Category Archives: Books and literature

The Underground Railroad: Book Review

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is one of those novels that you don’t want to read too quickly, lest you deprive yourself of any of its pleasures, lest it break your heart. It’s beautiful, lyrical, as intellectually engaging as it is powerful emotionally. I don’t know anything else like it. The cliché here would be that I ‘couldn’t put it down.’ In fact, I frequently put it down, because it so often overwhelmed me.

Its subject, is, obviously, slavery and the Underground Railroad that conveyed escaped slaves north to freedom. It’s an historical novel, with the most resolute of protagonists–an escaped slave named Cora. But I can’t help myself from calling it a kind of science fiction, or at least speculative fiction. It’s built on two conceits; that the Underground Railroad really was a railroad, a subterreanean network of tunnels and tracks, with trains that take desperate fugitives from state to state. And second, that the experience of African-Americans differed radically from state to state, with each place exploring a different American possibility. It’s somehow a fabulist novel that doesn’t feel fabricated, an alternate history that feels like the most exacting and ruthlessly honest commentary on the actual history of America and race.

Cora begins in Georgia, living on a plantation owned by the Randalls, ferocious and brutal and corrupt, the worst plantation owners imaginable. Cora’s mother, Mabel, escaped, when Cora was just a child, and she resents it, being abandoned  like that. But what’s remarkable is that Mabel really did escape; she wasn’t brought back in chains by the ruthless and brilliant slave catcher, Ridgeway, to be tormented and brutalized and murdered like all other Randall escapees. (Eventually, we learn Mabel’s story, and it’s heart-breaking).

And so, Cora grows up a loner, a watcher, a fierce defender of her meagre belongings, but friendless and gossiped-about in slavery’s traumatized and treacherous culture. Then one night, Caesar, newly arrived at the Randall plantation, approaches Cora, the only slave he can trust, he says, and tells her he intends to escape, and wants her to come with him. He knows, you see, a station master. He can find his way to the Railroad.

And so, to South Carolina, a bastion of racial enlightenment, a place where blacks are allowed jobs and wages and an education, and even something resembling freedom. A real home. A paradise, pretty much. Until Cora learns the truth behind the benevolence and the real purpose behind the free medical exams she’s treated to.

The reality of slavery is, of course, economic. In King Cotton, the South had the perfect cash crop, the key to ever-increasing prosperity. Cotten needs tending and picking, and profit margins are greater if you don’t intend to pay your workers. But they came to understand that while African blacks make good workers–and can always be bred, increasing the labor market supply–they couldn’t really be trusted, could they? To remain placid and pliable. And in some areas, they had begun to increase in numbers; to outnumber whites. This wouldn’t do. Steps needed to be taken. South Carolina, priding itself in its sophistication and erudition, made the scientific choice. Forced sterilization. And other medical experimentation, to learn about infectious diseases and further deplete black numbers.

And as Cora contemplates her situation in oh-so-benevolent South Carolina, the implacable Ridgeway shows up, captures Caesar. Cora barely escapes alive. And she’s not expected on the train, and has to go wherever it’s heading. And that, it turns out, is North Carolina.

North Carolina is cruder, more direct. Reluctantly, its white citizenry has decided to bite the bullet, and pay its cotton pickers; not the black ones, of course, but impoverished European imports. That, again, leads to a superfluity of blacks, and a final solution. Cora barely survives, hidden, like Anne Frank, in an abolitionist’s attic.

And so on. Each state confronts the same demographic/economic problem, and each state deals with it differently. South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana. Yes, even a Northern state like Indiana. And each solution, in each state, is horrifying. At one point, Cora discovers books, and sees her own situation as analogous to Gulliver, and I buy that; the places Gulliver visits are grotesque, but illustrative.

And Cora is extraordinary. She’s a practical young woman, a farmgirl, hard working and determined and strong. She loves to read, especially loving Farmer’s Almanacs, for their pragmatism. She’s not terrifically romantic, but does fall in love, twice, with both relationships ending in horror. She’s a survivor. She’s also completely unimpressed with white society, and its protestations of civilized sophistication. She learns the Declaration of Independence, and considers it vicious nonsense. She’s an astonishing creation, and when the book ended, I did cry out, vocally: ‘no!’ I so wanted to spend more time in her company.

And the book’s ferocious and philosophical villain, Ridgeway, the slave catcher, is an equally astonishing creation. He’s a murderer, of course, many times over. But he’s also, in his own way, a thoughtful man, a man who sees his society clearly, and sees as well the necessary function of someone like him. He holds the Randalls in utter contempt, but is content to work for them, because the pay is good, and the work essential. Slavery is the key to Southern society. Not allowing slaves their freedom is the key to making the peculiar institution work. He is the face of white slavery, with all its intellectual pretensions, and quite possibly the scariest character in any novel I’ve read, because he’s also rounded, nuanced, complex. Smart. Evil? Well, obviously, but then this book redefines evil. Slavery isn’t just one evil though. It’s manifestations are legion; it infests American history and promise like demons infesting the Gadarene swine.

I haven’t read Colson Whitehead before now, and now intend to buy all his books and read them straight through. What a remarkable talent. What a story! What a rich and powerful and strangely compelling novel.

 

The Statesman and the Storyteller: Book Review

The period of American and world history from 1894-1904 marks, in a very real sense, either the anomalous beginnings of American imperialism, if you don’t think the US has remained particularly imperialistic, or the America’s debut on the world stage, a spotlighted position we have yet to repudiate or give up, if you rather think we haven’t given it up at all. Mark Zwonitzer chooses to examine that wonderfully contested history by focusing on two men, John Hay and Samuel Clemens. Hay and Clemens were about the same age, and came from similar backgrounds; small towns lining the banks of the Mississippi. They both arose to prominence and wealth from humble beginnings, and were deeply devoted to their wives and children. Both men lost children, and were prostrated by grief. Both emerge, in Zwonitzer’s narrative, as admirable men. And they remained friends, cordial, though infrequent correspondents. But as Hay once wrote: “No man, no party, can fight with any hope of a final success against a cosmic tendency; no cleverness, no popularity, avails against the spirit of the age.” As Zwonitzer puts it: “John Hay had learned this lesson early, and accepted it as an article of faith. He was not a man to fight a ‘cosmic tendency,’ and this served him well. Sam Clemens was less sure of this lesson. He learned it the hard way, and as you will see in the story that follows, kept unlearning it.”

John Hay was one of two personal secretaries to Abraham Lincoln, along with his close friend John Nicolay. After Lincoln’s assassination, Hay and Nicolay wrote the first biography of Lincoln, a multi-volume work that established the pattern for subsequent Lincoln biographies. Hay also was a poet of some distinction, especially known for a collection called Pike County Ballads; humorous verse written in dialect. Hay made his fortune the old fashioned way; he married into it. This gave him the freedom to pursue a career in government, and he eventually became US Ambassador to the Court of St. James, and finally, US Secretary of State under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. He was, in short, the Secretary of State during the Spanish-American War, and the diplomat who laid the political framework for the building of the Panama Canal.

Sam Clemens, of course, was primarily known, both in his lifetime and today, by his pseudonym, Mark Twain. As the book begins, Clemens was embarked on a desperate quest to salvage his family finances, a world-spanning lecture tour. This is the Mark Twain of the popular imagination; the cigar-smoking, white-suited contrarian, the witty, somewhat cynical humorist. He was, in 1894, dead-broke, having blown a sizeable fortune on an ill-conceived printing device. He insisted, as a point of honor, on clearing the entire debt himself, without resorting to bankruptcy proceedings. But proceeds from the tour were disappointing, as were sales from his published account of the voyage. (Although he did finally pay off his creditors, he never really did learn his lesson; he was still making bad investments practically on his deathbed).

Zwonitzer’s book cuts back and forth between the two men over the last ten years of Hay’s life, during that period when Hay was accommodating and enabling and administering the colonialist impulses of Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. Hay was an able administrator, in part because he was almost ego-less about it. His job was to serve as an extension of the President, and it was a job he devoted himself to, even at the cost of his health. And so Hay made himself indispensable, as the United States intervened in Cuba, appropriated Puerto Rico, swallowed Hawaii whole, captured Guam and Samoa, and ignored the democratic wishes of the freed Philippines, waging a savage war of conquest, so as to Christianize a nation full of Christians, and to govern a people too stubborn to realize they were ungovernable. And that’s without mentioning the US actions in Panama, actions applauded, at the time, as lacking even the tiniest vestige of legality.

John Hay was surely one of the most able men ever to serve as Secretary of State. He was certainly one of the most consequential diplomats in US history. And I wouldn’t say that Zwonitzer’s book demonizes him; quite the contrary. At the same time, his legacy is a troubling one. Teddy Roosevelt was an extraordinary man and a remarkably impactful President. He also believed in (and wrote books arguing for) the inherent racial superiority of Anglo-Saxon peoples, and the God-given requirement that that superiority gave white men: to govern. One of the saddest chapters in the book describes the Filipino diplomat, Felipe Agocillo, who came to Washington desperate for some kind of recognition of the capable, functioning government established by his boss, Emilio Aquinaldo, and hoping for some Filipino representation, at least, on the commission that would decide his country’s fate and future. He was never so much as allowed to present a letter to that effect to John Hay. His people were incapable of self-governance. Too brown of skin. Period. The Philippines would be administered from Washington.

And Sam Clemens, as he traveled with his ailing family from Italian villa to English country estate to US rental property, kept in touch with world events. And though he couched his criticisms in bitter irony, Mark Twain’s writings reveal how heartsick and furious he was with it all. Twain knew better than to publish all his writings from that period–in any event, he’d promised his beloved wife, Livy, that he would exercise some restraint. Even so, it’s remarkable, to see how willing Clemens was to take on the ruling ideology of his own age, how furious he was with the hypocrisy of American Christians and the complacent American acceptance of the most heinous war atrocities committed by our troops.

When most Americans think of the Spanish-American war, we generally think of two things, if we even give that particularly obscure conflict any attention at all. First, we may be able to dredge some memory of the phrase ‘Remember the Maine,’ though we likely don’t remember what that was about. And second, we might remember Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders capturing San Juan Hill. We don’t choose to think about our utterly unjustified invasion of the Philippines, or the brutal savagery of our war against the subsequent insurgency. We don’t think about water boarding, or the way US commanders justified the slaughter of eleven-year-olds, or our massacres of women and children.

Mark Twain was there. He was horrified and appalled on our behalf. Here’s what he wrote about it, in The War Prayer:

O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it — for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

We’ve forgotten John Hay, and though we still remember Mark Twain, we’ve generally forgotten the lonely, righteous anger of Sam Clemens. Mark Zwonitzer reminds us of them both, and the ways in which they were connected. And the specific points on which they differed, as friends. What a splendid achievement.

The Jungle Book: Movie Review

When I was a kid, I absolutely loved Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. In fact, I loved both Jungle Book story collections. When I was eleven, Disney’s animated Jungle Book movie came out, and I remember my reaction: ‘not as good as the books.’ Even as a child, I understood what ‘the Disney’ version of something meant: sugary sweet, and off-puttingly comedic. I remember being particularly turned off by Baloo, who went from Mowgli’s brave and wise teacher to a bumbling goofball. Still, I only had to sit through the movie once, and afterwards, I still had the books.

So when I saw the trailers for the new Disney Jungle Book, I was genuinely thrilled. Through the miracle of CGI, we had a jungle that looked like a jungle, a tiger that looked like a tiger, all surrounding a single human child actor. It looked fantastic. And I hoped, desperately hoped, that the story would return to the Kipling source. That this would be an unforgettable Jungle Book.

It’s not. It looks great. The voice actors were superbly cast, and the animal characters’ CGI popped. The action sequences, if too frequent, were at least genuinely exciting, and the jungle locations were superbly rendered. The child actor, Neel Sethi, was suitably intrepid as Mowgli, and the biggest threats to him, the tiger Shere Kahn and the snake, Kaa, were both terrifying creations. I especially appreciated how smoothly the movie handled the transitions between animal characters talking anthropomorphically and then, those same animals growling and howling and snarling.

It’s still disappointing. The images compel; the story does not. It’s just another Disney bowlderization of a classic tale. And it got worse the longer the movie went, finishing with an ending that was just a complete mess.

In fact, I found the film all the more disappointing precisely because it looks so great. For the first third of the movie, the images distract us from the weakness of the storytelling. And then Baloo shows up (wonderfully voiced by Bill Murray, to be fair), and sings “Bare Necessities” and I threw up my hands. It wasn’t going to be special after all. It really was just going to be a remake of a mediocre late-60s Disney exercise in cultural appropriation. It looks so terrific, I expected more. All I got was ‘Bare Necessities’ and King Louie (Christopher Walken voicing that annoying monkey like a half-Mafiosa/half-African warlord).

The turning point, I think, is Kaa. Scarlett Johansson gives every sibilant full value, creating a mock-sympathetic, utterly hypnotic python sociopath. Kaa’s only in one scene, but it’s terrifying and creepy and fun in equal measure. That scene, with Mowgli in Kaa’s clutches, was the high point of the movie. And then Baloo showed up and sings that dumb song, and the movie went straight to heck. Nothing after the Kaa scene really worked at all.

And it could have. With that cast, and that technological magic, and that director, and that story, this could have been lovely. I wanted it to be lovely. I cheered when it was lovely. And then the studio . . . stopped trusting the material. And it turned into just another movie. Basic Disney template.

I’m being too harsh, I think. My wife and I showed up way early, and saw at least ten trailers for other movies, all of them kids’ movies. And they all looked dopey and bad. There’s an Angry Birds movie for example that, based on the trailer, I would sooner face the electric chair than sit through. There’s a Robinson Caruso thing, told from the perspective of the animals on his island. Stunts and falls and fart jokes. Jungle Book, of course, also has anthropomorphic animals. But, as weak as I found it, it’s still way better than the movies with which it seems to be competing. That’s worth remembering.

But that doesn’t make The Jungle Book any less disappointing. It’s a movie that does some things so spectacularly well, it’s all the more discouraging that all that beauty, all that skill, is in the service of a story that’s so pedestrian. Especially since the original tale, the one Kipling wrote (probably for his dying six-year old daughter), is so magical and wise and good. What a shame.

The High Mountains of Portugal: Book Review

I know I’m not alone when I say that Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was one of my favorite novels of the last twenty years. A boy on a lifeboat with a tiger; what a spectacular premise for great fiction. But it wasn’t just a white-knuckle adventure yarn. It was also a thoughtful meditation on world religion, an exercise in unreliable narratives and narrators, a mystery and a puzzle. And then Ang Lee turned it into a movie as rich as the novel itself. It’s also the last novel I read aloud to my children, before they, inevitably, grew, left, scattered.

So to say that I eagerly anticipated reading Martel’s latest novel, The High Mountains of Portugal would be an understatement. I read it with great interest and enjoyment, though it’s certainly a slighter work. When I say that it is one of the stranger novels I’ve read in my life, I don’t mean that as a criticism or dismissal. I just want to describe accurately my experience with what I found to be a very weird book. Let me add, as well, that I couldn’t put it down, and have been thinking about it for days.

It’s essentially three connected novellas, entitled Homeless, Homeward, and Home. They’re narratively and thematically connected; they’re also all three about exploring possible spiritual relationships between humans and chimpanzees. Chimps are not monkeys, but apes, and are the closest mammals genetically to human beings. As such, they’re our closest evolutionary cousins. Hominids may have split from our ape relatives as recently at six million years ago. At least one question this novel poses, therefore, has to do with the religious connections between men and apes, especially as it might emerge in a theologically Christian context.

The first novella, titled Homeless, begins in Lisbon, with a young man named Tomas, in 1904. Tomas works as a researcher, and makes very little money at it, but he is from a prominent family. His Uncle Martim, who loves him dearly and who he loves in return is the only member of his family still living. Tomas’ father, his girlfriend, Dora, and their son, Gaspar, all died in quick succession a year earlier. Since that time, crushed, destroyed by grief, he has been unable to walk forwards. He only is able to walk backwards.

He has become obsessed by a diary found in his research, by a priest from the previous century. Ulisses, this priest, created some object of singular religious devotion, he thinks, probably a crucifix. He is desperate to find it. He has decided that this religious object must have ended up in the church of a small village in the high mountains of Portugal. He has gotten a short leave of absence from work, and has persuaded his uncle to lend him a car, which he intends to drive on his quest. Most of the novella, then, has to do with Tomas’ journey, in a car he is barely able to drive, to find a crucifix made by Father Ulisses. That journey, both comical and horrifying, is at the heart of the novella. I must apologize now for this spoiler, but it’s necessary: when he finds the crucifix, it is not of Christ, but of a crucified chimpanzee. I’ll let it go at that.

In the second novella, Homeward, Dr. Eusebio Lozora works as a pathologist in the basement of a hospital, on the last day of the year 1938. He’s catching up on work; writing up some autopsies. On that night, he is visited by two women. The first is his beloved wife, Maria, a relentless unorthodox theologian, much feared by the local priest. She has come to a realization about Jesus’ miracles, and can’t stop herself from stopping by his office and telling him about it. And it genuinely is an extraordinary new reading of the gospels. Heavily informed by the works of her other favorite author, Agatha Christie.

Who murdered Jesus of Nazareth? We all did.

It is not the guilt of the Jews that goes down through history, it is the guilt of us all. But how quick we are to forget that. We don’t like guilt, do we? We prefer to hide it, to forget it, to twist it and present it in a better light, to pass it on to others. And so, because of our aversion to guilt, we strain to remember who killed the victim in the gospels, as we strain to remember who killed the victim in an Agatha Christie mystery novel.

It’s very long, Maria’s exegesis, and takes up at least half of the novella. And then, she brings him a present; the newest Agatha Christie novel. And he is overcome with gratitude and love.

And then she leaves, and he is alone with his thoughts and his new novel. And then his second visitor knocks on his door, another woman named Maria, a good deal older than his wife, from the same village visited by Tomas in the first novella. And she has brought a body with her, and wants him to autopsy it. Her dearly beloved husband. And the autopsy becomes increasingly surreal and strange. And inside that body, curled up inside it, (and again, I apologize for the spoiler), he finds the deceased body of a chimpanzee.

In the third novella, Home, a Canadian politician, Peter Tovy, in the early 1980s, is incapacitated with grief when his wife dies. Barely able to function, he accepts a position on a junket to Oklahoma, where he visits an animal refuge. He becomes obsessed with a preternaturally self-possessed chimpanzee. On a whim, he buys it. He then turns his life upside down; quitting his job, selling his Canadian home (too cold for a chimp, he thinks), and moving to his ancestral home, a small village in the high mountains of Portugal. And in a very real sense, the chimpanzee becomes more than his companion, certainly a good deal more than a house pet. The chimpanzee becomes his guru. And when his grown son comes to visit, Odo, the ape, becomes beloved by them both.

I won’t give away the ending of the third novella, except to say that, narratively and thematically, it ends up, in an odd sort of way, tying all three stories together. Also, as strange as they are, these three stories have kept me up three nights in a row. So I blog, not so much to review this book, but to discharge it. It is, in any event, an extraordinary accomplishment.

 

The Witches: Book Review

Stacey Schiff’s last book, Cleopatra: A Life, made the kind of splash historians dream of, including a much publicized sale to Hollywood. Her latest, The Witches, about the Salem witch trials, has received mixed reviews, and doesn’t seem to have had the same cultural impact. But it’s quite brilliant. I wouldn’t call it the definitive study of Salem–she acknowledges her considerable debt to John Demos, both personally, and for his wonderful Entertaining Salem–but I found it an extraordinary achievement, superbly researched and written.

She begins by acknowledging the hold the Salem witch trials still have on our collective imagination.

Nearly as many theories have been advanced to explain the Salem witch trials as the Kennedy assassination. Our first true-crime story has been attributed to generational, sexual, economic, ecclesiastical, and class tensions; regional tensions imported from England; food poisoning; a hothouse religion in a cold climate; teenage hysteria; fraud, taxes, conspiracy; political instability; trauma induced by Indian attacks; and to witchcraft itself, among the more reasonable theories.

So to what theory does she subscribe? Essentially none of them, and all of them. But if I had to paraphrase her final conclusions, she attributes the trials to, well, humanity. Constantly, page after page, chapter after chapter, Schiff puts us in the position of the men, women, and (particularly) teenaged girls of Puritan Massachusetts in the last decade of the seventeenth century. She asks us to imagine ourselves in their situation. She describes sympathetically and imaginatively the human impact of Puritan theology; the guilt, the insistence on constant self-examination, the constant, unremitting daily chores and obligations. The fears, the tensions, the cold and dark corners of the town and of townspeople’s imaginations.

It could be us. It could be me, my friends, my neighbors. Paranoia and suspicion rising from threats, real and imagined, overreacting, underthinking, giving way. As with the Know-Nothings, as with the Japanese internment camps, as with Jim Crow laws and commie scares and, today, anti-Muslim rants from prominent politicians. Still, I kept thinking, reading Schiff’s book, I get it. It makes sense to me, in human terms. The central conundrum of Salem was simply this: sober, intelligent, well-read people, testifying under oath in a court of law, who believed with all their hearts and souls that lies told under oath would condemn them to eternal damnation, told the court that they had, personally, flown miles on sticks, crash-landing in meadows, attending meetings chaired by the devil, to whom they had sworn allegiance. And Schiff believes, and reading her, we believe, that those testimonies were believed to be accurate and factual, not only by the jurors, but by the testifiers themselves, at least while they were testifying.

Some years ago, I acted in a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. I played Giles Corey; obstreperous ‘more weight’ Giles Corey, who stubbornly refused to speak the pro forma and meaningless words that, by law, began all criminal proceedings. And was pressed to death for that refusal. I’ve been a Giles Corey fan ever since, as well, of course, as a massive fan of Miller’s superb play. Miller wrote it in the midst of the McCarthy committee hearings. Having refused to name names, thus risking imprisonment, he wrote. His play is not only a dramatic and theatrical triumph, but also an act of moral conscience and defiant citizenship. It’s a genuinely great play. Historically, though, he got most of it wrong.

John Proctor, Miller’s protagonist, was sixty years old, and not a particularly important member of the Salem community. Also, more specifically, a man who certainly had not had an affair with Abigail Williams, who was not a prominent accuser and who was in any event eleven years old. He also accused his wife, Elizabeth Proctor, something the Proctor in the play refuses to do. In reality, the central figure among the accused wasn’t Proctor, but George Burroughs, a charismatic and superbly qualified minister, and Indian fighter, and something of a muscular prodigy; also a man who abused his wives sufficiently to be prosecuted for it. The Chief Justice of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, in charge of prosecuting and sentencing witches, was not Thomas Danforth, it was William Stoughton, who was also Massachusetts’ Lieutenant Governor. And Tituba was probably not Black. And most of what we know about the Salem witch trials comes from a character Miller doesn’t even put in his play, Cotton Mather, whose role in the trials went a good deal beyond that of chronicler.

The more significant, and probably controversial point, though, is that the teenaged girls at the heart of the Salem witch scare, the girls who writhed and twisted and pointed fingers, Abigail Hobbs and Mercy Lewis and Betty Parris and Ann Putnam Jr. and Mary Warren and the rest of them, may not have done so maliciously. For Miller, the girls were liars, knew they were liars, and kept on lying because they were afraid of Abigail Williams. Schiff doesn’t think so, and I believe her. She describes the symptoms of something called conversion disorder, a malady that previously went under the over-broad rubric of ‘female hysteria.’ Schiff doesn’t exactly blame this particular disorder for the trials, but she offers it as a possible explanation for the girls’ conduct. Above all, though, she treats all the characters in the story with compassion. She sees the events not as melodrama, with carefully defined villains and heroes (as, frankly, Miller tends to), but as tragedy, as a deeply human and terribly distressing combination of factors.

If the book has a villain, it’s probably William Stoughton. He was the most forceful personality in the room, the most impressive and fearsome politician in Massachusetts. He was also a man of infinitely malleable convictions, having taken multiple sides in every political controversy of his age. He was a survivor, a wily old bear who could make any position seem unassailable. So why, on this issue, did he become so unbending, so ferociously inexorable? Why, on this one issue, was he so unwilling to listen to those few timorous voices wondering if it was possible that quite so many New Englanders were witches, or if entirely spectral evidence could be enough to condemn otherwise upright people to death for consorting with Satan?

Rebecca Nurse was twice acquitted. Both times, Stoughton interrogated the jury. Were they certain? Had they considered this evidence, or that testimony? Perhaps they should deliberate some more? The third time, the jury took the hint. And Rebecca Nurse, the very picture of a virtuous Puritan matron, was hanged for witchcraft. Despite the considered opinion of the most respected Boston ministers, Stoughton admitted the most questionable kinds of evidence. And given a chance to show clemency, everyone convicted received the harshest possible penalty. And 20 people were executed.

None of them witches. And we need to keep that in mind. Because witches and witchcraft and enchantments and spells and incantations are frequent memes in our popular culture. And that’s fine, if kept resolutely in the realm of fantasy fiction. But as many as a hundred thousand innocent people were killed, most of them from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries. Twenty were killed in New England, plus those who died in prison, plus Giles Corey. The citizens of Boston and Salem were not actually plagued by witches; no one with superhuman powers lived in those communities, nor, in fact, in any communities in the world, ever, anywhere. Bridget Bishop was a woman in her fifties, unkempt, belligerent, often homeless, brash and outspoken. She was one of the first ‘witches’ killed from Salem. Sarah Good was younger; another homeless woman, sullen, dependent on the reluctant charity of hard-hearted Puritan farmers, a lurker and a mutterer, probably disturbed; another woman hanged in Salem. That’s who ‘witches’ were; women outside the mainstream of society. Only after the disposable women of the community were disposed of did the good citizens of Salem and Boston and Andover turn to the Martha Coreys and Rebecca Nurses and John Proctors; respectable, but somewhat litigious people, who had made enemies with scores to settle.

The story of Salem is the story of innocent people unpardonably persecuted, and unjustly prosecuted. It’s the story of American paranoia run amuck. It’s human beings doing what humans do; overreact to scary events. It’s also a story that Americans have reenacted far too frequently, as have the citizens of every other culture on earth. Schiff’s book avoids facile conclusions, and easy judgments. It’s a wise and judicious and thoughtful and superbly written book. I can’t recommend it too highly.

The politics of The Hunger Games: Movie review, kind of

Two events, on a similar theme: last night, my wife and I saw the most recent Hunger Games movie, or rather The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part Two. I know, a month after everyone else saw it. So I wondered; should I review it? Here’s the second thing: on Rachel Maddow’s show, she showed a flier that someone in Michigan put in the windshields of cars parked outside a movie theater where Mockingjay was playing. It began by asking Is American like Panem? It obviously concluded that America is in fact a great deal like Panem, and proposed, as a remedy, voting for Ted Cruz. And, of course, it’s hard not to notice that the Hunger Games novels and films are intensely political. They are, after all, about a revolution and a civil war. So political how? And does it have anything to do with our tangled politics here, now, in America?

Here’s the text of the flier:

In the Hunger Games, Michigan would be in District 800–and our job would be producing textiles. The Panem Capitol promises to give you free stuff–security, food, and a job. But what you really get is hunger, torture, and a lack of opportunity. America has wealthy rulers living in the Capitol just like Panem. The political elite think they are entitled to your hard earned money to support their extravagant lifestyle. You are left with: student loans you can’t repay, struggling to put food on the table, not being able to afford healthcare fines, knowing you were lied to by the political elite.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is time for something different: Freedom, Opportunity, Fairness under the law, Personal sustainability, Hope. Join the Rebel Underground! Ted Cruz: Catching Fire!

In fairness, the Ted Cruz campaign told Rachel Maddow that this flier wasn’t produced by the Cruz campaign. Still, the basic themes echo the Tea Party critique of today’s America. Lack of freedom, a faltering economy, Obamacare, arrogant elites wasting our substance. The need for a political revolution. And so on.

I’m going to assume that you all know these novels and movies. And my discussion of them will include many many spoilers. Because I do want to talk about them in the context of politics. So: the flier. Well, of course, Ted Cruz looks nothing whatsoever like Katniss Everdeen, though I do see a slight resemblance to Caesar Flickerman, nor does Barack Obama look even remotely like President Snow, though he is skinny, and getting grayer. Superficially, the comparison doesn’t work at all.

And if it did, it wouldn’t help Ted Cruz. The entire point of Mockingjay–Part II is, as the Who once put it, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Alma Coin, head of the revolution for which Katniss is such a powerful force, turns out to be even more brutal and dictatorial and manipulative as President Snow ever was. Which is why (oops, spoiler!) Katniss assassinates her. If we’re to compare this film with that candidate, we’re led inescapably to the conclusion that voting for Ted Cruz would be a very very bad idea indeed. If you don’t like Obama, Cruz (if he’s really Catching Fire) would, by the logic of the movies, be much worse. There’s a technical, political science-y term for the kind of thinking this flier represents: twaddle. The Hunger Games is about a dystopic future in which American politics is a brutal totalitarian nightmare. That is quite specifically and obviously not the America in which we currently reside. It is, in fact, its polar opposite.

Still, it’s a fascinating question. Suzanne Collins, who wrote the trilogy on which the movies are based, has created a powerful and compelling narrative and a beautifully realized world in which to set it. And they are political novels and movies, with echoes of ancient Rome, but also, of course, of histories and societies closer to our own day. The Ted Cruz flier may be ridiculous, but it gets at something that’s not; the ways in which Collins’ world resonates with our own. Libertarians, I’ve heard, have embraced the Hunger Games world, and with some justification. Panem is certainly a nightmarish society in which personal liberties are abridged routinely. But a Bernie Sanders fan might find the movie reflects her political views. Panem is also a society essentially defined by income inequality.

But I think these similarities are superficial. The specific thing about Panem that makes it so horrifying is the Hunger Games notion. Panem is a society where, annually, children battle to the death, for the amusement of adults. Panem isn’t just an unequal or unfree society; it’s a society where an entire entertainment complex is built around violence to and by kids. There really isn’t a contemporary analog.

My libertarian friends point to Panem as an illustration of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, his careful analysis of the steps by which a democratic society becomes less free. Hayek’s great book was based on his own experiences in Austria in the 30s, and on seeing Germany devolve into a dictatorship. But Hayek’s analysis has nothing to do with The Hunger Games. We don’t see President Snow gradually accrue power, step by step. When the books open, he’s already in power; his conquest a fait accompli. And we’re given to understand that he came to power following a terrible war. We might more properly see Panem as illustrating Hannah Arendt’s essay On Revolution, showing how President Coin will inevitably follow the path of President Snow; how the talents of a revolutionary aren’t particularly relevant to the task of governing, and how therefore so many revolutions lead only to tyranny.

The reason I like the Hunger Games books and (especially) movies so much is simply this: they deal honestly with that reality. These are YA novels, intended for a teen audience. But they’re not remotely triumphalist. They’re not about a notional good overcoming an intensely imagined evil. They’re about civil war and revolution, bloody and violent and morally appalling. Katniss only ‘triumphs’ by becoming an assassin. Her entire intention, in fact, is murder/suicide. In fact, for a big, expensive set of action movies, Mockingjay–part 2 avoids the pitfall of so many of these sorts of films, the big, final battle scene with spectacular stunts and CGI, in which Our Hero beats the bad guy once and for all (unless they need him for the sequel). Katniss’s final walk towards Snow’s palace looks like it’s going to be the set up for just such an ending. Instead, she gets to see her beloved sister die horribly. And then she’s wounded. No big victory. Just a lot of death.

In the world of The Hunger Games, revolution and civil are horror shows, in which a lot of people we care a lot about die painfully and unnecessarily. Katniss Everdeen volunteers to fight, to spare her sister. Ultimately, she can’t even manage that small task. I love that unsparing honesty.

So, no, I don’t see any particular, specific contemporary political parallels to The Hunger Games. But I do see books and movies I can respect, superbly acted and produced, ending with a moment of earned grace, but not remotely simple-minded or facile. That’s their achievement, and I honor them for it. They have nothing whatever to do with Ted Cruz.

Nixonland: Book Review

Man, I love books like this. Rick Perlstein’s 2008 book Nixonland is history that sizzles. It’s one of those 800-plus pages of superbly researched, exhaustively detailed, astoundingly insightful, richly textured history books that make book nerds glow with happiness. It’s also, incidentally, the best history of that crucial time in American history we call ‘the 60s,’ even though the period he covers doesn’t end until sometime around 1973. And yes, the focus is Nixon, sort of. It’s not a biography of that most complicated of American politicians, though. It uses Richard Nixon’s career instead as the lens through which we view that complicated history.

Here’s why it’s so good. Most histories of the 60’s are fundamentally celebratory. They reflect one perspective on that period, what we might call the ‘Age of Aquarius’ narrative. Plucky young idealists, who conquered racism, sexism, and ended the war in Vietnam through sheer force of will, plus rock and roll music. We take the perspective of, say Tom Hayden, or Jane Fonda, or Abbie Hoffman, and pit Our Heroes against the reactionary forces of bad old reactionary Amerika. The bad guys are easily identified; Frank Rizzo, Mayor Daley and the Chicago police, the National Guard at Kent State, George Wallace. Nixon. Such essentialist hagiographies celebrate the Berkeley Free Speech movement, and Woodstock, and the Black Panthers, and campus protests across the whole nation. Although many such histories exist–books by Todd Gitlin, Nicholas Schou, Ed Sanders come immediately to mind–and although they’re often passionately and eloquently written, they’re too one-sided.

They don’t adequately account for, among other realities, the popularity of Richard Nixon. The sixties were supposed to be a celebration of youth, of youthful vitality and passion and rejection of the platitudes and certainties of, say, the fifties. And when young people got the vote, in time for the 1972 election, that 18-21 demographic was expected to make a huge difference, ushering in a newer, better day. And 18-21 year-olds did make a difference. They voted for Nixon 2-1.

Perlstein’s book does absolutely not represent some kind of conservative revisionism. But it doesn’t shy away from this reality: Nixon’s ‘Silent Majority’ did, kind of, exist. And was horrified and appalled by anti-war hippies. And not without legitimate cause.

What Perlstein excels at is what might be called a strategy of shifting perspectives. He shows us an event like, say, the ’68 Chicago Democratic Convention from both the point of view of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubins, and the point of view of the Chicago police, or the ethnic Chicago neighborhoods, lower-middle-to-middle class, the homes from where Chicago cops were drawn. We see both. And that’s right, because both perspectives are valid, both should be honored.

Richard Nixon’s political genius was his ability to peek underneath the surface of American society, to feel and articulate and make political use of the anxieties and fears and resentments and hatreds found in those dark understrata. When in college at Whittier, the privileged class of students were called ‘Franklins.’ Nixon started his own club, the Orthogonians, made up of students from lower class families, white kids who had to work their way through college. The grinders and grade-grubbers, the people who knew what it was to struggle, and what it felt like to be disrespected by those who hadn’t had to.

And Perlstein uses that dichotomy, Franklins v. Orthogonians, brilliantly. Nixon didn’t go to Harvard or Yale. His father wasn’t wealthy or connected. Nixon’s own insecurities and petty resentments, it turned out, revealed a way towards power. If he could find other people, cast-offs and strivers, who shared his fury, but also could keep a lid on it, as he did, he could connect with voters. Richard Nixon was pretty famously not a people person, not a glad-hander, though he could play the role of sycophant when he needed to, tactically. But what Nixon realized was that Orthogonians outnumbered Franklin’s pretty substantially. And that feelings of buried rage could have a political impact.

Rick Perlstein understands Richard Nixon, and helps us understand him too. And he’s able to show us how Nixon rose to power, how carefully he understood and manipulated the political processes of his day. How to encode buried feelings of racial resentment. How resonant, and how richly textured and nuanced was Nixon’s political use of the phrase ‘Law and Order.’

And yet, as the dirty tricks and vicious campaign strategies of his two Presidential campaigns unfolded, Perlstein does not neglect the other Nixon, the Nixon who opened China, the cold warrior Nixon of arms control treaties with the Soviet Union. Nixon genuinely felt that the world was a dangerous place, and that an American President needed above all to preserve world peace, shaky though it might be. And Nixon was, on top of everything else, genuinely brilliant in his understanding of foreign policy (which was pretty much the only part of being President he cared about).

Perlstein’s authorial voice is endlessly sympathetic to even the most wildly disparate points of view. And his research is extraordinary. He specializes in paragraphs full of detail, describing a typical day or week, with protests and counter-protests and violence on both sides of that most brutal of culture wars, over Vietnam and its meaning and importance.

And finally, it’s about us. It’s about now. He concludes with this:

I have written of the rise, between the years 1965 and 1972, of a nation that had believed itself to be at consensus instead becoming one of two incommensurate visions of apocalypse: two loosely defined congeries of Americans, each convinced that should the other triumph, everything decent and true and worth preserving would end.

This was the ’60s.

We Americans are not killing or trying to kill each other anymore for reasons of ideology, or at least, for now. Remember this: this war has ratcheted down considerably. But it still simmers on.

Perlstein wrote that final paragraph in 2009, or at least, that’s when his book was published. I read it in 2015. And I feel like I understand my world much better for having done so. The war he describes so eloquently is ratcheting back up, or so it seems to me. To understand it, historical perspective helps. We live in a world that Richard Nixon created, or at least saw more clearly than others did, a knowledge he ruthlessly exploited, leaving behind an exploded dichotomy, and political civility in tatters.

When you buy this book, buy the Kindle version. It includes news clips from the 60s, in addition to Perlstein’s prose. Take your time reading it, however. It’s worth every hour, every day you spend on it.

 

 

Booksmart: A review

Last night, I had an opportunity to see a preview performance of a new play, and a first play, by a young playwright; always exciting. Rob Tennant’s Booksmart is the latest Plan B Theatre production of the winning play of the David Ross Fetzer Foundation for Emerging Artists annual contest. It’s a comedy, set in the employee break room in a big Barnes and Noble-style bookstore Booksmart, a few days before Christmas. It is, in short, a play about customer service (shudder!), complete with rude customers, burned out employees, and clueless management. And all the characters are book nerds, most with advanced academic degrees in various disciplines in the humanities–art, philosophy, English lit. They graduated, racked up debt, and face a common dilemma; these are the jobs they got out of college. Yay for them.

It’s a play, in short, about being preposterously and perpetually underemployed, And Casey (Tyson Baker), is fed up. He’s had it. Apparently he’s decided, on this insanely busy day, to clock in, and spend the day in the break room. He’s on strike, apparently, though he, like most retail workers, has no union protection, and in fact seems only vaguely aware of what unions are or how unions function. He wants better pay; he wants benefits. But mostly he’s just irritating. He’s verbally adept, and can talk at length and with great facility about his grievances. He has no idea what to do about any of them.

His closest friend in the store, Alex (Sarah Danielle Young), is sick of him whining, and calls him on it. She’s good at her job, she can cope with the rudest of customers without losing her cheer or moxie or humor, and she knows some things about unionization. She thinks Casey is being a lazy jerk, which makes her job harder, which pisses her off. She knows–everyone knows–how much he’s into her, which also pisses her off. More specifically, though, she disapproves of his tactics.

So it’s a play about unions. It’s a play about labor v. management. It seems to be, in fact, kind of a comedic millennial version of Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, only with retail workers instead of cabbies, which makes sense, Uber having supplanted taxis in our world. Odets’ great ’30s masterpiece, of course, cut back and forth between vignettes about suffering cab drivers and scenes in a union hall, awaiting a strike vote. Tennant’s play is similarly structured; we cut between Casey’s on-going work stoppage, and his co-workers’ phone conversations with preposterously rude (but oh-so-familiar) customers. The impact of Odets’ play was to stoke the white-hot fury of his age; because the defining mood of our day is ironic, the impact of Tennant’s, is comedy, though with a self-critical edge.

From time to time, three other Booksmart employees drift in and out of the break room. Each time the break room door to the store opens, we hear snippets of the most gosh-awful Christmas music. (As usual, Cheryl Cluff’s stellar sound design tells us everything we need to know about the world of the play). Those musical bits were consistently great, and got the best laughs of the play. My first reaction to the play, in fact, was that, aside for the music, it should be funnier. But on further reflection, I’m not sure that’s what I want to say. (Lousy note, anyway; ‘be funnier.’)  That music, as imagined by Tennant and executed by Cluff, suggested something more interesting than just a pleasant comedy.

I bought a new phone recently, and in the store where I transacted, Christmas music was similarly ubiquitous. When a particularly obnoxious version of that pro-roofie tease ‘Baby it’s cold outside’ played, one employee at the store said, to no one in particular, “when I slit my wrists, this music will be why.” One of her co-workers suggested a coping strategy; crank up the hip-hop for the drive home. “But I don’t like hip-hop,” said the girl. “Neither do I,” said her friend. “But it cleanses the palate.” Both of them laughed. And it struck me how marvelously true is Tennant’s use of music, and how spot-on his depiction of the bright, well-educated souls trapped in retail hell.

Tennant populates his play with similar folk; smart, and damned. (Every time they go on break, they pull out a book). April Fossen played Ruth, a former long-term adjunct university faculty; a highly intelligent and well-read woman who really should be tenured somewhere. As the play progresses, she has a series of phone encounters with a male customer-from-hell (we only see her end of the conversations, but we know this guy). Those conversations go badly. By the play’s end, she’s likely to be terminated from yet another job for which she’s ridiculously overqualified. Anne Louise Brings played Cindy, a young woman unhealthily obsessed with Katniss Everdeen; after another rude customer drives her to tears, she’s far more inclined to entertain Casey’s rebellion. And Joe Crnich played Hippie Ed, barely able to remember his advanced degree in philosophy (and naively astonished to learn of the pagan origination of Christmas holiday traditions); what was once a fine mind seems to have been compromised by that bane of aging hippies, Too Much Weed. He becomes Casey’s first convert. He’s also what passes for management, presumably because he’s their one older white male.

Most of the play’s funniest moments are the hints we get of the chaos outside the break room, and the one-sided exchanges between Ruth, Cindy and Ed and various customers-from-hell. But most of the play’s focus is on Casey, who’s ineffectual kvetching becomes rather irritating. I found myself wondering if Casey’s oh-so-verbal fecklessness might be part of the point. I found him an unappealing character; perhaps I was supposed to. Perhaps the play is about how ill-prepared college training leaves humanities majors for the actual vicissitudes of gainful employment. The title of the play is, after all, Booksmart. Which, in common parlance, contrasts unfavorably with streetsmart. And how gainful is their employment? It’s not just Casey; all these characters struggle financially, especially Alex, whose landlord has just raised her rent.

They need a union, frankly. The play makes that case persuasively. And Alex is the only one of them with the wherewithal to organize one. And that effort, we sense, is unlikely to succeed. Quite possibly, Booksmart’s management will simply fire them all for even discussing the possibility. It’s not like they’ll have any difficulty finding more overqualified humanities majors to replace them. We know all that; so does Alex, the play’s most appealing and tragic character.

In the Group Theatre’s seminal production of Waiting for Lefty, the audience, according to legend, left the theater shouting ‘strike strike strike!’ Whether that actually happened or not, it was certainly the greatest agit-prop play in American history. (And then Odets sold out; went to Hollywood, made some money, drank too much, died too young). What Booksmart suggests is the need for a similar national effort to the essential centrality of organized labor in the 30s. Occupy Wall Street? But didn’t that movement, so profoundly compelling, and similarly a coalition of underemployed ticked-off millennials and aging 60’s relics, eventually dissipate its energy in direction-less empty rhetoric? Doesn’t the Bernie Sanders campaign represent another possible way out of the cul-de-sac of non-specific hopes and unrealized change? And isn’t that campaign likewise losing its mojo?

Tennant’s play strikes me as a fascinating artifact of our times, a verbally adept agit-prop comedy about feckless, misdirected idealism. It’s not quite the Waiting for Lefty of our time; it’s not angry enough for that, because we’re not; we’re just tired. My final response to it wasn’t ‘strike strike strike!’ It was a kind of cynical weariness. The fight against inequality today isn’t a fight against brutal bosses and their murdering thugs. It’s the far less equal fight against stultifying corporate blandness, heard most clearly in the relentless false cheer of mandated muzak. Every time that door opened, we were reminded of it, the anodyne ubiquity of jingling Rudolf. How the hell do you fight that?

 

What I think Donald Trump means by political correctness

Donald Trump is way ahead in all the national polls, in the race for the Presidency. And this unlikely fact is driving the professional political class crazy. Things weren’t supposed to happen this way. In the leadup to the 2012 election, the list of announced Republican candidates had a similar clown car vibe, and unlikely front runners did keep popping up–Herman Cain, anyone?–but eventually order was restored, and the putative favorite, Mitt Romney, did in fact become the nominee. That isn’t happening now. And various pith-helmeted politico/anthropologists have been jungle-safariing for an explanation.

The most recent of these was the respected conservative pollster, Frank Luntz, who declared “my legs are shaking” after meeting with a focus group of Trump supporters:

The focus group watched taped instances on a television of Trump’s apparent misogyny, political flip flops and awe-inspiring braggadocio. They watched the Donald say Rosie O’Donnell has a “fat, ugly face.” They saw that Trump once supported a single-payer health system, and they heard him say, “I will be the greatest jobs president God ever created.” But the group—which included 23 white people, 3 African-Americans and three Hispanics and consisted of a plurality of college-educated, financially comfortably Donald devotees—was undeterred.

At the end of the session, the vast majority said they liked Trump more than when they walked in.

The same night, Republican strategist Nicolle Wallace, who is working for the Jeb! Bush campaign, reported similar encounters with one particular Trump supporter: her father. She was on Rachel Maddow’s show a couple of nights ago, and she declared herself similarly baffled and appalled. Trump supporters don’t care: that Trump called Mexicans rapists and insulted Megyn Kelly and holds heterodox views (for a supposed Republican) on a whole range of issues. None of that matters. He says things that would permanently end most political careers, and his poll numbers go up. Then he’s called on it, refuses to apologize, refuses to back down. And his poll numbers go . . . up.

Here’s what I think is going on.

Remember, early on, when he said “I don’t have time for political correctness.” I don’t think he meant ‘political correctness’ as I generally understand the term. Political correctness usually refers to super-persnickity sensitivity to un-or-sub conscious sexism or racism in commonly used language. It relates to, among other things, the dismaying fact that English, unlike other languages, does not have a gender-neutral personal pronoun. Take this sentence: “when your child asks for chocolate, what he’s really asking for is. . . .” That’s sexist. It assumes that ‘your child’ is male. One unsatisfying solution would be to use the feminine pronoun ‘your child . . . she’s.’ Another, equally unsatisfying, would be ‘your child . . . he or she.’ My inner grammar finniken recoils at the increasingly popular compromise ‘they.’ Fact is, there’s not really an elegant way to de-genderize our personal pronouns. Well, the political correctness police don’t care about syntactical elegance. They want sexism gone from our language. They’re fine with ‘your child . . . he or she.’ Or worse, ‘your child . . . your child.’  Now I’m depressed. . . .

Sorry. Back to it. That’s not the kind of political correctness Mr. Trump seems to be referring to. Essentially, he’s saying ‘I’ll be rude if I want to.’ My beloved schoolmarm mother is, properly, horrified.

Digging deeper. I just finished reading a fascinating book, Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Ronson describes a woman, Justine Sacco, who, as she passed through Heathrow Airport in London, sent out a tweet about the trip she was taking to Africa. A dumb joke, she thought. She got on the plane, shut off her phone, fell asleep. When the plane landed, and she turned her phone back on, she discovered that her life was essentially over. Her tweet had gone viral, and was widely condemned as racist. She lost her job. She couldn’t get another one, because prospective employers would google her, see the tweet and the reaction to it, and decide she was toxic. 30 years old, and unemployable. Terrifying.

So Ronson’s book is about public humiliation, the ferocity of the cyberworld, the way we judge others based on a single tweet or comment or incident. And he cites several other examples of people whose lives were ruined, as Sacco’s was. But his book also includes a fascinating, and rather Trumpian, counter-example.

Formula One racing mogul, Max Mosley is not just prominent in his own right, he’s also the son of a prominent man–Oswald Mosley, the British fascist leader during WWII.  Max Mosley was filmed by the British tabloid News of the World having a spectacular sado-masochistic sex orgy with five prostitutes, in a torture dungeon filled with German memorabilia. And he survived it, reputation and employment intact. He survived by going on a national news program and saying ‘yes, that’s me in those videos. I have a kinky sex life. So what? Lots of people do. I’m not ashamed, or embarrassed, any more than anyone else should be about their sex lives.’ And it worked. If anything, he was more popular afterwards.

I’m not saying that Donald Trump has Nazi-themed sex orgies, or anything like it. But there’s a certain game that somehow attaches to politics more than other endeavors. It’s a cycle of mistake-scandal-contrition-forgiveness that all politicians, when they say or do something embarrassing, are supposed to engage in. When Donald Trump says he rejects political correctness, he’s saying that he’s not playing. He’s unashamed.

Look at Facebook. If your Facebook newsfeed is like mine, it includes dozens, hundreds even, of politically-themed memes. And a lot of them show some prominent political figure, and a quotation of something offensive they said on some subject or other. And we’re supposed to recoil in horror. We’re supposed to take that particular quotation as indicative of the program or platform or personality of that political figure. We’re supposed to conclude that anyone who could say something like that must be either a monster or a moron. Certainly, having said that awful thing disqualifies him or her for public office.

Well, Trump’s not having it. He’s not playing that game. He’s not apologizing. He’s running for President because he thinks America’s on the wrong path. He wants to ‘make America great again.’ And a lot of people agree with him, and love how unabashed he is about it. And one of the things they like about him is that he’s not acting like a politician, carefully parsing every statement and focus-group-testing every stance. I get it; I get why he’s popular.

We all say dumb things all the time. And our mistakes don’t define us. We all have blind spots and we all have cockamamie ideas and we all have irrational and foolish prejudices. Trump just doesn’t apologize for his. Part of his personality is that he says rude things about people sometimes. Part of his personality is that he brags all the time about how great he is. That’s who he is; that’s the package. If you don’t like it, vote for someone else.

And that humiliating search for ‘gotcha’ quotations and past policy preferences, and the perceived necessity of groveling before the media when you get caught; it really does seem demeaning and unnecessary and self-righteous. That’s what Trump’s not interested in. He won’t apologize and he won’t back down. And that’s what he means by rejecting ‘political correctness.’ It is, I’ll admit, kind of refreshing.

(There’s still zero chance I’m going to vote for him. He’s just wrong on too many issues. But I am starting to get his appeal.)

Rain: Book review

Cynthia Barnett’s Rain: A Natural and Cultural History is an absolute miracle of a book, a meditation on a subject everyone absolutely takes for granted, which also happens to be a phenomenon without which there could not exist life on this planet. It’s also superbly researched, and written with a poet’s eye and gift for language. It’s one of those books you want to read slowly, so as to savor every paragraph and sentence. I finished it last night, and set it aside with a palpable feeling of regret, though of course, I can always read it again.

My son gave it to me for Fathers’ Day; said he saw it in a bookstore, was intrigued by the title, read the first three pages, and found himself hooked. I had the same experience. I wish I could guarantee that you will too. But it is a book about rain. If that idea turns you off. . . .

But start with this thought: there was life on Mars, and water. What Mars did not have was rain, and Mars remains today a lifeless rock. Are you fascinated by science, and especially by that most baffling of all currently unanswered scientific questions; why does life exist on earth? That’s one of the question this book addresses.

Or another: what is the connection between grunge rock and roll and the fact that Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Kris Novoselic are from, not Seattle, but Aberdeen Washington? Seattle is a city known for its rainy days and nights, but Aberdeen, a few miles further inland, is a good deal rainier. Listen to early Nirvana. Have you noticed the rain-dripping sound of Novoselic’s bass? What about The Smiths? Johnny Marr and Morrissey are from Manchester, the rainiest city in the famously rainy British Isles. Is it any wonder that the Smiths’ sound is so, well, gloomy? Is there a connection between the sunniness of certain bands’ popular music and the cities in which its members grew up? Or, in case of Nirvana and the Smiths, the raininess of their cities of origin? That’s another issue Barnett’s book raises, explores, discusses.

Or how does rain make itself manifest thematically? What poets have written particularly rain-intensive poems, what novelists have featured it, what painters have employed rain as a motif? What is the general history of rain in high and popular culture?

All right, how about this? What is the history of drought-busting rainmakers? What charlatans went about trying to make it rain? What have actual scientists done to bring rain to drought-stricken areas? What ideas have worked? Which ones have not? All questions carefully and thoughtfully explored by Barnett.

And, terrifyingly, what about environmental catastrophe? What is the history of acid rain, and how was it ended? What can be done today about various kinds of toxic rainfall? And, of course, what about global warming, climate change, the environmental crisis in which we currently find ourselves? What’s going on, what is the state of current research, what can be done, what are people trying to do? A fascinating subject, is it not? And an important one?

Buy it. Read it. Slowly, so as to savor its every detail. This is a wonderful book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.