Look. You can’t go by me. All last summer I thought the Donald would fade over the course of the fall as the primaries drew closer and voters started paying serious attention. And I didn’t think it would be because he’d finally go too far and people would turn away from him in disgust. I thought he’d start boring people the way he bored me. Shows you what I know. Still…
I think Trump has a great, glaring weakness.
Ok. He has many. But so far they’ve been difficult to exploit. But there’s one I’m counting on to do him some serious damage.
I’m not talking about himself as a racist demagogue hurting himself and his campaign with his abhorrent political views or his appalling lack of shame and sense of responsibility or his shocking ignorance or his gobsmacking dishonesty or his general depravity.
Obviously and depressingly, none of that has hurt him. At least not as much as it should have.
I’m talking about himself as his own favorite audience.
Trump is a clown. That’s one of his strengths and talents. For a good part of this presidential election season, folks on Liberal Twitter and what’s left of the liberal blogosphere cracked themselves up calling the Republican field of candidates the clown car. The joke---as if I need to explain it---was in there being so many of them it seemed they just kept tumbling into the political ring like clowns out of a tiny car in a circus ring with the not the least bit subtle implication that the candidates were clowns and the GOP primaries a circus. And most of those candidates were clowns. Unwitting fools bumbling about the campaign trail, inadvertently getting in their own and each other’s way, taking metaphorical pies in the face and squirts of water from the flowers in their own buttonholes, making themselves laughingstocks in the eyes of voters, and one after the other pratfalling off the stage. Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, clowns one and all. Jeb Bush wasn’t a clown, but in that company he couldn’t help appearing just as clownish. Of course he had help there. From the chief clown.
But Trump was a different sort of clown. He was the clown who saw the joke and was able to sidestep the banana peels while getting the clowns in line behind him to step right on it and slip and fall on their behinds with loud honking of car horns and waa waa waa-ing from the trombones in the band and then look straight at the audience and lead them in the laughter.
Trump is a clown by design and with purpose. He clowns to show he’s in on the joke and to make a joke of the whole process. He clowns to bait his opponents into making fools of themselves in response. He clowns to distract the media from what he’s really up to, knowing they’ll report on the success of the act and not what he’s actually saying. He clowns to show he’s not taking himself or the election or politics seriously, which is, of course, just what the media want to hear because it’s what they believe, that it’s not a serious business, that nothing important’s at stake, that all politicians who aren’t knaves are fools and most of them are both so there’s no need to waste time on the work necessary to understand policy, they can sit back and enjoy writing about how they’re enjoying the show. He clowns to let his fans know that none of it matters, that it’s all fun and games, that he’s letting them in on the joke, that they’re right to be cynical and distrusting of the supposedly smart and successful people who run the show and make them feel like fools and suckers in the process, that’s he’s making those supposedly smart and successful people look like the real fools and suckers.
He clowns because he’s good at it and it works.
The history of American politics is rife with examples of successful politicians who clowned their way into and through office. Huey Long being a prime example. Prohibition-era Chicago mayor Big Bill Thompson being another. Thompson, about as corrupt as a corrupt pol can be, once staged a “debate” with a pair of caged rats he named after two of his political rivals. Even some good guys have been clowns or had a touch of the clown about them. Fiorello LaGuardia, for example. For that matter, FDR wasn’t above a bit of clowning when the mischief got in him and he felt the situation called for it. Bill Clinton could do it too. Politics is a performance art. Good leaders have to entertain and amuse as well as engage and inspire. Trump entertains and amuses as a means of engaging and inspiring by clowning. Of course, what he inspires is anger, resentment, envy, and hate. But that doesn’t change the fact that his clowning has been a key to his success.
His weakness isn’t that he’s a clown.
His weakness is he’s a self-infatuated clown.
He loves his own act. He can’t get enough of himself. And he loves that other people love the act too. He loves the laughter and applause because they confirm him in his own high self-regard. So he can’t resist playing to his audience, repeating the same jokes and patter over and over in order to elicit the same laughter and applause. The only way he can bring himself to vary the act is by trying to top himself. He has to take things further and farther, piling up the laughs, getting the crowd roaring, bringing down the house. But in the end all he’s doing is repeating the same tried and true shtick to an audience who’s already proved they can’t get enough of the same old same old.. And he’s happy with that. He’s glad to stop there. He doesn’t take the risks necessary to winning over new fans. All he dares do is try to make his current fans laugh longer and clap louder.
This means he’s limiting his appeal to people who are already committed to voting for him and to other Republicans who are coming around because, after all, that’s all he is in political reality---just another Republican.
Many people getting a kick out of how Elizabeth Warren’s been needling him on Twitter think she’s doing a good job of getting under his skin. I’m not so sure. And I’m not sure getting under his skin is the object. From what I’ve seen of their exchanges, I think what she’s been doing is goading him into repeating himself. He thinks he’s getting the better of her. His fans agree. They’re laughing and clapping and cheering and crying for more. And he’s giving it to them. He can’t help himself.
This means he can’t make the presidential pivot.
The political press has been expecting him to make the pivot. They’ve been predicting he’ll make it any time now. They’re not so secretly begging him to make it. They need him to start acting and sounding like a “normal” Republican candidate for President---and keep in mind the political press still believes the GOP is the party of responsible, grown-up moderates and a “normal” Republican is a center-rightists whose only real concern is keeping rich people’s taxes low, as if that’s not such a bad thing---they need him to act and sound “presidential” in order to give them an excuse to cover him as if he is. Sure, they love the clown act because it’s ratings and clickbaiting gold. But they also know it’s offensive, despicable, and disgusting and may cost him the election. I don’t think the press on the whole wants him to win. What they want is for him not to blow it too soon. They want it to be a horserace to the very end. They don’t want him falling down at the first turn. They want to be able to cover the campaign in a way that allows them to treat both him and Hillary as the same. They want to be able to criticize her without it looking trivial and fatuous in comparison to all the things they should be criticizing him for.
“Donald Trump insults and tries to bully the governor of New Mexico, but Clinton mishandled those emails!”
But that’s what he did. He went to New Mexico and insulted Susana Martinez, the first Latina governor in the United States, a Republican, who in a better world, the one the press corps imagines they’re living in, where actual moderate grown-ups run the GOP, wouldn’t just be on the short-list for Vice-President, she’d be making up her own short-list.
Imagine that. There’s an alternative universe in which both parties are running a smart, highly competent, responsible, grown-up woman for president.
But back here on Earth-One…
The “presidential” thing would have been to do what he could to have Martinez up on the stage with him. The “presidential” thing to do would not have given Hispanics even more reason to turn out to vote against him. The “presidential” thing to do would have been to at least keep his mouth shut about her. But that’s not the Donald thing to do.
The Donald thing is to clown. He gets up there and in her own state belittles her. He insults every woman and Hispanic while he’s at it. For good measure, he repeats his Pocahontas line about Elizabeth Warren---in a state with one of the largest Native American populations in the country. He couldn’t stop himself. He knew his fans would love it and that he would love their loving it. And they did, and he did.
But it’s costing him and it will cost him. His fans love it and rally around. But he’s already got their votes. The people whose votes he doesn’t have, though, will become even more determined not to let him have them. So far it appears the latter outnumber the former by just enough.
I think the latter will grown while the former will stay about the same.
I’m not predicting anything. Like I said up top. You can’t go by me. This is just what I think, and probably it’s more just what I hope.
The race will likely be too close for comfort. (The media will do what they can to make it seem even closer.) Some decent and principled Republicans will defect or at least stay home, but most, the great majority will vote for him, no matter how they feel, because he’s the Republican nominee, just the same as I believe we Democrats would vote for our own lunatic, malevolent clown if we happened to lose our collective mind and nominate one. It’s the case with all partisans: Our lunatic, malevolent clown is better than your lunatic, malevolent clown. It’s the case at the present moment that no lunatic, malevolent clowns are likely to get anywhere as a Democrat (Which may explain why Trump the one-time Democrat is running as a Republican. Before he’s anything, the Donald’s an opportunist and his best opportunity was to run as a lunatic, malevolent clown in a party that’s chock full of them and seems unable to get enough of them.) and even if one popped up and did, he or she could be stopped. That’s another reason we have superdelegates, folks.
But if one did and couldn’t be stopped, human beings being what they are, it wouldn’t be long before we started seeing him or her as not as much the clown as we first thought. In fact, not really a clown or a lunatic or malevolent at all. At least not in comparison to their clown.
We have a tendency to like in our friends and champions what we despise in our enemies and foes. And that’s what’s happening with the majority of Republicans. They’re learning to love clown act.
So Republicans will vote Republican. Democrats will vote Democrats. “Independents” who usually vote Democratic will do it again, just as the “Independents” who usually vote Republican will vote that way again. There’ll be some cross-over both ways. There always is. Probably nowhere near enough to matter. And the election will come down to which side does the better job of getting their vote out, with maybe the “undecideds” making the difference. The undecideds being people who don’t have any idea what it takes to be president of the United States and may not realize that being a lunatic, malevolent clown is a serious disqualification or that that’s what Donald Trump is; people who think it doesn’t matter who’s president, they’re all clowns, so why not vote for the funniest one; and people who have an idea of what makes a good president that doesn’t match up with the idea most Americans have or even think that being a lunatic, malevolent clown is a necessary part of the job description. We’ll find out soon enough.
In the meantime, the clown show will go on. There’ll be more Whitewater and Monica. More taunting and bullying of recalcitrant Republican politicians and journalists who r.efuse to dance to his tune. More juvenile name-calling. More stupid nicknaming. More displays of a grade-school playground level of wit. More lying. More shamelessness. More irresponsibility.
More sexism. More racism. More bigotry. More anger. More hate. All played for cheap laughs from easy applause.
The “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History”, founded in his bedroom by eight-year old Theodore Roosevelt, got off to a shaky start:
While other children might have been content with a small collection of seashells or some neatly pressed flowers, Roosevelt’s collection included some truly grotesque finds. When he acquired a live snapping turtle---an aggressive pond-dweller covered in algae and decorated with a gruesome frill of leeches---the entire household rebelled.
Jostled by the swarms of fashionable shoppers, the boy continued along Broadway, glancing through the storefront windows, until he passed a familiar grocery, where something caught his eye. Amid the usual cartons of fruits and vegetables was an object strangely out of place, splayed out on a slab of wood. It was the dull mass of a seal, dead less than a day. Placed on display to attract paying customers, its corpulent body drew the child’s attention.
Sliding his hand along the seal’s glossy-smooth pelt and peering deeply into its clouding eyes, he was overwhelmed with interest. Its eyes were so big, and they were fringed with delicate eyelashes just like his own. Curious onlookers stood back, only a brave few leaning in for a closer look, but the little boy remained transfixed. It was probably a harbor seal, still fairly common in New York Harbor. So transfixed was the boy by this exotic creature that he raced home for a notebook and ruler, returning moments later to measure the carcass and jot down a few notes on its color and appearance. The eight-year-old boy then wrote a detailed natural history of seals based entirely on that one dead animal.
A Whipple Cast and Wrought Iron Bowstring Truss Bridge crossing a section of the old Erie Canal Vischer Ferry, New York. Monday morning. May 16, 2016.
Picking up from my post from earlier, another odd thing about what I remember about that passage from Player Piano that isn’t actually there for me to remember. Beside the fact that it isn’t there for me to remember. I remember it as containing a detailed enough description of local geography that I could tell right off that Vonnegut had reversed the map and put General Forge and Foundry on the opposite side of the river from where General Electric’s located and that his line of commuters were crossing the bridge from the east instead of the west, which of course is what the line of cars I passed on my drive out to Alplaus were doing.
Funny how mind and memory work. Like I said in that post, even though I now know that passage is a work of my own imagination and not Vonnegut’s, I still remember it. Not only do I remember it, I can see it. I can picture the words on the page and the page in the book and the book in my hands. Don’t worry, though, I’m not going to write any more about that now.
I’m going to write about how the rest of my morning drive across the river went.
As I mentioned, my high school girlfriend’s house isn’t my destination on these drives. It’s my turning around point. But I don’t head straight back to Mom and Pop Mannion’s, just as I don’t drive straight out there. I take the scenic route both ways. I’m never sure what the scenic route is until I’m on it. I make myself go find it, more or less deciding where to go looking for it with mental coin flips. This morning it was heads north, tails east. Came up tails. I drove east from Alplaus, following the Mohawk on the same side, and found my way to Vischer Ferry, six miles down the river, a self-advertised “Greek Revival Erie Canal Village” that actually dates from about ninety-years before Clinton started digging his ditch. Pretty little town but I continued on through until I came to the A.C. Stevens Nature and Historic Preserve a couple miles down the road, six-hundred acres of woods and wetlands mostly spread out along the banks of the Mohawk but separated from the preserve’s main entrance by a section of what remains of the original Erie Canal.
I didn’t venture far into the preserve. I couldn’t. I'm still that gimpy. But I did manage to hobble a couple hundred yards out and back. Probably the longest walk I’ve taken in two years.
The Audubon Society of the Capital Region’s website has a checklist of the types animals and birds that make the preserve their home or a stopping-off point on their migrations. I wouldn’t have been able to add many check marks if I’d had the list with me. Saw some robins and blue jays. Red-winged blackbirds. Pair of cowbirds on a telephone wire. What could have been a belted kingfisher skimmed the tops of the cattails and reeds out in the canal but it was far out and flew fast and I couldn't be sure. Might have been just another blue jay. Several families of Canada Geese waddled their separate ways through the tall grass along the canal bank and back out by the road. The goslings were in that awkward adolescent phase, still cute but cute in being adorably ugly. They were downy, scrawny, long-necked, stubby-winged. Regularly they’d give their featherless wings a furious flapping, not looking as if they expected to take flight but as if they were mad at the slowness of their development and saying to themselves, “Grow, dammit!” On the underside of their wings I could see actual gooseflesh. The morning was chilly---forty-five degrees---and blustery with thick, low gray clouds. I kept one hand in my pocket but my bare camera hand froze.
To get from the small parking lot into the preserve you have to walk across a short iron truss bridge that a bronze plaque at the foot of the path leading up to it identified as Whipple Bridge. The plaque said it was built by Squire Whipple and I assumed the bridge was named after him. And it was. But not in the sense of Whipple Bridge being a proper name. It’s a product name. It’s not Whipple Bridge. It’s “a” Whipple bridge. Squire Whipple---who was not a squire. Squire was his proper name.---designed and engineered this type of bridge in 1841 specifically to be laid across the canal which was in the process of being enlarged, a project that required the building of hundreds of new bridges. Squire Whipple has a claim to being the first professional bridge builder in the United States. He wrote what would eventually become the book on bridge building. His Cast and Wrought Iron Bowstring Truss Bridges were sturdy, dependable, durable, and relatively cheap and quick to build. Whipple built his first one, paying for its construction out of his own pocket, in Utica, about ninety miles west of here. The plaque says the one in Vischer Ferry was built in 1869 by Whipple himself. Which is not a given. Many Whipple Bridges were not Whipple’s bridges.
Whipple patented his design but that didn’t stop others from copying it. For decades after he built his first bridge, he had to spend a lot of time in court defending his design against patent infringements. He didn’t win every case. Imitators had only to make a few refinements or vary their designs slightly to make a Whipple Bridge into their bridge in the eyes of the courts. Eventually, Whipple gave up. The last straw might have been when the state of New York officially adopted his bridge design as the standard for bridges over the canal, but then stiffed Whipple on the royalties by declaring that since the bridges were being built for “the public good” and not for private profit, the public didn’t owe him any royalties.
I’ve been cribbing from Wikipedia and Wikipedia doesn’t seem to know how many Whipple Bridges were finally built by him and his imitators. Only two are still in use as bridges for vehicular traffic. This isn’t one of them. But apparently none of them, including the two still open to cars and trucks, are in their original location. Another useful feature of Whipple Bridges was that they were portable. The parts were manufactured in pieces small enough that they could be shipped easily to any point they were needed and assembled on the spot without much fuss or bother. Basically, Whipple sold them in kits. Wikipedia doesn’t say if the kits traveled by boat along the canal but I’d guess that would have been the cheapest and most efficient way, not to mention the most appropriate and poetic. This bridge originally stood out in the hamlet of Sprakers in Montgomery County, forty-four miles west of here. In 1919, after forty years of service there, it was taken apart, packed up, moved, and reassembled on a spot ten miles east on Cayudatta Creek in the village of Fonda. In the 1990s, Montgomery County gave it to the town of Clifton Park, which oversees the preserve, and some engineering students from Union College restored it and rebuilt it here.
And that’s about all I have to tell you about Whipple Bridges.
I can tell you a little more about Fonda, New York. Originally it was called by the Iroquois name Caughnawaga. It was renamed shortly after the Revolutionary War in honor of one of the original Dutch settlers, Douw Fonda. Henry, Jane, Peter, Bridget, and all the acting Fondas are descended from Douw Fonda. In 1780 an army of Loyalist troops and their Mohawk allies led by Joseph Brant raided the village. Douw, an old man at the time, was scalped and killed.
It was Uncle Alex who had arranged the lunch. He and Powers Hapgood had been at Harvard together…
Uncle Alex was so conservative politically that I do not think he would have eaten lunch with Hapgood gladly if Hapgood had not been a fellow Harvard Man. Hapgood was then a labor union officer, a vice-president of the local CIO. His wife Mary had been the Socialist party’s candidate for vice-president of the United States again and again.
In fact, the first time I voted in a national election I voted for Norman Thomas and Mary Hapgood, not even knowing that she was an Indianapolis person. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman won. I imagined that I was a socialist. I believed that socialism would be good for the common man. As I private first class in the infantry, I was surely a common man.
Updated Tuesday, May 19, 2016. New posts below, but before scrolling down, please read this:
I'm sorry to be asking again so soon, but we're about tapped out, so...if you like what goes on around here and you can swing it, please consider making a donation. It would be a real help and much appreciated.
Thank you. And thanks to all for reading the blog.
Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) unstuck in time on the planet Tralfamadore in a scene from the movie adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five.
Sometimes it seems I’ve spent my whole life chasing after Kurt Vonnegut.
I mean that metaphorically, as a comment on my so-called life as a writer. Vonnegut was one of the first grown-up influences on my ambitions, my sense of what writers do and how they go about it, the way I looked at life and people, and my prose style.
But I mean it as matter of geographic fact too. I chased him out to Iowa for grad school even though he wasn’t teaching there at the time. He was still the reason I went there. I figured if they’d had Vonnegut teaching there that had to be the place for me. But I’d chased him to Boston before that. That was kind of incidental. I didn’t go to Boston because he was there or had been there. He had been there, briefly. He taught at Harvard. In the prologue to his novel Jailbird, he called his stint at Harvard “undistinguished.” I went to Boston University more than ten years after he gave up the Harvard gig. But at BU, through Leslie Epstein, I met Samuel Shem, the doctor who wrote the wonderfully cynical novel about learning how to doctor, House of God, and Shem was a friend of Mark Vonnegut, Kurt's son the doctor and writer. It was a practically a flip of the coin that sent me to Iowa instead of staying at BU where I’d also been admitted. Leslie himself advised Iowa. I’ve never been sure if it was because he honestly thought the Iowa Writers Workshop was better than his own program or he just wanted to get rid of me. But if I had stayed at BU I might have gotten to know Shem better and through him might have met Doctor Vonnegut and through him...well, you know.
Before Boston, I could have caught up with him on Cape Cod, except at the time when Pop and Mom Mannion were taking us there for family vacations I hadn’t read any of his books. I probably didn’t even know who he was. My favorite living author at the time was Franklin W. Dixon. Sue me. I was a kid. I didn’t know.
By the time I got around to reading Slaughterhouse Five---that is, by the time I was old enough that Mom and Pop Mannion allowed me to read it. What were they going to say? I’d already read M*A*S*HandCatch 22---our family had stopped going to the Cape and so had he. He’d moved to New York City.
But the first place I chased him to, again unwittingly, and again arriving too late, was Schenectady. I say unwittingly because it wasn’t my choice to move to Schenectady. If anyone had listened to me we’d have stayed put in our house in Latham. But Mom and Pop didn’t listen and dragged me with them and the rest of the family to Schenectady in time for me to start first grade. My favorite living authors at that time were Robert McCloskey and Virginia Lee Burton.
Vonnegut worked in public relations at General Electric or, as he disguised it in his fiction, the General Forge and Foundry Company. He disguised Schenectady as Ilium, New York. He worked there at the same time as my grandfather...and tens of thousands of other people. Vonnegut left GE and hightailed it out of Schenectady, headed for Cape Cod, a few years before Pop Mannion started at GE. To insist even harder on that tenuous connection, Vonnegut’s older brother Bernard, the scientist, taught at the University at Albany at the same time as Pop (Pop left GE to start Albany’s computer science program when I was around ten) and they knew each other and chatted regularly. For a short time the computer science department and the department of atmospheric sciences had offices in the same building, which is where I met Bernard myself. Pop introduced us as they were passing the time of day in the hallway. We didn’t talk about his brother.
When Vonnegut worked for GE, he lived in a hamlet across the Mohawk River---disguised as the Iroquois in his novels---from Schenectady called Alplaus. Derived from the Dutch. Aal Plaats. Place of Eels. My first girlfriend lived there and whenever I rode my bike out to visit her I would pause in front of the house I’d been told had been his and stare at it as if I expected a rift to open up in time and I would be able to look through it back thirty years to see him coming down the steps and down the front walk to greet me.
We’re up in Schenectady right now, visiting the old Mannion Homestead, and this morning, in what’s become a routine when we’re here, I took a drive across the river to Alplaus. I don’t drive straight there and my girlfriend’s house isn’t my destination, it’s simply the end point of my tour of the old neighborhood. The old neighborhood is defined by where my high school friends lived and the limits of my range on my bike. Her house was at the western boundary. Nowdays, when I meander my way out there, that’s where I turn around to head back to the Homestead, after pausing to think fondly about that girl and the good old days.
Nostalgia isn’t really the point of the drive, exactly. The city of Schenectady itself isn’t much to look at, but the area surrounding it, shaped topographically and historically by the river and the Erie Canal, is beautiful. Even a short drive will take you up and down hills, on country roads that wind through woods and wide open fields and meadows, past farms and orchards, and into shady neighborhoods of handsome older houses, one-hundred, two-hundred, and some close to three-hundred years old, and, of course, along the river. Alplaus is one of those neighborhoods and it was built along the river. My girlfriend’s house was (still is) a large, late Victorian farmhouse with white clapboards, black shutters, and a porch that wrapped around two sides. You couldn’t see the river from the porch, the houses and trees across the street were in the way, but you probably could get a good look at it from the attic window. I don’t remember ever having been up there though.
The main point of these morning drives is to clear my head and take in the scenery, but I can’t help the onslaught of memories. Just about everywhere I look, lurking in ambush, is a memory from my kidhood and adolescenthood. Not all of them are pleasant. I don’t mind that though. In fact I like it. I like to be reminded of what was and to see what what still is but I also like to see what isn’t and what’s there in its place. I’m not one of those old men who hate to see change because it reminds them of their own impending final change into dust and nothingness. Not yet, at any rate. Not all change is for the better, some of it is decidedly for the worse, but on the whole I tend to like to see things change because generally to see them say the same is really to see another form of change---decay. Change of the kind I like to see, no matter how much of what I used to know and love is left behind, is life continuing itself.
Still, another point of the drive is to trigger memories and revisit the past. Not for mere nostalgia’s sake but for the physical connection. Sight is a sense, seeing is touching. My drives are a way for me to not get in touch with the past but to touch it. The past becomes physically present, and I am physically present in it. That’s a way of saying I feel physically present in time and to myself. I’m connected to the whole of my life, and I feel like I’m still me. Like I am a me.
For instance, on my way out of town, shortly after I set out, I happened to look out the window and glance up a side street that climbed a hill to the middle school. Over the top of the rise I saw the building’s entablature, a sight I’d probably seen hundreds of times when I was growing up. I was jolted out of the present moment and set down in one or all of the moments when I’d looked that way before.
It wasn’t that it was 1966 again or 1976 or 2016. And it wasn’t all those years at once. It was one eternal year full of eternal moments. I think of this a Tralfamadorian way of looking at life and I learned it from Kurt Vonnegut the first time I read Slaughterhouse-Five or, to be Tralfalmadorian about it, I’m learning it now as I am reading Slaughterhouse-Five for the first time again. I’ve always been reading it and I will always be reading it. Like Billy Pilgrim, I’m unstuck in time that way. My drives are deliberate attempts to unstick myself in time.
And that’s what I thought happened when later on the drive today I made my way across the river over to Alplaus. It was rush hour and for several miles I passed the long, slow-moving line of cars full of commuters headed the opposite direction. Once upon a time, just about everybody in one of those cars would have been on their way to work at General Electric, either at the main campus downtown or at the Research Lab and Atomic Power Lab in the suburbs. Some are still on their way to those places but most are aiming for offices and office parks in Albany and its surrounding suburbs. This morning, as I approached the river and saw the line of cars crawling across the bridge and down the hill on the other side I became unstuck in time, not at all to my surprise, but the eternal moment I was thrown back into wasn’t one when I was in a car but the one when I as at home reading Player Piano for the first time and getting a shock of recognition as I read Vonnegut’s description of the novel’s protagonist Dr Paul Proteus’s morning commute to the General Forge and Foundry company. I was remembering vividly how excited and amused I was to see a piece of my world turning up in Vonnegut’s fiction world and how I jumped up from the couch to go looking for Pop Mannion so I could show him that passage.
There was only one thing wrong with that memory.
What I was remembering never happened.
Not like that.
It couldn’t have.
That passage isn’t in the book.
This afternoon, at Barnes and Noble, I grabbed a copy of Player Piano from the shelf and sat down in the cafe to skim through it to find the passage to copy down for blogging purposes and...I couldn’t find it.
Instead I found this:
Ilium, New York is divided into three parts.
In the northwest are the managers and engineers and civil servants and a few professional people; in the northeast are the machines; and in the south, across the Iroquois River, is the area known locally as Homestead, where almost all the people live.
If the bridge across the Iroquois were dynamited, few daily routines would be disturbed. Not many people on either side would have reasons other than curiosity for crossing.
During the war, in hundreds of Iliums over America, managers and engineers learned to get along without their men and women, who went to fight. It was the miracle that won the war---production with almost no manpower. In the patois of the north side of the river, it was the know-how that won the war. Democracy owed its life to know-how.
There’s no description of the morning rush hour in Player Piano because there’s no morning rush hour in the dystopian future where the story’s set. That’s a main theme of the book!
Player Piano is set in a time when most people don't have jobs to rush to in the morning. They've all been put out of work and so rendered without purpose to society and the economy and to themselves by machines.
Not something I needed to be reminded of. It’s not something I have to remember. It’s something I know! It’s something I talk about and routinely write about. It’s something I’m prepared to devote an entire class period to discussing if ever some English department does a foolish thing and let me teach my dream course on Vonnegut, Asimov, Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, and Ursula Le Guin.
So how could I remember a passage in a novel that goes against what I know to be that novel’s plot and theme?
At first I thought the passage must be in there, that what I was remembering was a description of Proteus remembering what life used to be like in Ilium before the war. So I skimmed back through the book two more times.
Then I thought maybe I was misremembering reading it in Player Piano. Maybe I read it in another book. A good part of Slaughterhouse-Five takes place in Ilium. Billy Pilgrim doesn’t work at the General Forge and Foundry Company. He’s an optometrist. But Vonnegut might have had him making that commute. I went to fetch a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five.
It finally occurred to me that what I might have been remembering all these years---it’s a longstanding memory. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t remember it, which, of course, may be a trick of memory itself.---is an early act of mature literary analysis on my part. In reading the book I recognized that something can be made present by its skillfully arranged absence. The rush hour traffic that Paul Proteus didn’t have to put up with implied the rush hour traffic Vonnegut had had to and the rush hour traffic people were still putting up with when I read the book. Somehow I had unconsciously rewritten the actual memory of what Vonnegut had written---or, rather, hadn’t written---and turned it into what I had been inspired to imagine by his writing. I’d turned a real memory into a false one.
I think that’s what happened.
I’ll never know. I’ll never know what sort of memory it is or how it got in there and how come it’s still in there even though I know now it’s a false memory. But there it is. I’m still remembering it and in the same old detail. Yet more evidence that my memories of anything can’t be trusted.
How about that?
There’s only one place left for me to chase Vonnegut to, and since neither of us believe in it, I’m not going to catch up with him there.
I thought I would catch up with him at last when we moved here. He was still living in New York City and we’re not that far from there and get into town regularly. But the bastard died on me before I could track him down.
It’s not that Trump himself’s an ignoramus. Who knows if he is? Who knows what’s inside his head? Who knows what he’s thinking? Who knows if he’s thinking? As far as I can tell, he doesn't think. He reacts. He appears governed entirely by instinct, appetite, reflex, ego, and whim. Decent people keep expecting him to pay a price for being such a monster of vanity but there is no price to pay. He doesn’t have to think. He doesn’t have to know anything. His voters don’t care what he knows. They only care what he’ll do, what they believe he’ll do---make their lives better by telling everybody they blame for their lives being what they are to go to hell. His winning the Republican nomination didn’t depend on him having to know anything besides the fact that all his opponents were cowards and weaklings who couldn’t call him on his lies and challenge him on the issues and facts because they were afraid of offending his voters whom they expected to pick up for themselves when Trump faltered and failed---as they assumed he would. Their own vanity prevented them from seeing themselves as the ones more likely to falter and fail.---and because they were telling many of the same lines except they were more careful to try to sound presidential when they lied. Instead they just sound like typical politicians telling typical lies. And he knew he didn’t have to know anything to bluster his way through debates and interviews because most political journalists don’t know enough themselves to show him up and the ones who do are either afraid of losing him as a interview subject because that would mean losing his audience or they just don’t feel they have the time to pin him down on any one issue and keep him pinned down long enough for them to get him to reveal how little he knows or has thought about the things a president has to know and be always thinking about. Why then should he bother not to be an ignoramus. It’s so much more fun and a much better use of his time to mindlessly tweet away the time between campaign rallies and appearances on the news where he can strut and posture and bloviate to his heart’s content while the suckers cheer and the journalists flatter and fawn.
I don’t know how worthwhile it is to read Krugman on this, except that it’s generally worthwhile to read Krugman on anything. Seems he’s just doing what I’m doing here, venting. He knows no good’s going to come out of it. But it is Krugman. His venting is always smarter, more informed, and better written than most anyone else’s, and even just venting he always has serious points to make:
But before we simply ridicule him — or, actually, at the same time that we’re ridiculing him — let’s ask where his bad ideas really come from…
The important thing to realize, then, is that when Mr. Trump talks nonsense, he’s usually just offering a bombastic version of a position that’s widespread in his party. In fact, it’s remarkable how many ridiculous Trumpisms were previously espoused by Mitt Romney in 2012, from his claim that the true unemployment rate vastly exceeds official figures to his claim that he can bring prosperity by starting a trade war with China.
None of this should be taken as an excuse for Mr. Trump. He really is frighteningly uninformed; worse, he doesn’t appear to know what he doesn’t know. The point, instead, is that his blithe lack of knowledge largely follows from the know-nothing attitudes of the party he now leads.
Then, after the ice had come and gone, swallowing the forests in its passage, the warming climate produced a southerly assortment of plants on the land surface. In vivid contrast to the trees of the peat, there now came sycamores, chestnuts, magnolias, sour gums, cedars and poplars, threading their roots through the till and the remains of their buried predecessors. Such southern species were to survive only as long as the interstadial period lasted, and were themselves to fall with the next ice advance.
Meanwhile, streams developed channels in the tree-shaded landscape. They carved down through the till and carried large quantities of it to the sea. The wave-beaten shores of the mainland also yielded their loose glacial debris. As the sea ate into the land’s soft margins, it sorted the materials of the drift. Large glacial boulders, too heavy for the water to move far, remained near the shore. Most of the friable peat quickly became dust. The rest of the debris was caught up in the turbulent eddies and currents of the shore zone. Drawn into the deeper water, it was segregated, by varying weights, into zones of gravel, sand, silt, and clay. The tiny size of pollen grains linked their fate to that of the equally small grains of clay, and together these drifted to the quiet water where they settled down. A thick bed of clay formed.
--- from These Fragile Outposts:A Geological Look at Cape Cod, Marthas Vineyard, and Nantucket by Barbara Blau Chamberlin.
Posted May 10, 2016. Updated Tuesday afternoon, May 11.
Which side are they on? Team Cap.
Ok. Now on to the important stuff. Captain America: Civil War.
Seems there are people who think Cap is on the wrong side on this one. They're not wrong exactly. Trouble is there isn't a right side.
It’s odd to me that anyone would think the right side is the side that has Thunderbolt Ross as its spokesman, but I think their point is that the Avengers should answer to a democratically elected civilian authority. This is more than just a matter of keeping a group of superpowered vigilantes in check. It’s a way of making them responsible to the people they’ve dedicated themselves to protecting, that is, the People. It lets the People decide when and how they should be protected and gives them the power to protect themselves from their “protectors.” A good democrat (and Democrat) like Cap shouldn’t have a problem with that.
And in principle, he doesn’t.
But Cap is a product of a different time. The civilian authority he answered to during World War II was Franklin Roosevelt’s. We don’t know who’s the President in the MCU. It may be Barack Obama or someone very like him. (Update: See note below.) You have to wonder, though, and worry about the kind of president who’d make Thunderbolt Ross Secretary of State. Doesn’t matter who the president is, however; he or she would always feel like a mere stand-in to Cap. In his heart and even still in his head, Franklin Roosevelt is his president and he’s loyal to FDR. And he didn’t enlist to fight for the United States government anyway. He enlisted to fight on behalf of everyone everywhere being “bullied” by the Nazis.
“Do you want to kill Nazis?”
“I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies.”
That answer’s what convinces Dr Erskine he’s found his super soldier.
But our Captain America-to-be adds something telling to his declaration about bullies.
“I don’t care where they’re from.”
In submitting to the authority of the United Nations, he’d have to care where the bullies are from. The UN would be telling him which bullies he officially disliked and, it follows, which bullies he was to ignore or even treat as fellow good guys.
Then there’s the promise he made to Erskine who asked him the night before he took the serum and became Captain America, which was also the night before Erskine dies:
“Whatever happens tomorrow you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”
Cap recognizes at once that if he accepts the UN’s terms he becomes a member of a peacekeeping force---in other words, a soldier.
Worse. It’s clear from what Ross says about the missing Thor and Bruce Banner, the UN regards the Avengers as weapons.
On top of this, Cap has recently finished working for a government agency. S.H.I.E.L.D. And look how well that turned out.
Now, it’s likely he only signed up with S.H.I.E.L.D because he had no one but Nick Fury to turn when he woke up from his 70 year nap and he needed a job and somewhere to start in getting used to life in the 21st Century, but he was almost certainly drawn to SHIELD because it was founded by Howard Stark, General Philips, and, of course, Peggy Carter. So he wouldn’t have regarded himself as a typical government agent. In his view, he’d have been continuing to do the work for them he’d done during the war.
What this all amounts to is that in his heart Cap has always been answering to his own conscience and principles and subjecting himself to the guidance, counsel, and approval of FDR, Erskine, Stark, Phillips, and Peggy, and Nick Fury.
He’d see signing up with the UN as something of a betrayal of himself and all of them.
Still, he knows he messed up in Nigeria. (I’d have written fucked up, but...language.) He feels guilty for the deaths he takes responsibility for causing and there’s a part of him that doesn’t think it should be his responsibility to take. I mean, he doesn’t think it should have been up to him to decide Wanda was ready to be in the field. This isn’t because he doesn’t want the responsibility of command. It’s because he doesn’t trust himself anymore.
This was one of the themes of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Cap’s growing self-doubt.
Self-doubt bordering on self-loathing.
So he’s torn between following his conscience, even though he’s filled with self-doubt, and answering to the will of the People through their elected representatives, even though he has good reason to suspect those representatives might not think they have to answer to the people who elected them.
Neither choice feels right.
That's Cap's dilemma. He doesn't know what to do. When it gets down to it he can only do the one thing he knows is right.
Try to save his friend.
The other Avengers who join him are doing the same, they're trying to save their friend Cap.
But that's what Nat is doing by siding with Tony, trying to save Cap from himself.
Meanwhile, Tony isn't on the right side either. There is no truly right side for him. If putting Iron Man at the disposal of the government is a matter of principle with him, it’s a new principle. This is the guy who boasted he’d privatized world peace and built Ultron because he decided on his own that it was up to him alone to save the planet. An unexplored irony in Civil War is that it’s Tony not the other Avengers who needs to be reined in, and it’s nice of Cap that he doesn’t bring this up. But even if Tony really has come to believe that about himself, when it gets down to it, he’s not really on the side of the government. He's on the side of assuaging his guilt. Which puts him, as usual, on the side of his own ego and vanity. To his credit, he seems to realize this, and it makes him almost as torn about what’s right as Cap.
His determination to get Cap to join him, though, is really a determination to get the better of Cap for once.
Again, and as always, vanity and ego. Tony’s fatal flaws.
That’s another theme. Tony’s and Cap’s fatal flaws mirror each other’s. Tony’s is his ego. Cap’s, his self-doubt.
Of the other members of Tony's team, only Rhodey is on the side he knows to be right...for him. Cap, Sam, and Rhoadie are the three soldiers. But Cap is a citizen-soldier. Sam is a disillusioned veteran of Iraq. Rhodey's the professional. Subordinating his judgment to that of civilian authority and following orders is right for him. He's being what he is, a good soldier.
Spidey is on the side of his idol, Tony, whom he assumes must be in the right, but what does he know? He's just a kid.
Vision is along to save everybody from themselves, especially Scarlet Witch. And of course Black Panther just wants revenge.
So what you have is a situation in which nobody's truly in the right and nobody is completely in the wrong.
In short, what we're presented with in Civil War is the stuff of tragedy.
The makings of the tragedy have been in the Avengers movies since the beginning of the series when Tony announced “I am Iron Man” and declared himself a superhero before he’d proven himself in fact a real hero.
Presidential update: Ken and Oliver Mannion have pointed out that we do in fact know who the President is in the MCU and I should have remembered. He's an important character in Iron Man 3. I completely forgot one of the best scenes in that movie! His name's President Ellis and he's played by William Sadler, one of my favorite character actors. He's also a recurring character on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. but I don't watch the show which I know is supposed to take place in the same universe as the movies but so far that's been irrelevant to understanding and enjoying the movies.
Update to the update: Longtime blog pal and Mannionville's resident comic book librarian and archivist also reminded me about President Ellis. Gary also corrected me on the spelling of Rhodey.
There’s no way to discuss this without the Democratic presidential campaign coming into it. The word has been embraced by Bernie’ supporters as a battle cry. It’s their Rebel Yell and they let loose with it not just when they charge at Hillary and the “Democratic establishment” but in their attacks on her supporters and any journalists and pundits critical of Bernie. They’ve narrowed the definition of the word to serve partisan and ideological ends which makes their application of it suspect. But so are the Hillary supporters’ attempts to deflect it or refute it. That’s politics. But my object here isn’t strictly political, and Bernie and Hillary don’t appear here as the particular politicians they are but as representative human beings. I’m not going to argue that Hillary isn’t corrupt or try to turn the tables and argue that Bernie’s really the corrupt one---Don’t kid yourself, I could do it. It’s being done by others. But I’m not going to, mainly because I don’t believe it. I don’t think he’s corrupt or at least I don’t think he’s any more corrupt than she is. As far as I’m concerned in this post, they’re both corrupt, because they’re politicians and politics is corrupting, but more because they’re human beings, and to be human is to be corrupted.
I’m a Puritan and this is a Puritan’s post.
Saw a bumper sticker recently, “Billionaires Can't Buy Bernie”, and my first thought was Why would they want to?
What value would they get for the money? He's the junior senator from Vermont. Before he ran for President he had virtually no influence on national politics or policy. He’s spent his Congressional career denying himself the opportunity to acquire influence. It's been more important to him to be a lonely voice of conscience than a mover and shaker within the ranks of the establishment. Which has made him something of a hero if not a saint but it’s left him with nothing to sell that billionaires would want to buy. That should change now. He has influence to spare now, if he makes the most of what he's accomplished over the course of the campaign. More sway within the party. More power in the Senate. More invitations to his make his case on TV and online and in print.
This may attract the attention of a few billionaires.
I’m not saying Bernie is bound to be corrupted. Just that'll he be facing different and greater temptations from here on in. And the temptations won’t only come in the form of money.
That money is corrupting is a given. The given. The larger the payout, the greater the temptation. That's logical and likely, but it's not a certainty that the tempted will always give in to the temptation. All that money flowing into the coffers of politicians in Washington and the state capitals from the rich and powerful is suspicious and worrisome. But the truth is that a thousand dollar donation from a trusted friend can be more corrupting than a ten-thousand dollar one from someone you know wants something less than noble out of you. To the latter you can say, I'll take your money, pal, but don't expect me to do you any favors and then you can consciously and stubbornly stick to your principles. To the friend who seems to be asking nothing of you you can say thank you and have that be the end of it until the day that friend needs a favor. Then your friendship makes you feel obligated to help and the next thing you know you're both indicted.
Bernie is obligated to his donors, even to the ones giving less than $27. But the favor they're asking is for him to do what he's doing anyway. When something comes along that forces him to choose between what his supporters want and what he thinks is right, his supporters understand if he decides to act according to his best judgment and against their wishes because that's what they like and admire about him, his integrity on such matters. So there’s nothing inherently corrupt in his taking their money. I think accusations that he’s being corrupt by continuing to take their money even though he has to know by now he has no chance of winning the nomination and that talking and acting acting as if he does is disingenuous at best miss the point that his supporters want him to do this, take their money and keep on campaigning.
Believe me, all that money Hillary’s raking in from the rich and powerful bothers me. I haven’t seen any evidence that she’s been bought and paid for, but the offer’s on the table. Your conviction that she’s picked it up is just that, your conviction. She may have voted and acted in ways you think aren’t in the People’s interest, but you can onl assume she’s corrupt if you believe she's going against her principles in voting and acting in what you consider solely Wall Street's interest. You may think that Wall Street's interests are by definition corrupt, and I’ll grant you that a good case can be made for that. On the other hand, Bernie’s taking a lot of union money and cases have been made that unions are corrupt, so there's that. Even if they aren't, not every demand they make in their rank and file’s interest is in the People's best interests, and taking their money will eventually put you in the same position as taking money from that friend, only they're likely to be less understanding if your conscience tells you you can't vote their way.
A politician with too great a regard for his principles and who stubbornly sticks to doing what he knows to be right to the point that he puts himself in the position of being of unable to do anything for the People's good except shout about how righteous he is is corrupt. He's been corrupted by his own virtue or rather by his pride in his own virtue.
Pride, after all, is a deadly sin.
Depending on the moralist making the case, it's the worst of the seven. Others would argue it’s anger. But pride is at the root of almost all the others.
They’re all corrupting of course---pride, lust, anger, envy, gluttony,greed, and sloth---and good people are as subject to them as the wicked. There’s another word for what they are beside sins.
The names are in a way pernicious. They’re evil-sounding names for normal, even healthy feelings. The words make it sound like having feelings is sinful.
Nothing wrong with having feelings, unless you’re a Vulcan. Nothing wrong in acting on them, usually.
But the words---the sins---are descriptions of feelings that have gotten out of control. Sin---or Vice, if you’re uncomfortable calling things a sin--- is giving in to our feelings at the wrong time and to the wrong degree and purpose. Virtuousness is resisting or at least controlling our feelings.
The ancient Greeks had it that the source of all corruption and evil is one of our most basic, admirable, and useful feelings, the one that's cured diseases and has us visiting other planets. Curiosity. Everything went wrong because Pandora just had to see what was in that box.
Adam and Eve can be said to have been undone by curiosity too but it's more telling to emphasize what they were curious about. That apple was from the tree of knowledge. Ok, literally, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But traditionally simply knowledge. We're fallen and exiled from the garden because we wanted to know.
The lesson of both myths is that to be human is to be corrupt.
Everything about being human is corrupting. Everything we do or feel introduces temptations. People are corrupted by ambition, by success, by fame, by desire, by love, by loyalty, by want and need. Hunger, illness, and fear are corrupting. Religion is corrupting. But so is a lack of faith. Pragmatism. Realism. Idealism. Pessimism. Optimism---there goes Mr Micawber waiting for something to turn up. Despair, of course. But hope too, if it keeps us from dealing practically with the circumstances of the moment in the hope something better will come along. Too much hope can be a form of despair.
Charity can be corrupting, both the giving and the receiving. It’s possible to be too charitable, to give irresponsibly. And of course accepting charity can be destructive of character by creating both dependency and the expectation that you don’t have to solve your own problems or get yourself out of trouble so why bother to avoid creating problems or getting into trouble?
This is one of the reasons we liberals want to do something drastic about wealth inequality. Why we want to “soak” the rich with taxes. Why we want more and stricter regulation of business. Why we want to prosecute more banksters and other white collar criminals. Because the rich and powerful are too charitable towards each other.
The rich and well-to-do are rich in more than money and property. They are rich in friends or at least sympathetic connections and relatives with money and property and sympathetic connections of their own. They enjoy a system of mutual support and aid that amounts to a private safety net. Essentially, they live in a private welfare state. They are relieved of the necessity of having to be responsible and take responsibility. They can do pretty much whatever they want, take, take, take and give nothing back, delay no gratification, and cause and get into whatever trouble their appetites and whims lead them into, secure in the knowledge that they’ll pay no price, somebody will come along to bail them out, pay the bills, and smooth things over.
Wealth and comfort like that are corrupting. Poverty is terrifically and tragically more corrupting. People whose every thought and ounce of effort for most of the day is goes into putting food on the table that night and keeping a roof over their heads for the next month don’t have much left over for planning and provisioning for the longterm future. They don’t have the resources that the middle-class and the wealthy can make use of to keep themselves out of trouble or much recourse when they get into it, so why bother worrying about it and wasting steps to avoid it? What’s the point of delaying gratification when you know that delaying it will cause it to disappear? Poverty is soul-crushing, heartbreaking, and mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting. It robs people of self-respect and, worse, it robs them of hope. For the poor the worst of the deadly sins isn’t pride or anger or envy or greed. It’s sloth. Which is not physical laziness. It’s the failure to exercise virtue---to control self-destructive and self-damning feelings. But why make the effort if you’re too tired and despondent to care and you know it will all come to naught anyway? The point of a welfare state---that is, a charitable government---is to save people from corrupting despair.
On the other hand, there are problems with giving people “free stuff”. People do become dependent. They don’t need to learn to take initiative or responsibility or exercise self-control. Even FDR worried that some of his programs could be ways of putting people on “the dole.” It’s good for people to have to work. It’s good for them to contribute to their own upkeep and health and well-being. It’s important to give people something to strive for, but then it’s good that they then strive. People should be independent, self-reliant, and, to the degree it’s possible, self-sufficient. They want to be. Charity that saves people from having to make the effort and take responsibility is corrupting. And degrading.
I’d better watch out. This kind of talk can get me called a neo-liberal, which reminds me that words can be corrupting along with a facility for using them.
Intelligence can be corrupting. Very smart people are routinely too smart for their own and other people’s good.
Politics is corrupting.
Really, Lance? No kidding? Politics is corrupting.