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Saturday, November 19, 2016

The election as gender war: Was Clinton Aunt Polly?

I am admittedly a pessimist (or a realist) but as I ponder the choice of Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor, a man who doesn't even have to be confirmed by Congress, I imagine World War III must be the goal, or at least an all-out Samuel Huntington style "clash of civilizations" war against Islam--and given more than a billion Muslims, how is that not a world war? I saw in The New York Times that Flynn thinks Islam (not radical Islam but Islam itself) is a "malignant cancer," calls Islamic militancy a "global" and "existential" threat, and argues that Islam is an "ideology" not a religion. I frankly don't think it's overreacting to be worried.

I wondered: what could be worse than what Bush II managed? He gifted us with a disastrous war in Iraq and global economic meltdown.  How could it get worse? Now that Bush and his cronies are starting to look like moderate centrists, how could Trump top him? What's left? 

It came to me: World War III. These guys are so testosterone laden you know that if they get us into a war, they're going to lob nuclear bombs: let's just hope it's limited.

Let's hope they don't blow us back to the stone age. What do you think? Odds? The fun ends for them too when that happens, so maybe we have hope ...

In yoga class, we woman discussed all the young men we know either in the army, or with strong army "buds," who voted for Trump. I thought of my son's friend from Olney Friends School, Yuxi, who joined the army to gain US citizenship (ironic, as he is the graduate of a Quaker school) and came to visit us this spring. He said everyone but everyone on his army base was crazy for Trump, so he too was going to vote for Trump too. My nephew in the National Guard, normally a highly sane person, was all Trump all the time. My Quaker yoga teacher's Quaker raised son was all set to vote Trump under the influence of his oil rig buddies: it's not clear, however, that he was registered to vote. And the stories go on. 

My epiphany hit, naturally a sudden bolt of revelation. The election, I realized, was the ultimate gender battle. The mommy/school marm archetype who wasn't going to let the boys play with guns, or have any fun, faced off against the chest-banging savage (apologies to savages everywhere) who was all about "c'mon guys, let's hunt us some Orc!!"

It's come clear: anybody but "Aunt Polly" Clinton would have stood a chance (except maybe Elizabeth Warren). An All-American Tom Sawyer drama played out, only this one with far, far more insidious overtones.

We should--we really should--have run Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden. As a woman who would have loved to see a woman elected, I hate to say that.

But we really weren't ready for a woman president. The guys wouldn't have it. Nor would many of the gals. She's "coming for our guns" had a deeper resonance that we knew. She might make us do our homework too. 

"Aunt Polly" Clinton. I voted for her, but it wasn't going to happen.

The men voted for someone in the John Elredge mode, whose publisher described his book Wild at Heart as follows:

"A formidable answer to an age-old question: How can a man make himself tolerable and useful while accepting and expressing his primordial maleness--the searching and aggressive urges to conquer what needs subduing, protect the vulnerable, fix what is broken, compete and risk what demands to be risked in himself and the world? The author’s message is set in the Christian tradition without being controlled by its ideology. Eldredge believes that institutions can oppress a man’s heart and keep society from benefiting from his fierce desire to love, do good, fight evil, and go beyond the limits."

 Trump clearly appealed to that.

He signaled he'd take care of her.
Of course, as Christianity Today put it, 

"Far from revealing the vigor of the Almighty, Eldredge removes it… . Eldredge has employed the reverse of John the Baptist's axiom: In order for men to increase, God must decrease."

But plenty of evangelicals voted for Trump.

So now we are faced with the possibility of World War III. 

When I saw Trump at the rally held at Ohio University Eastern  over the summer, he did ramble on at length about it being weak and foolish not to water board and torture prisoners because the terrorists "put people in cages and burn them alive." What's a little water boarding to that? Now that he's in power, he's doing what he said or at least putting in people who are of that mindset.

I want to believe there's going to be a good outcome to all this. I remember after 9/11, when I had to face, sadly, that it was the work of Middle Eastern terrorists, that we'd have to lob a few bombs on someone, probably Afghanistan. I comforted myself that we would drop a few bombs and go home, having made our statement.

How wrong I was. So now I fear my own optimism: Maybe we won't have a major war.

But, on the other hand, I do believe in miracles and if there ever were a moment ... . What do you think? 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Wendell Berry: Solace

As I move from numbed to grieved, this poem, sent by by good cyber-friend Elaine Pigeon, offers solace. The photos show my home:

  by Wendell Berry

"Yes, though hope is our duty,
let us live a while without it
to show ourselves we can.
Let us see that, without hope,
we still are well. Let hopelessness
shrink us to our proper size.
Without it we are half as large
as yesterday, and the world 
is twice as large. My small
place grows immense as I walk
upon it without hope.
Our springtime rue anemones
as I walk among them, hoping
not even to live, are beautiful
as Eden, and I their kinsman
am immortal in their moment.

"as beautiful as Eden, and I their kinsman am immortal in their moment."

Out of charity let us pray
for the great ones of politics
and war, the intellectuals,
scientists, and advisors,
the golden industrialists,
the CEOs, that they too
may wake to a day without hope
that in their smallness they
may know the greatness of Earth
and Heaven by which they so far
live, that they may see
themselves in their enemies,
and from their great wants fallen
know the small immortal
joys of beasts and birds."

HT: Elaine Pigeon

 "the small immortal joy of beasts"

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Election yesterday: the bell tolls

I thought I would wake up this morning to metaphoric happy bells ringing in our first female President.

I thought my greatest worries would be Clinton staying on a progressive and peaceful path.

Completely wrong.

The near-term future is uncertain.

I am expecting the worst and hoping for the best.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Election tomorrow

Tomorrow, thank God, is election day in the most stunning Presidential election in living memory and perhaps in the history of our country. The news of the first major-party nomination of a woman presidential candidate, remarkable in itself, has been utterly overshadowed by her opponent, the U.S.'s first brush with an unfettered demagogue contemptuous of U.S. democratic law and norms, mocker of the disabled, women, minorities, prisoners of war and fallen soldiers, coming within a hair's-breadth of power. Adding to the spectacle and the terror,  Brexit occurred in the midst of this, harbinger of the real possibility that the unthinkable could occur here too in a world where the average citizen has been effectively disenfranchised for far too long and may lash out with the wrecking ball at hand.

We face tomorrow hopeful but with the knowledge it could go either way. If the election goes the way I hope, in which a moderate, center-left lawyer, former senator and former Secretary of State wins the prize, I believe we should do the following:

First, take a moment to celebrate. This will be a victory. The apocalypse will have been thwarted. Instead of living in constant dread, we ought to have at least moment of high spirits before we get back to work. Yes, the monster is still there and Clinton will be ruthlessly opposed, but yet she will have power: the power of executive appointments, the power of the Presidential pulpit, the power to set the tone in the executive branch, the power in hundreds of subtle way to influence federal departments to head in directions that are pro-people. She will have the power to propose a budget and a legislative agenda. And if the worst happens and she can't get a Supreme Court nominee through, at least her presence will have blocked whatever the Republicans would have put forth.

Second, fight back against the rhetoric that government is fundamentally bad, fundamentally evil, inherently some hybrid of the "beast" in Revelation and Stalinist "socialism." Every time I go past the poster on the Young Republican bulletin board at a college where I teach, I feel a rise of anger at the poster that reads "Taxation is Theft," (a "gotcha" variation on the old socialist slogan "property is theft") not simply because I disagree (I do disagree, but can tolerate disagreement) but because it seems to me an unchallenged lie: in fact, not paying taxes is theft of the worst sort, theft from your country. We need to fight back against the notion that "government is the problem." In fact, to sober minds, sound government is a good and a gift.

In that vein, I like a wording, that could become a slogan, that I have been hearing more: whenever basic government spending is attacked, such as on education, roads, libraries, health care, as "socialism," people are saying: "It's civilization, not socialism."

Government spending long predates socialism.
"Government spending is civilization not socialism."
It is what civilized nations do.

After celebrating an election (I hope) and standing up for government as civilization, the third step will be keeping our eyes open.

First, we know the crazed elements in this country will not stop their ruthless, relentless campaign to undermine all progress. Moreover, we know that probably about 40% of voters will vote for Trump. He may go away, but, sadly, we have to expect another demagogue to follow.  The election has laid bare to what extent Trump is nothing new: he is a type well-known to Europeans, well understood by great writers. There's a surfeit of parallels, a huge body of literature to describe a person like him. We have been fortunate so far in this country not to have let his likes grab ultimate power, but his type is out there. The next one is likely to learn from Trump's mistakes and successes and thus be even more dangerous.

Second, as I think about the parallels between Clinton and Jane Austen's Fanny Price, while we sympathize with their sufferings, their intelligence, the way they both succeed because of what they learn from the unfairness and cruelty with which they have been treated in their privileged spheres, we don't, in either case, know the end of the story. Will Fanny and Clinton, even with hearts in the right place,  ameliorate and challenge the worst effects of the system or reinforce the system? That's the open question: we will need to keep the pressure on Clinton so that she stays true, as far as she can, to her progressive promises.

Perhaps in two days we will wake up and this blog will be so much dust in the wind. In the meantime, I remain optimistic.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Denial: Facts are ethical

Roger and I recently saw Denial, the story of holocaust denier David Irving's libel lawsuit against scholar Deborah E. Lipstadt. The movie is worth noting for its ethical core.

Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt

Admittedly, there's much to annoy about this movie. Lipstadt's role is not well-scripted, so she comes across as an emotional child-woman (an image reinforced by what was apparently meant to be a 1990s-style permed bob cut but looks more like the wayward curls of a Shirley Temple). As a child-woman and an overly-emotional American, she has to be reined in and schooled by the wiser and more reasoned British (mostly) men on her legal team. The brilliant and morally perfect, as well as avuncular English barrister, Richard Rampton, played by Tom Wilkinson, particularly brings her to gentle heel. While she is not ritually humiliated, for which I give the movie credit, the contrition of her apology once she sees the folly of her ways has an unsettling note of abjection.  

Wilkinson as Rampton gathers the facts at Auschwitz while Lipstadt emotes. Yes the gender stereotypes grate.

In a better movie, we would feel Deborah's outrage and pain at her legal team's strategy. If the movie had been more successful, we as an audience would initially feel she should be able to say her piece in court rather than be muzzled. We would feel that she should, as she would like to do but is forbidden, be able to bring forward Holocaust survivors to prove that Irving is wrong.

In a better movie, the legal team's visit to Auschwitz would pack the emotional punch the filmmakers clearly intended and reinforce our sense that Lipstadt is justified in her righteous anger. Yet it falls flat. That's too bad, because having visited a concentration camp myself (Sachenhausen) I know what a deeply sobering impact such a place can have.

What does work is the film's moral core. There's never any question that Lipstadt is right and Irving wrong, that the Holocaust happened and that denying it is the worst kind of canard. The film makes a convincing, one might even say passionate, ethical case for the use of reason and strategy: winning over evil is far more important than expressing our righteous anger, blasting the truth out or indulging our outrage that a pernicious lie is being treated seriously in a court of law. What matters is winning, not for winning's sake or ego gratification, but so that the lie is smashed, such that that next time it rears up it becomes all the more difficult to tell the lie with any credibility.

The movie shows that to win--to crush the lie of David Irving--it's important to marshall facts, to do hard work and careful research, to keep our emotions, no matter how justified, in check and under control. It is heartening to see in England, at least in this case, a legal system that works, where truth wins and competence matters--and the film shows how important that is. 

Timothy Spall as David Irving. He's shot as a flaccid creep.

The focus on fact seems important to emphasize because we live in a world awash in emotionalism, so much so that one of our Presidential candidates seems to have no control over his twitching, twittering fingers,  a world where personality and "identity" shout down sober reality. As Christoper Hedges put in Truthdig ("American Irrationalism," Nov. 1, 2016):

"Political, intellectual and cultural discourse has been replaced with spectacle. Emotionalism and sensationalism are prized over truth." 

Agreed. While the alt-right or the Neo-Nazis might hope to reduce the holocaust's truth to whatever side can act more aggrieved, be more snide or derisive, or shout louder, to win because their "narrative"  gains "traction" in cyberspace, in fact, the movie says,  documenting the truth is how we defeat evil.

That may be an old-fashioned worldview, but it also the foundation of scholarship--that the careful compilation of verifiable facts matters--and truth is the foundation of democracy. It's also the foundation of the good life: we cannot prosper if we rush into wars or economic policies that are based on blatant fantasies.

The movie also does a good job of exposing Irving for the mocking racist, misogynist and anti-Semite he is. I was startled at his similarities to Trump in what were restagings of speeches he gave. He was also remarkably like Trump in his inability to live in reality: he immediately "spun" his resounding defeat in court as a victory. Well, why not, if facts don't count?

While I value emotion, I long for a society in which its importance is subordinated to truth.  Denial, though a flawed film, provides a decent template for how we can achieve that. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Life Imitates Art: Hillary Clinton as Fanny Price

I saw Michael Moore in Trumpland last night and thought about Jane Austen.

Moore's one-man filmed show was an appreciation of Hillary Clinton, and by extension, all women. Moore showed more charisma than I have seen before by speaking with passion and conviction, and he managed to get beyond his worst flaw (and no doubt what has made him a "safe" liberal icon), the tendency to mourn what has already passed ... This film, instead, looks with hope to the future. 

I found an Austenian quality in the way he empathized with the underdog. He imagined how it might feel to be Hillary Clinton, human being, and in doing, he, to my mind, evoked Clinton as Fanny Price. While Moore never mentions Austen or Fanny, he shows us a Clinton who, if she has not suffered the pains of tyranny (and perhaps she has, giving up her last name and chased back as First Lady to the tea parties), and neglect, has been ridiculed, scorned, and misunderstood, and he casts shame too on her mockers, doing it all, ala Austen, in a comic vein. 

Fanny Price is the poor relation, the person who enters the Great House (White House?) the wrong way, through a none-too-charitable charity. She is Sonya in War and Peace, another poor relation, but unlike Sonya in the later novel, Fanny comes to us with a full interiority: Austen, in fact, tells the story of Mansfield Park from this minor character's point of view. 

To the Bertrams, the wealthy heirs of Mansfield Park, and Aunt Norris, Fanny registers as little more than the secretive creepmouse of Mrs. Norris's fancy. One of Mrs. Norris's descriptions of Fanny has more than an echo of criticisms often flung at Clinton:

she certainly has ... a spirit of secrecy, and independence .... about her, which I would advise her to get the better of. 
Having suffered "the pains of tyranny, of ridicule and neglect" is it any wonder that Fanny--or Clinton--might become secretive and self-protective?

Moore's Clinton has suffered the humiliation of having her health care proposals rejected and scorned, even as they would have, in his estimation, saved a million lives during the past 20 years. While she has worked tirelessly for women, children and the downtrodden, she has been attacked as a murderer (she has, Moore says, 46 murders to her name, according to conspiracy websites: that's the kick-ass woman I want as Commander-in-Chief, Moore declares to laughter); in addition, she has had her accomplishments, second perhaps only to FDR's in the run-up to a presidency, belittled and scorned, and this most scrutinized and almost squeaky clean woman has been called "liar" and "crooked" by perhaps the biggest serial liar(s) ever to run for president. One cannot help but think of Fanny, always doing for others, yet labeled mercilessly by Mrs. Norris as selfish and thoughtless.

Moore, like Austen, shows us a human being behind a type, be it a powerful woman or a poor relation, who is often seen as not quite human. (Sonya's treatment in War and Peace, and this from the "good" Mrs. Rostov, underscores the grim life of the poor relation.)

In Moore's telling, Clinton has been waiting and remembering ... always remembering ... and biding her time, playing the long game. This too is Fanny Price. We see Fanny in her room without a fire (denied by Mrs. Norris, and bringing to mind, in one of her letters, Austen's delight at a fire in the library at Godmersham) amid the cheap cast offs and kitsch her cousins have carelessly given her: visceral memories of her treatment. She nevertheless builds a life for herself, as Clinton has.

Fanny triumphs because her suffering has built character. She has learned to be strong, to think of others, to understand that the world does not revolve around her, that she is not entitled to even a fire on a cold day. As the spoiled Bertrams and Crawfords implode around her, unable to comprehend that the world is not theirs for the having, Fanny listens, learns and makes herself useful: when the crisis comes she is indispensable because she has an ethical core. As the spoiled, entitled Donald Trump implodes, Clinton's strength becomes all the more apparent, and she too becomes our indispensable center. We have no one else to turn to: who knew?

Clinton, you may protest, has been much more privileged than Fanny Price, but I would argue their situations are more alike than not: both "lucked into" a move up the class ladder; both function/ed on the peripheries of power (Fanny ended up in the bosom of very wealthy family). Neither Fanny nor Clinton has been considered quite legitimate in their roles (how dare a First Lady presume to escape the rigid confines of garden parties? how dare a poor relation ... dare anything?), and each has experienced privilege far beyond the average person, but also deep and unfair scorn. Both have maintained an ethical outlook through it all.

Fanny wins the prize she wants: Edmund, and a "legitimate" place in the Bertram family through marriage to him, and probably--or so I suspect--becomes mistress of Mansfield Park (Tom, the presumptive heir, is over-determined to die childless one way or another). Clinton is close to her own prize: she doesn't have it yet, but it looks in this instance, like character and competence just might be rewarded.

(As an aside, one of the film's unintentional ironies is that Wilmington, where it's set, is home to a Quaker college, aptly named Wilmington. Much of the audience looked not like the stereotypical ex-factory worker Moore sought, but like college students and faculty.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Life imitates art: what character is Trump, Ryan, Clinton?

With only four weeks left to the most bizarre election in a lifetime, I have been thinking about life imitating art, and specifically what literary characters our political stars resemble. My list so far:

Donald Trump: The Great Gatsby's Tom Buchanan on steroids. Tom is rich, with a string of polo ponies and a lavish brick colonial house in Long Island. He stands on his front porch with a swaggering air of command. He is a master of the universe. The world exists to serve him.

He is also a racist: When we first meet him, he  rants about the "Nordics" being overwhelmed by the "colored" races. He has read Goddard's The Rise of the Colored Empires, a barely veiled reference to a real book by Stoddard,  The Rising Tide of Color against White Supremacy. Nick Carraway, the narrator, dismisses this ideology as pathetic and outdated, but oddly, it never seems to go out of style.

Tom is a moron. In a particularly apt insult, Nick says he reached his high point in life as a football star at Yale.

Tom thinks woman are his for the taking. Whether he or they are married makes no difference. He is also a brute: Daisy characterizes him that way and we witness him "breaking" his mistress Myrtle's nose as blood flows all over. It's not a stretch to imagine him grabbing "pussy."

Tom goes on the offensive as the dominant male when he it penetrates his dim brain that his wife has been having an affair with Gatsby. He strikes hard with words at Gatsby as a non-Nordic and jeeringly suggests that if Daisy and Gatsby get together, interracial marriage will be next. He is a bully who goes for the jugular. Gatsby, an upstart bootlegger, looks like a class act beside him. 

Famously, Tom doesn't care how much wreckage he leaves behind. If little people are destroyed, what difference: he can always retreat into his vast wealth.

Tom lacks self-awareness. He can't, for instance, understand why Nick, who he likes and respects as a college friend and member of his "Nordic" class, might despise him. 

My students often direct their ire at Daisy, calling her a "spoiled brat." But Fitzgerald points us to that buzzkill Tom as the villain of the piece. Sadly, Tom Buchanans remain with us and run for President.

I probably dislike Paul Ryan even more intensely than Trump, who, in the Hitler mode, is at least honest. (I think of the line in Wiesel's Night when a Jewish character in a concentration camp says that Hitler is the only one he can trust, because he is the only one who hasn't lied to the Jews.)  I can't read a statement by or look at a picture of the wide-eyed opportunist Paul Ryan  without thinking of the repulsive little boy in Jane Eyre who understand the rewards of hypocrisy. Mr. Brocklehurst, overseer of the harsh Lowood School where Jane is sent, says to her:
  I have a little boy, younger than you, who knows six Psalms by heart: and when you ask him which he would rather have, a gingerbread-nut to eat or a verse of a Psalm to learn, he says: ‘Oh! the verse of a Psalm! angels sing Psalms;’ says he, ‘I wish to be a little angel here below;’ he then gets two nuts in recompense for his infant piety.

As for Mr Brocklehurst, one of the most repulsive characters in literature: he is Ted Cruz. Let's mouth Christian pieties while inflicting suffering on others and living in comfort ourself. It's good for other people to freeze and starve: it motivates them and builds character.

As I watched Hillary Clinton in the last debate, stalked by Trump and enduring every insult hurled at her, I couldn't help but think of Cersei's walk of shame in Game of Thrones. Clinton might as well have been stripped naked and pelted with rotten tomatoes. Will the ritual humiliation she has been forced to undergo allow the public to accept her as president? 

Cersei is now queen, though at the price of being, like Lady Macbeth "unsexed:" the dudes who write the show naturally blame her for her son's suicide and she is left without a child to make her acceptable to the male mind. While I condemn the violence she inflicts (though I hardly blame her for her son’s death), she is a woman who takes matters in her own hands, who, in Clinton's words, "dares to compete." Cersei, without motherhood, probably will fare badly on the throne, and after all, no strong woman in that series can go unpunished. What of Clinton: will having a daughter and grandchildren and a husband save her? Or will she too have to go down?

What other characters do our political players bring to mind?