Of Beauty–Who Says That Inner Qualities Are Worth More?

The old families of the West End of New Brighton were never ones for show.  Their houses were simply decorated, their cars practical, old, and serviceable, and their clothes English, proper, and comfortable.  It wasn’t a matter of money – the West Enders, sons and daughters of the city’s captains of industry, had marshaled their inheritance well, had homes in Nantucket, St. Bart’s and Gstaad, gave generously to the Red Cross, and sent their children to the best schools.  It wasn’t even a matter of parsimony, a sense of the dollar and what it was worth; or worse, the Great Depression.  It was something more fundamental – image. 

The slightly worn Persian carpets had been in the Bingham family family for generations, a gift of the Shah for meritorious service of an ancient relative.  The Townsend chests had been purchased directly from the cabinetmaker, shipped from his Newport workshop to their homes on Beacon Hill and Benefit Street before making their way to New Brighton.  Paul Revere pre-Revolutionary silver had been in family hands since 1776, never moved from Boston until just prior to the Civil War when its owner and its well-known industrialist moved to New Brighton to manage the factories that provisioned the Union Army.

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All the pieces in the homes along Monroe Street were simple, tasteful, and historically significant.  They were never displayed, but used.  One of the few silver fish knives made by Revere, one with a surprisingly intricate filigree, was always used for the fish course at Sunday dinner.  ‘The Church’ knife it had always been called, recollecting Revere’s famous ride but also ‘The Card Knife’, recalling stories of his mother, a neighbor of the Boston branch of the New Brighton Harts, who in her later years had used it to flip cards for baccarat.

In short, there was nothing more patrician, more English, more quietly tasteful and quiet than the families of Monroe Street.   In an increasingly showy society the Monroe Streeters stood out.  They were museum pieces, at best the last relics of New England colonial history, at worst off, odd, and peculiar. 

Yet this was the whole point.  The West Enders would no sooner buy a new car than throw their Chippendale into the Farmington River.  A Monroe Street matron would rather be cloistered in a nunnery than be seen with anything more than a string of cultured pearls.  Armani, St. Laurent, and Dior were foreign, European, and American arriviste, bought by other people.

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The West Enders were a breed apart and wanted to keep it so.  No display of money meant lots of money.  Hospital shoes meant millions in the bank, earning interest.  Colonial silver used for meals meant bullion in the bank vault.  Eschewing display, embracing simple practicality, and old, worn clothes was as much of a statement as the bling of Las Vegas pimps.  It said who they were and distinguished themselves.  Image was a signifier.  One had to look no further to understand what was underneath.

To burnish the image and keep it fully intact, the West Enders went to what seemed illogical extremes.  The Lodges’ classic Ford ‘woody’ wagon was in the shop so often they could have bought two new cars with the money spent on repairs.  There was no sensible reason for the Parsons boys to patch and re-patch their tweeds; nor for the Hillyard men to resole, re-stitch, and cobble old brogans.  Yet these extremes were not illogical at all.  Within the context of image, significance, and standing, they made infinite sense.

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Of course the West Enders were at the far edge of the spectrum, claiming a unique, unsought-after, but recognizable niche which set them apart.  The rest of New Brighton wanted all it could get.  Wealth was the obvious way to trump up plainness and simplicity.  What was the purpose of money if not to spend it, and to spend it visibly.  The American middle class however were not examples of Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption so much as the product of Hollywood.  While purchase can certainly confer status, it can also define identity.  While clothes may make a man and give him social weight and respect; they more importantly make the man, personalized versions of who he would like to be not necessarily who he is.

There are margins of truth beyond which image cannot reach.  A face-lift can enhance the way a woman looks to others.  It is a restoration of the image she has always presented, and one which reflects who she feels she is.  A woman who had always been classically beautiful and whose classic beauty had helped her gain social access into the well-heeled and well-watered society she had always sought, despite her modest upbringing, felt it only right and reasonable to restore that beauty once it began to fade. 

There was no point, she felt, in being like the West Enders who were as proud of their sags and lines as they were of their patched tweeds and beat-up old Fords.  She had always thought of herself as a beautiful woman – her most telling and important characteristic – and if that beauty disappeared, so would she. 

Facial reconstructive surgery – becoming a woman you never were – was another thing altogether.  Why should a woman, fated with the genes of unattractive parents, suffer that fate if she had the means to neuter them?  There was no pride in being thought of as ‘the smart one’, ‘the talented one’ when her desire was to be ‘the beautiful one’.  Women since Nefertiti have been prized for their beauty, a beauty the standards of which have not changed for 5000 years; so why not choose that universal virtue over others which had more than their share of rough edges. Besides, she wasn’t all that smart.

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The West Enders called the beautiful woman vain and impressionable.  How long would her ‘beauty’ last?  Giving in to faltering good looks expressed an existential purity which the vain could never understand. Yet for her there was no vanity involved.  It was only a matter of consistency; and who was to say whether faithfulness to an image, a desire, a creation was any less valid that a spiritless acceptance of the ways the cards are dealt?

Joseph Conrad understood this well.  Lord Jim had an image of himself which did not correspond to who he was; and yet he pursued this image – that of a man of courage, principle, and honor – throughout his life.  He could no sooner accept that his failure as an officer aboard a sinking ship, his dereliction of duty, and abandonment of ship, was him than to accept that he was evil.  His life, his search for atonement and redemption was because of the conflict between who he was and who he thought he was. Stein, a character in the book, appreciates Jim for his idealism, albeit based on false premises.  His final courage was defending the image of himself, not who he really was.  It was Jim’s theatricality which defined him, not his courage.

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Vanity is considered a sin not because of its meaninglessness, but because of its exaggeration.  A woman who has a face lift to restore what was legitimately a classic beauty and the defining feature of her life should never be considered vain.  A woman who was never attractive but who has repeated face lifts, make-overs, and style upgrades to try to approximate a false, artificially-determined beauty is most certainly vain.

We are all vain in that none of us like the stacked deck in front of us.  We will all enhance the qualities we have, gloss over the ones we would like to forget, and do our best to create ones we never had. 

There is nothing shameful about image, fantasy, and fanciful ideas.  Reality for most of us is not all that it is cracked up to be.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Life As A Cliché–Sorry, Unavoidable, Predictable, And Without Recourse

It isn’t so much that there is nothing new under the sun – after all, there are only so many original ideas  to go around– not even the obviousness of it all, nor even the bargain basement predictability  of everything; but the old-chestnut, clichéd quality of our daily rounds. 

There is no way that the Saltenstalls – lawyers, two children, Anglo-Saxon, patrician ancestry, Boston heritage -  would ever have an inflatable Santa on the lawn; but across the river it would be hard to find a home without Santa, his elves, and a thousand lights on eaves, chimneys, porticos, and lawns.  

The Petruccis, Rozickis, Gonzalezes, and O’Reillys  are supposed to leave no space un-decorated for Christmas; to spend thousands on presents, holly wreaths, shrubbery lights, recorded carols, and fruit cakes; while the Cabots, Lodges, Merriwethers, and Logans are equally supposed to have one lighted candle in the living room window,and a tree with old gingerbread ornaments, calico dolls, and one solitary string of red and green lights. 

The Cabots and the Lodges must go out in tweeds, eat hunted goose and quince jelly, drink whisky and gin, and  retreat before the fireplace.  The Petruccis are expected to overeat lasagne,  ham pies, sausage stuffing, and root beer.  The O’Connells cannot leave a drop and must drink to the dregs, and the Dominicans must dance until dawn.

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There is much said about identity these days.  One’s race, gender, and national origin are the signifiers of who one is, the only valid stamps on one’s existential passport.  Yet such identity politics only exaggerate the clichéd.  Why should black people continue to name their children LaShonda or Ta-Marquand and wear bling?  Why can’t Latino men lose the boots,  sombreros, baseball caps, and jeans?  Why can’t Turks, Armenians, Azeris, and Kuwaitis forget their exaggerated sense of ‘family’ and devalue older brothers, fathers, and uncles?  Why can’t WASPs lose their parsimony, practicality, and simplicity?  And why can’t the rest of us forget our Volvos, Priuses, Volts, gentrification,  trips to Miami Beach and Oahu?

Because we can’t help ourselves; and by following the automatic, hardwired, inescapable desire to be like others, we become clichés, cartoon figures in badly-written soap operas.  We are not only like everyone else, stereotypically perfect, and spot-on clones of everyone in our social milieu, we are caricatures of them.

A young up-and-coming thirty-something Washingtonian was pleased that he had found an out-of-the-way, undiscovered, and quite unique Basque fusion restaurant in Bloomingdale, one of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods of the city.  The restaurant, an emergent foodie-cum-Old World-cuisine, boutique restaurant must still be struggling, he thought, still on the culinary-cultural periphery. When he arrived, he was surprised the place bustling, but found it so traveled that it had become commonplace. It had not only been discovered, it had become de rigeur; and within a few short months had moved from a scratchy start up with mom-and-pop help in the kitchen to the place to be and to be seen.

His search for the unique, his assumption that there was any such thing, and his utter surprise and disappointment that not only did every patron look like him but that some were even his colleagues and neighbors, were deflating and depressing.

“Keep it to yourself….Keep it to yourself”, yells the movie exec in Robert Altman’s The Player as he strangles a writer he thinks will spill his secrets; but there is no way for the awful mundane truths of these restaurant patrons to be tamped and secreted. There are no such thing as ‘finds’.  Everything not only has been found, found out, and played out; but has been done so according to plan.  It was written that a new, yuppie, hip and with-it restaurant would be opened in Bloomingdale; that young Washington metrosexual pioneers would ‘discover’ it, and that it would prosper and decline in due time.

The same Washington newcomer was not the first but one among many to sweet-talk and seduce his young K Street colleagues at the Mayflower.  The bartender, Robert, he of the magic tricks and ineffable welcome and courtesy, witnessed thousands of assignations under his watch lubricated by his Pisco Sours.  “They are all wonderful”, he said generously; all  with the same Friday-night after hours predictability.  What he did not say was how similar the assignations were, expressly K Street, not what young people did in his Gaithersburg neighborhood or Southeast where money, influence, and pares inter paribus love partners were unknown bedfellows.  Getting real meant forgetting a workweek of files, emails, spreadsheets, and meetings, consequences and going where who’s buying ruled.

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It takes no revelation or epiphany to realize one’s mediocrity nor any time past the morning after or at the latest after brunch; but it takes some insight to accept one’s cliché, the inevitable, socially-mediated and –determined behavior that signifies, puts one into expected categories, snickered at by others; and a bit of resolve to  dismiss it.  To do so is to accept sameness and mediocrity as the social norm, but more importantly to accept the clichéd reality of an inevitably unique-less pedestrian life.

A friend was especially proud of his linguistic insight, his unusual perception of linguistic nuances – the differences and similarities between English and Turkish, for example, or the similarities between Persian- and Romance-based language groups.  Yet while his appreciation of linguistic subtleties was indeed noteworthy for an amateur, his accomplishment was no different from those of his colleagues, amateur experts in music, Asian history, and religion.  His pride was not the issue, nor his particular undue pride, but the cliché – he was acting like ten thousand of his Upper Northwest, highly educated, colleagues.  His sense of superior accomplishment was itself a cliché.

We all consider ourselves more relevant than we really are.  Presentation, identity, personal validation and integrity are in the end fictions, and caricatures.   We are born, educated, and socialized for, but remarkably unprepared to bear up.

The boredom – the unremitting sameness, the inescapable trajectory to the end – would be tolerable it if weren’t for getting caught in the untenable posture of thinking more of life and ourselves than they are worth.  Any existential fate would be better than a laughable one in a vaudevillian farce?

It is one thing to dress the part of a comedian, wig, mustaches, false nose, and arched eyebrows; another to realize that such lowbrow theatrics are part of life; but to ignore God’s ironic creation of a procreative, instinctively obedient race without the intelligence to realize the joke?

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Existential fitness is either a matter of realizing the joke and going with it; or accepting the depressing irony and humbly hoping for some eventual, eternal rewards.  Donald Trump and Madonna know they are caricatures, the best and brightest of a world without substantive values, clichés of glitz, glamour, and image.  The rest of us feel guilty about our presumptuousness, or feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.   Oh, how we would love to be a cliché.

Alas, the world’s religions have taught us to be humble, self-effacing, and modest.  Be true to oneself, honest before one’s Maker while the world goes on happily ignorant of such fundamentals.  Better to be a cliché than un-elected.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Please Forgive Me - The Sorry State Of Absolution

The Old Testament gave no ground to sinners.  Jehovah was a judgmental, punitive, retributive God.  Sodom and Gomorrah were to be destroyed despite Abraham’s intercession.  The Flood was unequivocally necessary because of universal human failing.  Better to start over.. 

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The New Testament is much more forgiving.  In fact, Christ’s central message was one of divine generosity.  Of course men sin.  Eve, the temptress, seduced herself by the Devil, corrupted Adam and condemned the entire human race to a life of penury and pain  Jesus offered hope to even the least hopeful.  If one were only to believe in him and accept the offer of his grace, the kingdom of heaven would be open.

The choice is clear.  Who would rather face a censorious, unforgiving judge than one who understands man’s foibles and moral weakness?  Jehovah was right in sending his Son to correct the very imperfect world he created.  The Flood didn’t work.  The human race came back and renewed itself; but unrepentant and ignorant, went on to repeat the same mistakes it had made before Noah.  The human race that God had created was irremediable, and the only hope was that at least some of his creations would finally respect, love, and admire him – a tall order, but one surely in competent hands. 

Milton wrote about this divine mission in Paradise Lost but Jesus’s work was not a foregone conclusion.  The forces of evil, especially when arrayed so ingeniously by Satan, were daunting even for the Son of God; but defeat was necessary and foregone.  The world was not created to be evil.

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From any point of view God could never have envisaged the sorry, facile state of forgiveness today.  Public apologies after breaches of public trust are accepted without question.  No sin is beyond forgiveness, and most are considered only aberrations from a moral norm.  American political and religious leaders who have betrayed their wives, their congregations, and their followers can be restored to status and position if they prostrate themselves in abject apology before their constituents.  Even given the likelihood that such serial sinners will sin again, they must be forgiven.  Christ’s message gone horribly awry. 

Jews are quite cynical about the Catholic sacrament of Confession.  It is all well and good, they say, to sin, be forgiven with only a few desultory prayers, and be free to sin again; but the true import of sin – a hurtful, spiteful rejection of the Lord, Jehovah or Christ – is overlooked in such an easy round of forgiveness.  We take sin seriously, say observant Jews on The Day of Atonement, take our moral responsibility to heart, accept the very mortal offense of repeating it; while Catholics spin the bottle and go on with their lives.

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Of course Jews misunderstand the principles of Catholic forgiveness.  One can be only truly forgiven if the sinner understands the immoral nature of the sin and promises never to commit it again.  All well and good, Jews say; but promises are worth little more than the breath it takes to utter them especially if there is no penalty for failure.  Repeat offenders – repentant adulterers, liars, and cheats who ignore the meaning of the confessional and continue to sin – go Scot free in the permissive, exceedingly tolerant Christian society.  Better to condemn once and for all, to mete out just punishment, and to expect humble acceptance of it. 
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of Heaven, and the pains of Hell; but most of all because I love Thee, my God, Who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen (Catholic Good Act of Contrition)
Jesus surely never meant a universal, unquestioned forgiveness of sin.  He must have learned something about unrepentant human behavior from his Father; yet after his death, he was not responsible because the Holy Ghost, the enforcer of the Holy Trinity, who was charged with keeping the faith as The Son had envisaged, was derelict in his duty.  He – the Holy Spirit – allowed for the emergence and preeminence of the Church, the Vatican and the Pope, all with vested interests in forgiveness.  After all, what would be the future of a church which could be swept away and destroyed by a vengeful Old Testament God?

Christianity has had such longevity because of its temperate, forgiving nature.  Judaism provides needed moral brakes to Christianity’s excesses, but it can only admonish and hector from the sidelines.  Protestant fundamentalism has taken sin and forgiveness to another level.  One can be saved through Christ’s divine grace and redemption, so never mind temporal, earthly Jewish harping about right behavior.

In a crucial scene in the movie, The Gift, an unrepentant sinner – an ugly-spirited, arrogant, but attractive ignoramus – asks forgiveness from a man whom he has offended, hurt, and seriously damaged years before.  The man refuses to accept the offender’s apology and says, ‘You might be done with the past, but the past is not done with you’.  He prefers vengeance to forgiveness and destroys his offender.  Old Testament justice, and we sympathize. Why even consider an insincere apology from someone who will sin again?  Why not destroy him?

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We have forgiven weeping politicians for their indiscretions, no matter how serious.  if they have realized – or at least publicly acknowledged their moral dereliction – then shouldn’t they be forgiven, especially if their opus – the goodness of their collective works – outweighs any one-off error of ways?

Did Jesus ever think of forgiveness in context? Parsing the seriousness of sin was not in his litany.  Sin itself and the willing admission of it was; but there was no questioning Christian morality.  All faithful knew quite well what was expected of them.  The likes of betraying politicians and preachers would be condemned no matter how humble their contrition; and only after the most abject apology and profound commitment to reform would their apologies be considered.

“I’m sorry” has lost all meaning, all salience, and all relevance to moral judgement. It has become facile, expected, and totally meaningless.  Worse, it has become part of the sinner’s forgivable trajectory.  “I’ll never stray again” says the straying husband, buying time and space before his next affair.  “I will always be faithful to your interests”, says the politician who has only his own interests and longevity in mind.  “Please forgive me”, asks the Catholic priest for his abusive behavior.

Granting forgiveness is one thing, admitting wrongdoing is another.  Admission of guilt, sin, or error is the last resort.  If one can get away with a crime, never have to admit it, nor ever do penance or beg for forgiveness, so much the better.  “It’s not what you know”, says Alonzo, the corrupt police detective in Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day, “but what you can prove”.   Committing the crime is not the problem, leaving a traceable trail is.

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‘Transparency’, today’s buzzword for political reform does not mean honesty, forthrightness, or admission of guilt; but the image of innocence.  If it looks good, smells good, and feels good, then it must be good.  Truth is secondary if not irrelevant.

We have gotten so far from the Act of Contrition – the heartfelt, deeply apologetic admission of having offended God himself – that apologies of any sort are meaningless, so subject are they to image, presentation, and self-serving explanation.  Better to take an Old Testament view of sin – wipe it and its offenders out in another Flood.   Bring back unapologetic, vengeful, and retributive justice.  There is no reason to shy away from the death penalty, the one, absolute act of justice that remains in a relativistic, self-justifying society.

International Development–When Mission And Moral Exceptionalism Get In The Way Of Geopolitical Interests

Progress International was an international development agency contracted by the US Government to carry out projects in health, social welfare, and education.  While its ostensible purpose was to improve the lot of the poor living in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the real reason behind such investment was geopolitical positioning.   It was always hoped that such socially valuable projects would add moral luster to the United States and would be appreciated both for laudable human goals and generous political incentives to assure support of American political interests. 

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Although these projects were gifts to host countries, American planners counted on  a certain degree of  government support and interest.  Unless public officials were committed to reform, more efficient delivery of services, and public welfare, they would never succeed. Of course the governments with which the United States contracted bi-lateral agreements were more often than not autocracies whose only interest was political longevity and large offshore bank accounts.   There was no way to select countries for development assistance on the basis of geopolitical interests and assume that they would be willing and energetic partners in social reform. 

The World Bank in its early days when it functioned as a lender of last resort, countries borrowed for the investments that were critical to their development, and were willing to take on the risk of default knowing that if they did, their credit would be further denied.   During those days, major infrastructure projects were designed and implemented; and countries in the developing world had the roads, ports, water, and sewage systems they were denied under colonial rule.  After the days of Robert McNamara, the last President to fund such infrastructure projects, the Bank felt that it had to turn more directly to the needs of the poor.  ‘Poverty alleviation’ became the operational philosophy at the Bank.  No more would the Bank finance bridges, roads, and ports – all of which would benefit the poor only years if not decades in the future – but would turn its attention to ‘soft’ projects, those which were intended to raise socio-economic indicators quickly.

The Bank did no better on soft loan (gift) performance than the US government, for as part of the new policy, so-called ‘conditionalities’ were written into each agreement.  For these no-money-down, low interest rate, easily forgivable loans, countries would have to promise to reform their governance and become more accountable, transparent, and democratic.  

Of course, the autocrats with whom the Bank dealt, had no interest in making good on their promises, took the money, invested some for appearances sake, and diverted the rest.  The Bank, unchastened and still hopeful, forgave the loans, rewrote them to correct the ‘inconsistencies and inefficiencies’ experienced in the first round, and poured in good money after bad.

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To make matters worse, the United States development assistance program was built on a system of subcontractors which would execute Government-designed projects according to a strategy submitted during a competitive bidding process.  These contractors had no interest in innovation or creative solutions; only in responding to what government planners had envisaged.  There was no questioning the logic of government plans, the advisability or feasibility of the projects bid, or their design; so projects which never should have seen the light of day, were funded, implemented, and eventually discarded.

To make matters even worse, many of these successful contractors followed the precept, ‘The Means Are Just As Important As The Ends’, if not more so.  It was not enough for Progress International to  lower infant morality rates but had to do so appropriately, with cultural sensitivity, local participation, and collaborative methodologies.   Massive, widespread programs of vaccination, spraying, distribution of malaria prophylactics, or well-drilling were considered inappropriate even though they might be the quickest and most efficient ways of reducing such mortality.  At the beginning of the project, communities had to be ‘invested in’ the project.  They had to ‘buy into it’, and be active collaborative partners.  At the end of the project, they would have ‘ownership’ which would result in efficient management and follow-on capital investments. 

Of course, these projects, complicated by so many ‘conditionalities’, conditions, and impossible promises, failed.  The means impeded the efficient and expeditious achievement of ends.  The philosophy of the implementing agencies – their mission and moral purpose – was more important than simple results.

After decades of failure, agencies like the US Agency for International Development still exist, still do business in the same, inefficient, morally-bound way; and billions of dollars of taxpayer money is wasted on projects that countries don’t want . If anything, such unwanted, inaccessible projects turn autocrats away from the very American allegiance the United States seeks.  Along with social conditionalities, the books are kept so tightly that even occasional ‘diversion’ of project resources is difficult.  In short, no one gains.  The US Congress feels good about their investment in human welfare, and voters are assured that their government does the right thing; but that’s all.

In the past few decades, a new player has entered the development game – China, whose leaders have wanted nothing to do with moral exceptionalism, mission, or conditionalities.  Theirs would be on a strictly quid-pro-quo basis.  Chinese companies would build African roads, bridges, railways, and ports; and in return China would get long-term, guaranteed access to energy and mineral resources at favorable, unchanging, low rates.  Or, as in the case of the Horn of Africa, the Chinese would farm arable but unused and undeveloped agricultural land, export its products back to China, and return a small portion of the profits to the host country.  There was never a question about governance or civil rights.  Those were internal issues, of interest only to the partner country, not China,

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As a result, Chinese public and private investment now far surpasses American.  By offering these practical agreements, China has both benefited host countries, enriched itself, and perhaps most importantly, gained an unshakable political foothold in Africa. 

The United States is just now waking up to the problem.  It suddenly, although surprisingly given China’s resurgence to international power, finally realizes China’s global geopolitical influence; and realizes that it cannot possibly compete through soft loans, soft projects, workshops, and mission-driven contractors.  Conditionalities must be things of the past, the ends must justify the means, and moral exceptionalism forgotten.  The Trump administration has just gone very public about its clear and unmistakable intentions in Africa to counter the Chinese.  Yet it still backs off from the Kissinger-esque, Machiavellian principles of realpolitik.  Even for a very conservative government, rooted in private sector initiative, reduced government involvement, and a hard-line, practical approach to international relations, it is still hard to back away completely from American goodness and righteousness. As the New York Times recently reported:
National Security Adviser Bolton announced a new program, “Prosper Africa,” to support American investment across Africa. Without attaching a dollar figure, he said the United States would facilitate alternatives to the large, state-directed public works projects pushed by the Chinese.
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Bolton and the Administration have clearly not learned from the past.  No government in Africa is interested in ‘alternative’ investment – a thinly disguised code word for smaller-scale projects, private investment, and contractor-implemented programs.  In other words, the same ‘hands-on’, means-and-ends approach that has failed in the past.

To counteract the Chinese the US will have to offer the same kind of major infrastructure projects but more competitively than the Chinese.  It should apply the same competitive principles used in the private sector to the public.  No considerations other than cost, and clearly enunciated economic and geopolitical benefit.