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

Friday, January 31, 2020

Confessions Of A Mac ‘N’ Cheese Lover– In Praise Of Comfort Food, Daytime Television, And Donald Trump

Haley Mitchell grew up as a New England Puritan – not literally, of course, but as close to Cotton Mather as a 20th century woman could be.  In fact her ancestral home was not far from Salem where Mather and at least one of her great ancestors prosecuted alleged witches and sentenced them to burning at the stake, and for almost two hundred years her family had hewed to rock-ribbed, conservative values. No one in the Mitchell family had ever apologized for their stern, unforgiving religion or fundamentalist Protestant views which had nothing to do with the African, animist, pagan ceremonies in today’s Southern churches. 

The Mitchells were proud of their faith and proud of their rejection of the corruption of the Enlightenment and the adoption of its rationalist principles by Jefferson, Adams, and their lot.  If any family was ever pure American to the core, it was the Mitchells.  Never once, according to meticulously recorded family history, did they ever deviate from those essential principles.  They were the flinty, parsimonious, industrious families of early New England, the ardent supporters of fierce individualism and laissez-faire capitalism, the committed opponents to Mr. Roosevelt and his disassembling New Deal, the defenders of freedom, individual rights, and God’s word.  They were partisans of Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and every patriotic, faithful American who stood against secularism, socialism, and populism.

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It was tough sledding for a woman of such conservative principle in the progressive Sixties, and it was quite remarkable that she emerged unscathed.  While many of her family friends and colleagues bent to the winds of free love and idealism, she remained adamant.  While Cotton Mather had certainly taken things too far, he was right to demand absolute belief in God, his church, and his ordinances.  As Barry Goldwater said in his campaign against Lyndon Johnson, successor to the Roosevelt socialist legacy, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Haley’s point exactly.

She was marginalized by her Radcliffe classmates, left waiting on the curb by her Harvard professors, and offered no rides to Woodstock or Altamont.  She was persona no grata par excellence. She was deemed a reactionary, counter-revolutionary, bigot; and even in that early period of secular hysteria, assumed to be a racist, homophobic, misogynist bigot.

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There was another side to Haley Mitchell which enraged her classmates and colleagues even more than her political conservatism and religious fundamentalism – her embrace of American popular culture.  One would have thought that with such an austere upbringing (Shaker furniture, Townsend chests, Chippendale end-tables, and Duncan Phyfe cabinets), she would have lived an austere, proper, Anglo-Saxon American life; but she saw no discordance or disconnect between a proper, respectful childhood and Hollywood, Barnum & Bailey, and McDonald’s. There was a special symmetry between the hair-shirt austerity of her ancestors and the mindless clowns of fast food.  Salem rectitude and harsh, Old Testament judgement and justice was properly balanced by a culture which had none.  Embrace of that contradiction was devotion – an acknowledgement of God’s infinite wisdom and irony.

Konstantin Levin, a character in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina marvels at God’s infinite irony, having created an intelligent, insightful, creative, and sentient creature, permitted him to live for a few spare decades, and then consigned him for eternity under the cold, hard steppes; and so did Haley wonder at the marvelous twists and turns of His universe.  There was something elegiac in her embrace of McDonald's, Whopper, Big Kahuna Burger, Hollywood tinsel, and Las Vegas glitter.  ‘God did this’, she thought.  He could have sent Americans down the flinty path of Salem, kept them along the straight and narrow in perfect obeisance to him and his son; but he did not.  He let us revel in the godless miasma of America! And if he did, Haley was going to embrace it.

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Life is always lived on at least two planes, and Haley was no different.  On the one hand she trod her own path of personal, disciplined faith in what unwoke preachers would call the Devil’s sinkhole, and on the other revered the faith of her Puritan forbears. Salvation was not a simple matter, and never one of convenience.

As far as her liberal colleagues were concerned, it was double indemnity – damned for her ignorant religious fundamentalism, and damned for her silly, populist Americanism.  How could she even consider any welcome of crass, commercial, vapid and soulless American culture? Or revert to the animist, primitive, religiosity of Salem?

It was easy.  Cotton Mather and the Salem prefects had God in mind when they rightly prosecuted evil;  and 20th century historians had wrongly condemned the trials because of ex post facto  ‘presumption of innocence’.  Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  The process of judging those who reject Biblical injunction and the dismissal of offenses against God is valid, regardless of collateral damage.

As far as daytime television was concerned, no one understood how Haley could be such a fan of The Days of Our Lives, As the World Turns, All My Children, and Another World – dreck as far as her Harvard classmates were concerned, frivolous nonsense.  Nor could they understand her love of People, E!, and Hollywood Today.

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Perhaps the greatest sin against the zeitgeist of woke progressivism was her embrace of popular American cuisine – comfort food,; Mac ‘n’ Cheese, hot dogs, Texas BBQ,  creamed corn, chili, burgers and fries, ice cream, donuts, and corn muffins.  Her classmates and cohorts were all aficionados of sous vide, foraging, local sourcing, veganism, and exoticism.  La nouvelle cuisine reinvented American, Alice Waters-style.  Who, now that craft beer is a local phenomenon, would ever drink a Bud Light? Why would anyone deviate from the new canon of wholesome, respectfully-sourced food?

Haley’s total embrace of American popular, comfort food; and her dismissal of Rene Redzepi’s side show of foraged periwinkles, sea oats, and prairie lizards, was in keeping with ‘God’s irony’.  By embracing the crass, the expected, and the bourgeois was an acknowledgement of his Creation.
She stood in line for muffins, bought frozen mac ‘n’ cheese by the dozen, watched daytime TV, and cruised the aisles of Walmart, Target, and Best Buy for bargains.

Her parents were appalled at her Christ Child seconds and Cheap Albert’s ensembles, her trips to Disneyland, and Pretty Susan smocks.  Yet Haley was undeterred.  She worshipped every Sunday, read Luke and Matthew daily, and endorsed every new home remedy, health food product, and wholesome living resort on the market.

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The final blow, the final, ultimate expulsion was her vote for and endorsement of Donald Trump.  How could such a confirmed Protestant, a descendant of Puritans, and a soldier in the armies of the Lord possibly have anything to do with this spawn of the Devil? This Anti-Christ, this demonic, misogynist, homophobic, racist, bigot?

Nothing of the sort, said Haley to her critics.  Trump is us, the embodiment of crass American bourgeois aspirations; the pretender to nothing, but expressive of all that is American; and he is to be embraced just as Jefferson, Locke, Voltaire, and Kant – the inspirations for American democracy – were.  Trump is us, a part of us, belonging to us, indistinguishable from us, and expressive of us.  We cannot worship an all-inclusive God without welcoming Trump into the revival tent.

So Haley went to the voting booth characterized as a marginalized, dismissed, irrelevant, ignoramus – a Trump supporter.  However, she was at great pains to  explain that she was not so much a Trump supporter as an encompassing theist.  There was no shame in supporting a zeitgeist hero.  All zeiten are equivalent, equally judged, equally moral or amoral.

Haley Mitchell was a cultural hero, vilified for her beliefs and marginalized because of them.  Few of her critics had the intelligence or intellectual flexibility to hold two seemingly contradictory ideas at the same time or to appreciate those who did.  It was an either-or, zero sum game for her progressive critics.  You are either for us or against us. Haley’s political bi-polarity was rejected out of hand.  Yet she was the most insightful of them all.  God rules over an illogical universe, and that is his ultimate irony.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Annals Of A Reformed Foodie–When The Going Gets Baroque, It’s Time To Turn Off The Sous Vide

Frank Hart, executive chef at Mirabelle, a new upscale restaurant in Washington had learned his m├ętier in Lyon, polished it at the Cooking Institute of America  (CIA) in Napa;  worked his way up from small, organic restaurants in Jenner and Mendocino to more well-known brasseries in San Francisco, then on to a stint as a sous-chef in George Bush’s White House, and finally chef of Mirabelle.

Frank prided himself on quality, uniqueness, flavor, and simplicity; and had resisted  the wave of designer chefs who placed more attention on palette and architecture than on taste.  Because of his training and years in France, presentation  for Frank was a matter of complement never contradiction.  While he was attentive to color, texture, and placement, there were no confections, no frivolous bits, dips, and dabs; no complex bowers; and no lone, Cajun-spiced cashew on a field of basil, salsify, with a corona of raspberry coulis, the piece de resistance of the bright new English chef in his new restaurant on the Chesapeake.  Cuisson, perfectly-textured sauces, and unusual but perfectly balanced combinations of ingredients were what Hart was after.

The movie Big Night features two Italian brothers who in the 50s open a restaurant in New Jersey.  For months Primo turned out remarkable, unique, brilliant dishes derived from traditional Italian dishes but transformed into unique unmatched dishes.  Yet despite the best food that South Amboy – or New York City – had ever seen, only a few patrons visited the restaurant; and when they did, they asked for the dishes of Catania, Naples, Abruzzi, and Sicily there mothers had cooked. Primo’s brother suggests that he give in a little and cater to American tastes.  After all, the restaurant was their living, not just a place of haute cuisine. Never, said Primo.  Never. 

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Frank was never a prima donna.  He knew how well he cooked, how other serious cooks respected his judgment, his perfection, and his unique creativity.  They valued his sense of innovation which never relied on artifact or presentation.  To his knowledgeable colleagues and to the loyal and appreciative, conservative patrons of his restaurants, he was simply a master of ingredients with a natural, God-given ability to understand taste.

Rene Redzepi is a Danish chef and co-owner of Noma, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Copenhagen.  He has become well-known for his foraged menu – sea grasses, wild herbs, wood ear, periwinkles, and sea spiders – and for his minimalist presentation.  One or two periwinkles hidden in a bed of sea oats or a quail egg in a nest of ocean brush. 

For 15 minutes Redzepi and a companion nibbled on various petals, leaves and shoots, attracting stares from onlookers in a campground nearby, who no doubt wondered at their sanity and zest for roughage. “So much of what you see here, it’s edible,” said Mr. Redzepi, who regularly dispatches his staff to collect the scurvy grass and sorrel, as well as what he called sea coriander, beach mustard and bellflowers. All of these make their way into his dishes, along with puffin eggs from Iceland and musk-ox meat from Greenland. (Frank Bruni, NYT, 7.6.10)

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William Deresiewicz wrote an article in the NY Times (A Matter of Taste 10.27.12) in which he contended that not only has food gone Baroque, it has replaced art as creative expression.  Far from applauding this phenomenon, he criticizes the 30-Somethings who have given up the depth, intellectual challenge, excitement of the mind and soul that great art has always produced and become content with the architecture and painterly displays of fish, meat, fruit, and vegetables.

Young men once headed to the Ivy League to acquire the patina of high culture that would allow them to move in the circles of power. Now kids at elite schools are inducted, through campus farmlets, the local/organic/sustainable fare in dining halls and osmotic absorption via their classmates from Manhattan or the San Francisco Bay Area, into the ways of food. Food, for young people now, is creativity, commerce, politics, health, almost religion

A good risotto is a fine thing, says Deresiewicz, " but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.  The foodie culture has developed an elaborate cultural apparatus that parallels the one that exists for art, a whole literature of criticism, journalism, appreciation, memoir and theoretical debate. It has its awards, its maestros, its televised performances. It has become a matter of local and national pride, while maintaining, as culture did in the old days, a sense of deference toward the European centers and traditions — enriched at a later stage, in both cases, by a globally minded eclecticism

The author, however, forgets that we are a nation of faddists  moving from one craze to another, often assembling and conflating them to add cachet.  Hardcore foodies are usually into yoga and biking, hipster clothes and thrift shop fashion. One should not make too much of the foodie craze, because it is already being folded in to popular culture, and will eventually morph into something unexpected.

Bobby Benson is a Los Angeles chef, easily recognized on the Santa Monica beaches thanks to his bright red scarf, Elton John oversized lime green sunglasses, and fanciful plays on knickers and sailor boy outfits.  Food in his restaurant is all about theme - Los Angeles kitsch, retro Hollywood, and hip, gay, beachfront cool.  The food is part of the B-movie cachet – donuts served with dinner, hamburgers with echoes of Rob’s Big Boy, Kahuna burgers, and Whoppers but garnished with bacon, Halloween candy corn, and jimmy-spangled muffins.  He, like Rene Redzepi, has a reservation line filled with Hollywood A-listers. 

He is a fan of Quentin Tarantino, especially Pulp Fiction, and especially the 50s car-themed restaurant where Travolta and Uma Thurman go to eat and dance. The issue is not so much with the foods per se but the iconic nature of them. Ironic has its limits, and while an occasional burger at a White Tower in a sketchy neighborhood is definitely in, a Big Mac is not. The cult demands intent, desire, patience, and time.  The architecture and the painterly display of bits of candied ginger, gooseberries, and organic Malabar cashews have been taking over the food. 

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Not only are professional chefs going overboard, but amateur cooks are spending thousands on state-of-the art grills, expanded power kitchens with industrial-quality Viking stoves, large butcher block centerboards, track lighting, sets of Dehillerin, German Solingen steel, and Japanese sword-edged knives, library shelves filled with spices, and two refrigerators and two freezers.  They concoct Chinese, Lao, Thai, Roma, Kurdish, and Bambara dishes at considerable expense and time.  They photograph their creations, post them on social media, and write about them on blog sights and Messenger. One cook wrote exclusively about sous-vide, a discovery that would revolutionize cooking, guaranteeing through slow cooking perfect cuisson, perfect temperature, and absolute perfection.  There was nothing that he didn’t prepare on his sous-vide machine, nothing he didn’t try. Another foodie wrote about his expresso machine and how he made perfect Italian coffee.  He sourced the beans from a special grower in Brazil, contracted an Italian American roaster in New Haven who roasted in small lots to order.  He bought highly sensitive engineering-quality gauges for pressure, temperature, and time.  He claimed that his coffee was as good as that in Camucia.  It was not.

An American traveler once went to Camucia, a small town in Tuscany; and when he found what he thought was the perfect expresso – strong, but not bitter; creamy, chocolatey, rich, dense, with just the right amount of foam – he asked the bar owner how he did it.  The barista was happy to explain about the ingredients, the machine, the technique, the practice, and the patience.  Without any fancy equipment other than an old, well-seasoned Gaggia, he knew how to make perfect coffee. Just pay attention, said the Italian, pay attention.

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Chefs worldwide have been able to cook with such precision.  The chef at Makoto, a traditional Japanese restaurant in Washington, tested his grilled mackerel for doneness with a long needle which he inserted in the fish, took it quickly out, and put it to his lips.  French chefs have understood cuts of meat, how they respond to heat, and when they are properly cooked.  It is this understanding of meat and the oven or grill in which it is cooked that obviate any sophisticated high-tech mechanisms.

The point is, food is food – sustenance, nourishment, psychological fulfillment.  Making it any more than that suggests that we have too much time on our hands.  Rather than spend time on the pursuit of real art, we fool around with the simplest thing we can manage – cooking – and call it an art form.

The good news is that the Baroque turned Rococo, and then burned itself out, ran into the 19th century which demanded less show and more substance, fewer frills and excess, and far more reflection and consideration.  And so it will be with foodies – they will soon burn themselves out and a new generation of more subdued and serious chefs and cooks will emerge.

Meanwhile the rest of us cook what we learned from our mother, fathers, and grandmothers, what we pick up on the Food Channel, and tidbits and recipes from neighbors.  Although we cook and eat because we have to, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t some fun in preparing something the neighbors might like. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

‘A Dump With Oil’–Annals Of Underdevelopment And Its Legacy

Peter Bentley was an international development consultant.  In his retirement years he always put quotation marks around ‘development’, for in his many decades banging the bush he never saw any such thing.  There could never be such a thing in countries rich in resources but government by tribal golden boys who had made good and who had to repay those who sacrificed to move them up the ladder of post-colonial chiefdom. 

“Mr. Rosenthal”, the elegant, tall, imposing Wolof Secretary of Finance, said to the representative of the United Nations Mission for Reconstruction and Development who had challenged his commitment to social reform, “you have misunderstood”. 

Rosenthal, an international bureaucrat nearing retirement who had never gotten beyond his agency’s platitudes about rectification and helping ‘the poorest of the poor’, struggled to understand the Secretary’s elegant French, his allusions to colonial history, pre-colonial African empires, and the mechanisms of foreign policy, and bumbled and muddled his way through his reply – a nonsensical apologia for a program he never understood, cared less about understanding, and had continued to draw a paycheck because the end of the line was in sight.

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Rosenthal didn’t even know he was being humiliated by this Sorbonne-educated, tribal prince, whose roots went back to the great Gao Empire of Mali, transplanted in Senegal, acquired great wealth through the Saharan slave trade, and became a rich man thanks to his Wolof business canniness.  “I repay my debts and carry out my responsibilities in order of priority”, the Secretary went on. “First to my family, then to my tribe, then to my region, and finally, Mr. Rosenthal, to my country”. 

It was a lesson that was to be repeated in every country of Africa, a hard lesson to learn by Americans who still, despite millennia of history, let alone the recent chaotic years of Big Men, civil wars, and tribal conflict, believed in rational progress and responsibility.  Rosenthal, by no means the most ignorant and foolish American development worker to be sent to Africa, was certainly emblematic of that ignorance. 

No one but the African autocrats seemed to get it.  We are dumps with oil, shitholes of corruption, violence, pathetic ignorance, and venality, said the Secretary in so many words, but as long as there are cobalt, rare earths, diamonds, emeralds, gas and oil in the ground,  we will continue to be.
Secretary Diouf was proud of his twenty-five room mansion overlooking the Atlantic, his Bentley, Maserati, two classic Mercedes, and his TR-4 reconstructed runabout that he ran to Thies on weekends.

He was proud of his son who was following in his footsteps at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, his son at Yale whose admission had been secured by a multi-million dollar grant for a new department of  West African Tribal Studies, and one at Oxford who might even have gotten in on his own steam even without the support of the Dean of Balliol who, an Islamic scholar and affirmative action front-liner who was reputed to take any black face if the body had a pedigree; or in more crass terms, an endowed chair.

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The Secretary spoke perfect English, and spoke French to Rosenthal and the UN mission for fun.  If his Saturday evening was to be spoiled and his assignation with his youngest and most beautiful wife delayed why not perform?  His linguistic virtuosity, seamlessly woven historical and cultural references, his allusions to Greece and Ghana were all part of his vaudeville act.  The dinner, too, was part of the side show – elegant china, Baccarat crystal, foie gras, filet de sole, fines de claires, and New Zealand lamb all served impeccably by white-liveried, practiced servants. 

If Rosenthal and his crew were expecting thieboudienne or poulet yassa, they were sorely disappointed. Their hopes for ‘diversity’, a celebration of African cuisine were spoiled as they fumbled with the silver, poked at the fish, scraped at the foie gras, and hacked at the lamb chops.
The Secretary was a man among men who had used his intelligence, tribal heritage, and will to rise to power, wealth, and influence.  Because in such a corrupt administration in such a corrupt country no high official was occupied with anything official, and that leadership was more a matter of show than substance, the Secretary had time on his hands; so other than a few hours delay before bedtime with his Fulani green-eyed mistress, the evening was enjoyable. 

There are a number of black Americans who have wanted to return to their roots – to discover the glory and wonder of their native Africa – but who wanted their money back.  They thought that their blackness would inoculate them against the touts on the Place de l’Independence, the overcharging at the Fleur de Lys, the runaround at the airport, and the indifference of the tour bus driver.  Worse, they were upset by the poverty, the lack of infrastructure and public services, and the total and complete dismissiveness of everyone.  Black? Who cares?

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Those black Americans who dug a bit deeper, probed into local politics and political history were appalled at the venality, autocracy, manipulation, and exploitation of the people by their rulers.  Untold wealth from countries’ natural resources was shipped to offshore accounts or to Switzerland by politicians who knew that their next stop was either a garbage dump in Treichville or a villa on the Riviera.  How could a continent so limned and lionized, so proudly displayed in national and regional museums of art and history, be so badly off? And how could they have believed such distorted information ?

The Clintons were famous for their idealistic ignorance of Africa.  Hillary as Secretary of State overlooked the corruption of the current Malian regime, its rigged elections, and its venal autocracy, and supported its leaders who in short order were ousted by the military which unlike Hillary, had understood and had gotten fed up with the corruption of the regime.  Americans have always wanted Africa to be a success.  It had to be a success to validate the experience of the former slaves who were shipped her by African traders, Arab middlemen, and European retailers.  Diplomats were encouraged to look the other way, to ignore the burnt side of the toast, and to butter the fair.

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There is, unfortunately,  corruption and autocratic rule up and down the length of Africa.  North Africa has had its share of fundamentalist- inspired civil wars and dictatorships.  West African countries have grown in population but succeeded in impoverishing new citizens.  Nigeria, a country with a huge population is beset by crime, murderous violence in the oil rich delta, and endemic corruption.  Mali, Chad, and the other countries of the Sahel are now in a struggle against Islamic fundamentalist militias and are losing it.  East African presidents and presidential pretenders have been called before international tribunals for crimes against humanity. New countries like South Sudan, entities that never should have been created but for the racial idealism of America, are failed states.  South Africa since the end of apartheid and the transitional rule of Nelson Mandela, has become a crime-ridden, politically unstable, corrupt place.

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Africa of course has had its empires – Ghana and Gao among others – and although they left no architecture, no art, no written literature, or no monuments, they are considered to have been significant cultural influences in West Africa.  Africanists have decried this Euro-centric analysis of African Empire.  Why, they say, should the temples of Ancient Greece, the stadia and coliseums of Rome, the medieval cathedrals of France and Germany, and more than two millennia of philosophy, literature, science and art be given preference over African empires simply because they left something behind?  Gao and Ghana left something behind, but one has to look to oral traditions, parse the songs of griots, and have the patience to explore.

From a Western perspective, it is hard to consider sub-Saharan Africa within the same cultural context as Europe – or Asia for that matter.  According to progressive cultural critics, all cultures are equal, all heritages equally influential, all traditions equally valid. To conservatives, this inclusivity corrupts the historical, analytical process.  Of course Greece, Rome, Persia, Mandarin China, Imperial Japan, and the court of Louis XIV of France have been more influential, more culturally productive, more dominant in world history than Africa.

At the same time, Africa, with its own, particular, village- and tribal-based culture has been the source of music, dance, and powerful religious expression. It has produced different cultural modes which are unique but cannot be compared to those of Europe or Asia.

Why does this matter? It matters because according to the progressive canon, white, European culture is being dismissed.  Not only are its churches, religions, cities, language, science and arts dismissed either as irrelevant or insignificant, but European civilization has been seen as a negative force in history – an oppressive, corrosive, damaging, and destructive one.  Not only are Chartres, Descartes, Newton, Kant, and Kierkegaard worth little on the cultural scoreboard; their influence has forced the ruled into obligatory obeisance to false gods.

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From a classic perspective of world culture, if there are any ethnic minorities in America today that deserve note, they are Italians, Greeks, and Chinese.  They are inheritors of imperial traditions which shaped the modern world.  Ancient Greek philosophers  created the foundations of Western thought.  Where would Christianity be without Plato and Aristotle?  They are the legatees of Imperial Rome, whose leaders showed uncanny management and administrative savvy.  Where would modern governments be without the foundations of Roman practical insights which lead to a 500-year empire and a long period of peace? Chinese Americans are descendants of a long mandarin history, empire, Buddhism, and the application of Confucian values to all human enterprise.

In short, a grab-bag version of ‘inclusivity’ – where any and all comers are embraced, welcomed, and cheered without critical appraisal and only on the basis of simple identify – a birth certificate, a passport, skin color – derogates cultural history, demeans cultural achievement, and dismisses storied pasts.  If progressives are serious about ‘inclusivity’, then they should be welcoming Americans of white European origin, Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese – not because they correspond to boxes checked but because they are the descendants of an important history. African Americans as well should be regarded not in comparison to Europeans or Asians, but with an important, although perhaps less influential cultural history. 

Does a second generation Southern Italian with tenuous roots to ancient Rome, Renaissance Florence, or Garibaldi deserve any notice?  Or a Greek with an island fisherman’s background? or a Chinese America descended from railroad workers in California?

Unequivocally yes; for even though they may have no links to an important cultural past – a duke of France with a direct lineage to the court of Louise XIV – they represent it.  A recognition of their cultural roots gives them legitimacy and a place in the multi-cultural tent.  So does an acknowledgement of African cultural roots within the perspective of world history. 

Telling the truth – praising Western and Asian civilizations for their remarkable contributions to world civilization and recognizing the less visible but still important contributions of African culture– is essential.  People cannot be fooled or sold a bill of goods. There is no harm in recognizing the greatness of European and Asian civilizations; and no shame in acknowledging Africa’s lesser contributions – if all cultures are well-defined and their role in world history told honestly.

RECIPES–Rabbit Stew With Sage

Occasionally freshly-killed, dressed, and quartered rabbits are available at our local farmers’ market.  I find them easiest to prepare in a stew which can be modified according to taste.  Last night I tried some variations – I added sage, cardamoms, and cloves to the mixture, and the results were excellent!

Rabbit Stew with Sage

* 1 rabbit, skinned, dressed, quartered

* 5 medium carrots, cut

* 3 medium turnips, cut

* 1 lg. onion, chopped

* 4 med Yukon Gold or other yellow potatoes, cut in quarters

* 5 whole cardamoms (approx.)

* 5 cloves (approx.)

* 2 tsp powdered sage (approx.)

* 2 cups red wine

* 1 cup water (approx.)

- Boil the potatoes, drain, set aside

- Place all the ingredients (except potatoes)in a large pot, mix well

- Simmer for approximately 2 hours or until the rabbit is very tender, then set aside

- When cool, debone the rabbit being very careful because of small bones

- Mix in the potatoes, reheat the stew, serve

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Sunday, January 26, 2020

Use Your Own Head, Ha! – So Much For Immanuel Kant, Logic, And The Enlightenment

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) "Have the courage to use your own understanding," is therefore the motto of the enlightenment – Immanuel Kant

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Leonard Brown was a man’s man – strong, virile, and decisive.  He was admired by his male friends for his no-nonsense way of doing business, and desired by women who were tired of men who had lost their sexual compass.  Leonard considered himself a rational man, and attributed his self-confidence to his rock-ribbed, disciplined logic.  ‘There is no problem that can’t be solved’, he was often heard saying, ‘if only you apply yourself’; and apply himself he did, excelling at every step.  Top of his class, head of this, chairman of that, there was seemingly no stopping this man of ambition and purpose.

All of this was well and good.  America is, after all, a nation of process rather than substance.  We are proud of our Constitution, our system of laws and justice, our entrepreneurial savvy, and the way we have with money so deft and canny that before you know it, wealth is at our feet.  Whereas the French point to their culture as a defining characteristic of nationhood – art, literature, philosophy, dance, music, fashion, and cuisine – Americans tout the workings of the market mechanism and the tools that keep it running.  Land titling, property rights, contract law, legislation, rules of order and resolution.  Of course America has produced great writers, artists, and thinkers, but they are one-off incidental by-products, not the stuff of identity.

The essence of American-style capitalism is rugged individualism, a concept borne out of the trek westward, homesteading, taming the Great Plains, and crossing the mountains to California.  Jefferson never mandated Manifest Destiny, although he encouraged it.  Lewis and Clark were the avant-garde of this new American optimism, but it was the families who packed up their belongings in prairie schooners and set sail across the country which were its heart and soul.

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Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, and Franklin were all adherents to the new doctrine of The Enlightenment and partisan to its ideas - the sovereignty of reason, and the advanced philosophical constructs such as liberty, progress, tolerance,, fraternity, constitutional government and separation of church and state which arose out of it. The Enlightenment was known for the questioning of religious orthodoxy—an approach endorsed by Immanuel Kant in his essay Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment.

Sapere dude (Dare to know), Kant wrote, and the American Founding Fathers took it to heart.  The new nation would be based on reason, rational inquiry, and its practical applications.  Americans had left the Old World and its empires, monarchies, and autocratic religious institutions behind.  The  new American would think for himself; and joined with his brothers would form communities of the rationally like-minded, dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, and the reasonable application of individual will and desire to the common good.

The early settlers of American had no need for art, music, literature or any other of Europe’s fancies.  Hard work, discipline, purpose, and a sound and unwavering belief in the Almighty were all that was needed.

Yet there is a downside to all of this.  Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers’ Karamazov speaks to his brother about the failure of Christ to bring truth to the world.  His parable and his cryptic replies to the Devil in the Wilderness (Man does not live by bread alone) were lost on a humanity which is desperate to follow, and freedom of choice is a painful, threatening idea.

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In the parable, told by Ivan to Alyosha, Christ returns to earth during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He is arrested by the Inquisition and sentenced to be burned at the stake. Christ’s work, the Grand Inquisitor tells him, is at odds with the vision of the Church. In resisting the temptations set by Satan, Christ introduced the idea of free will into the world. But Christ misjudged human nature. Humanity can never be free, for it is ‘weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious’. Free will is a devastating, impossible burden for mankind. ‘Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil?’, the Grand Inquisitor demands of Christ. Nothing, he says, ‘is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering’.

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In giving humans freedom to choose, Christ has excluded the majority of humanity from redemption and doomed it to suffer. Far better, the Grand Inquisitor insists, for Christ to have given people security rather than freedom. Those too weak to follow Christ might still be damned, but at least they would have found happiness and security on Earth, rather than being forced to carry the impossible burden of moral freedom. The Church has ‘corrected Thy work’, the Grand Inquisitor tells Christ, by taking away freedom of choice and replacing it with security, by rooting human life not in freedom but upon ‘miracle, mystery, and authority’.

We would be lost without the Church, the Government, and the institutions which set forth the guidelines, rules, and responsibilities which guide us.  Kant may have said sapere dude, but he has had few takers.

So it is not surprising or remarkable that Leonard Brown was a a follower; a man – despite his fanciful ideas about himself – who was destined by human nature, environment, and a personality dominant only within well-defined parameters, to be a sheep. He no sooner could think for himself than a leopard could change his spots.

In Leonard’s case the context and the parameters made little difference, for his character was fungible.  Whatever the cause, the movement, the objective, his can-do, virile pursuit was all that mattered; and so it was that he found himself a firebrand in the Progressive Movement.  Not only did he give the Movement’s precepts a pass, but he absorbed them like an amoeba.  The passionate convictions of his colleagues – global warming, the glass ceiling, the gender spectrum, and free social services for all – were his raiment.  He displayed them when on stage and before an audience.  He was as happy as any man could be because he had found the perfect venue for his personal allure and strength of character.   He, like those men dismissed by Ivan as lemmings, intellectual and moral cowards, afraid of their own shadows and prostrate before any shibboleth, could never ever have exercised free will, individual choice, or commitment.  As wonderful a human specimen as he thought himself to be, he was no better than those early Christians who longed only for Miracle, Mystery, and Authority.

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The Movement gave him all three.  It claimed righteous authority – adherents knew ipso facto that the earth was warming due to human negligence; that sexual polarity was nonsense; that everyone regardless of genetics, environment, ancestry, or history was equal and should have an equal place at the public banquet; that free speech was a rationed commodity, to be granted only when it served the purpose of a higher good, etc. etc.

It provided mystery, because progressivism in the early 21st century had become a secular religion complete with a Passion (the stations of the cross leading inexorably to crucifixion and death in a fiery Armageddon), with graphic, interactive images which allowed one to be part of the Passion and yet able to stop it; and with the mythical  hope of the Phoenix, a recreation out of the ashes. And while miracles were yet to come, they were promised.

The Movement wanted no independent thinkers, sapere dude intellectuals who parsed every line, scrutinized every wiggle on seismic and meteorological charts, and questioned source, replicability, and scientific authority.  Progressives, despite their demurral and insistence, were no better than Christian fundamentalists who, in the spirit of Ivan Karamazov, took every word of the Bible as miraculous, mysterious, and authoritative.  No matter how much progressives insist on logic, rationality and good science, they cherry pick, expand or contract the context and perspectives within which they look at problems, and kneel down in front of the same altars as their religious brethren.

There is no shame in this whatsoever.  Following the leader, putting belief before logic, belonging and community before individualism and independence, are – if Dostoevsky and historians following the repetitious,predicable course of human events since the first human settlements are right – just being human.

There are certain people like Leonard Brown who not only fit right in but who take advantage of the fit.  They are not there to question, to justify, or to defend; only to lead on faith and with a silver tongue.

The Founding Fathers are spinning in their graves.  This is not the America they thought it would be; but they need to be cut some slack.  They were serious Enlightenment thinkers who never gave Miracle, Mystery, and Authority a second thought.  Man, more than anything else was rational, they believed, and he would use that rationality to good ends. Wrong on both counts. 

Hamilton warned Jefferson not to trust the unwashed masses. Giving the ignorant, slavish, unthinking majority would doom the new Republic.  They would take the path of least resistance, be as swayed by emotion and rhetoric as the Roman masses were by Coriolanus and Julius Caesar.  Dostoevsky was as right as rain.

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So the story of Leonard Brown is a happy one.  He was delighted with the applause and acclaim given to him.  He was busy, active, and surrounded by those who believed he was a prophet.  He was nothing of the sort, of course, just a normal human being following in someone else’s footsteps on a path they built.  Had circumstances been otherwise, he might well have ended up as an Elmer Gantry or a populist firebrand.  Choice was not his thing.  Following and then capitalizing was.