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Friday, July 3, 2020

Tall Tales, Big Whoppers, And Fantastical Stories–Lightening The Penitential Burden Of Fact And Loving Donald Trump

We kids all loved Uncle Harry, the big, happy-go-lucky, unofficial Master of Ceremonies at Aunt Leona’s Easter dinners. He told the most wonderful stories about his war experiences in Burma, behind enemy lines with an elite troop of British paratroopers fighting the Japanese in the thick jungles near the Thai and Chinese borders.
“Ah, those were the days”, said Uncle Harry.  “Outmanned, outgunned, but with the best band of brothers anyone could imagine.  For God, for country, and for the King, my mates were patriotic, heroic, and brave to the core.  Willing they were to take a Yank in their midst.  We fought skirmishes, ambushed the enemy on their own territory, fought hand-to-hand with the Yellow Devils until they knew who was boss. We gave those Japs a run for their money”
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None of this was vaguely true.  Harry Fanucci had never been in Burma, but because he had been stationed behind the lines in India and had cared for returning troops who had been wounded in Burma, he made the elision – he could have been there, certainly wanted to there, and felt it was his patriotic duty to fight the Japanese, but he the closest he had gotten to the infantry let alone Special Forces was in boot camp in North Carolina, a punishing course which he barely completed; and because of his poor performance and weak eyes he was never sent to the front – to any front for that matter.

And he confabulated marvelous stories about India, taken unashamedly from Kipling, but for us they were magical Aladdin-like tales of the mysterious and seductive East.
Before heading off to Burma, I was stationed in Calcutta, and spent my time in the native quarters – veiled women, belly-dancers, incense, and an atmosphere of intrigue.  There were spies amidst the spices and mutton, whispers, and suggestions; but here I was my own man.  Forget that I was a volunteer in His Majesty’s service in Burma.  Here in the crowded souks of India, I was a pasha, a Lawrence of Arabia come home for seduction, oils, and rest among the garlands of jasmine.   There was Usha, Pashmina, Emriye, and Fatima who welcomed me into their bowers, a master, hunter, solider, and hero.
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The adults around the dinner table nibbled away politely at their baked ham and corn fritters while Uncle Harry spun his yarns, but we kids stopped eating altogether and, still holding our forks, listened to him talk.  There was no one like Harry in our family.  We had accountants, clerks, shop owners, and nurses – tame and boring fare compared to Uncle Harry.   He had been everywhere, done everything.
Once when I was in Macao, there on confidential assignment to assess Chinese intentions in Korea, but on R&R from India, I met Li Huang, a Cantonese singer at one of the island’s casinos.  She sang like a nightingale, had a body like Aphrodite’s, and an allure more seductive than Mata Hari.  I went backstage to ask her to dinner – for a quiet late-night supper in an out-of-the-way Taiwanese getaway – and she accepted.  Perhaps it was my officer’s insignia, perhaps she had had word of me from other artists, but she readily accepted.  We had dinner – pork and shrimp dishes specially prepared by the chef in honor of Li Huang – and then we, arm in arm, walked to her small, improbably sumptuous, flat, so Chinese, so Eastern.  As soon as I walked in and was enveloped by the embroidered Shanghai silk, the scholar’s rocks, the shantung curtains, and the Kazak carpets, I knew I was home.
Uncle Harry had been everywhere.  After the War he said he had been recruited into British Intelligence and designated as the Agency’s point man in East Germany.  There, he said, he learned spy craft at its most clandestine and complex.  There were not only Soviet agents in East Berlin, but counterespionage West German agents, and counter-counter espionage Russians impersonating West German spies. 

“I was in my element”, said Uncle Harry. “ I was born to be MI6!”

Now, a fabulist tale spinner has to have at least some filament to reality – some thread of plausibility, and Uncle Harry was very careful with his sewing.  He had indeed been in London shortly after the war on a military scholarship of some sort, not fully enrolled at Sandhurst but a kind of continuing adult education sinecure.  The course was only for six months, a kind of incidental primer in military intelligence, and nothing of any import, but as far as Uncle Harry was concerned, it counted. He was not unlike The Great Gatsby who said he was ‘An Oxford Man’ but had only been given a post-war posting before being repatriated.   So, from Harry’s perspective, he never actually lied, but simply built on fragments of probable truth.

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We live in a very curious age – one which has demanded fact, truth, and objective reality when in fact such items have never had much currency.  Subjectivity has always ruled.  History never has been any more than the recollections of the victors and of those with very pronounced political agenda.  The few accounts of ‘The Historical Jesus’ on which the underpinnings of much of Christianity have been based were as biased as any – Roman Jewish historians are not exactly objective sources; The King James  version of the Bible English is notable for its Protestant agenda; and the rest of history rests on the accounts of historians who, despite claims to absolute distance, are not to be believed. 

There has never been a universal moral code – slavery was an accepted feature of social life since the days of Ancient Greece and only recently was called out for its immorality.  The divine right of kings, the legitimacy and militant expansion of empire; and the absolute value of the Christian faith were taken as givens.  Today's latter-day moralists are way off the mark.

If history provides no foundation for belief; and if history is both predictable and morally relative, then why the fuss and flapdoodle about ‘the truth’.  Why is Donald Trump, the modern era’s most visible exponent of bowdlerizing, inventive, creative, and masterfully manipulated fiction so vilified?  He is telling ‘the truth’ – i.e. his own version of facts – an incontrovertibly personal and subjective view of facts colored by personal and political belief no different than any other political fiction of the past.   He is no liar, deceiver, or master of distortion.  He is as true to human nature and to history as Herodotus and Thucydides – and as subjective.

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Uncle Harry confected wonderful stories of modern history. “I was at Woodstock”, he recounted. “I was naked,  stoned, wet, cold but out-of-sight transformed hearing Janis and Jimmy.  I was at the battlements in Detroit, Newark, and Watts.  I occupied Columbia with Mark Rudd”. 

Only the niggardly demanded dates and times.  Uncle Harry’s chronology was way off, they said; but Harry was unstoppable.  He wove a fantastical American history more fabulist, interesting, and unaccountable than any, a true American patriot.  It’s not what he says, but what he means – a meme repeated by Trump supporters everywhere.  Parsing Trump’s speeches line for line for veracity is the playground merry-go-round of the Left.  His supporters get what he means, and his hyperbole, bombast, and vaudevillian tropes are shills, chorus girl background dancing to meaning.

There were always a few Easter dinner naysayers  who tried to call Uncle Harry on facts, but they were booed down by the faithful who knew that Harry’s fabulist fiction was far closer to the truth than any cockamamie stories on CNN or MSNBC.

“Pass the gravy”, said Auntie Angie, ‘and keep your opinions to yourself’.

Most of Aunt Leona’s guests were going to vote for Trump not because they liked his white papers and political weigh-ins on the deficit, China, or The Wall; but because In a world of hysterical fantasy, it would always be better to elect a clown.

“Bullshit”, said Uncle Harry, “and more bullshit to come”.

By the time Aunt Leona had served filberts, anisette, and nougats, Uncle Harry had had his say. He wasn’t retired exactly, but reserved for next time.  Us kids watched him rotate out of his great armchair, wave a good farewell, and roll off to Meriden.  Where else could we get such a circus act short of Barnum & Bailey, to come to Harford only next year? We had no idea about truth or fiction, objectivity or subjectivity; but we sensed that Uncle Harry’s stories made more sense than the boring recitals on the deficit that continued until dusk.

“God, Save the Queen”, Uncle Harry always said, raising his glass first to Aunt Leona and then to Queen Elizabeth who, if she were fortunate, would rule over a Second British Empire.  No one at Leona’s table ever turned away from this British toast of the very American Harry Fanucci, whom, they suspected., was on to something.

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