Short pieces on various topics gathered into a single post.
Virginia Woolf Nails It Again
I’ve been following the news so much for the past few months I began to get news poisoning to the point I decided to take a break. Just a quick check of the headlines, thank you very much, no talking heads with subsequent research on background and detail. When the fit comes over me I go to the European press and put my focus on whatever mayhem is transpiring across the pond. It’s very instructive and no doubt makes me a better person. 🙂
I could tell I’d hit the threshold of news toxicity because I found images floating into my inner vision that I didn’t want to see there. Imagine sitting on a balcony in fine sunny weather in the tropics on a January day and finding the image of Mitch McConnell emerge before your inner eye. Or this: an image of Kirstjen Nielsen comes into mind while you’re in the kitchen making lunch and unleashes exactly the same reaction you’d have if you saw a huge cockroach on the floor right in front of you. You know, I know that when that sort of thing starts happening it’s time to dial it WAY back.
After a few days of detox I had a paragraph from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own come to mind rather than an image of Senator McSnap … I mean McConnell or of The Blonde Bimbaugh. Imagine my delight when instead of that newsfloor detritus a paragraph of Woolf’s floated into my mind and sent me scurrying to find the text in the essay. Here it is:
… But why, I continued, moving on towards Headingly, have we stopped humming under our breath at luncheon parties? …
Shall we lay the blame on the war? When the guns fired in August 1914, did the faces of men and women show so plain in each other’s eyes that romance was killed? Certainly it was a shock (to women in particular, with their illusions about education, and so on) to see the faces of our rulers in the light of the shell-fire. So ugly they looked — German, English, French — so stupid.
There I found my poisoning explained to me — poisoned not only by the words but by the faces of those with power. “So ugly they looked … so stupid.” After reading that excerpt I sat back for a moment and thought about it, then had a very useful insight.
The idea was really quite simple but brought immediate relief: I mustn’t take on the toxic burden of that stupidity. I’d worked hard to inform myself about issues in detail and did a tolerable job of it, bar getting a degree in constitutional law or gaining experience as a criminal prosecutor. I’d read history, political theory, political commentary, listened to talking heads for hours, until my absorptive capacity reached threshold like a septic tank in need of a good pumping. The philosophical reflections that followed in Woolf’s mind after pondering the thoughts cited above suggested a useful approach:
Yes indeed, which was the truth and which was illusion, I asked myself? What was the truth about these houses, for example, dim and festive now with their red windows in the dusk, but raw and red and squalid, with their sweets and their bootlaces, at nine o’clock in the morning? And the willows and the river and the gardens that run down to the river, vague now with the mist stealing over them, but gold and red in the sunlight — which was the truth, which was the illusion about them?
Who’s to say which is the truth and which the illusion? After so many hypotheses and speculations coming at me from broadcast and print media I was hard pressed to identify what to call truth and what illusion, although the public-facing evidence shows clearly enough that whatever eventually hits the light of day isn’t going to be pretty. So I decided to do what Woolf did: step back and wait for the truth to reveal itself. What other sensible course of action presents itself?
In the frightful brouhaha that is public political discourse in America today you have to enter the fray with your loins girded even as a news consumer. You can’t stay in the trenches too long, either, or you’ll succumb to battle fatigue. A Herculean effort is required to wrest some kind of synthesis from all the hoorah flying out of people’s mouths. So I’m moving to guerilla warfare tactics for my news forays. Forget the trench warfare — it was never any place for a lady. I’ll dash in under cover of night and engage the hostile forces briefly, strategically, then retreat before there’s any risk of detection.
And instead of a cheap knockoff of Colonel Sanders or the Blonde Bimbaugh inside my head, I’ll keep Virginia’s prose there. She always lends a helping hand when I need one, bless her. Here’s to birds of a feather.
Presidential Verb Tenses: Past Imperfect and Present Continuous
I’ve been asking myself what information tripped the trigger for me that landed Trump in the same bucket as Putin, since obviously they’re very different people. But they both have the same status in my estimation: radioactive. Slap a hazmat sticker on that puppy and stand well back, that’s the only way to handle that kind of material. For the past few months we’ve seen Trump with all the stops out, tweeting like crazy over and over again “I tought I taw a puttytat” in every conceivable direction, passing off countless fictions as facts and watching his popularity polls drop as evidence of skullduggery mounts apace, to say nothing of the growing list of criminal liabilities breaking across the Trump horizon. Goodness me. The old saying “when it rains it pours” has never seemed more true …
None of this surprised me due to an article I’d read a few months before the latest storm of tomfoolery from the White House began in late 2018. It’s a piece entitled “How Donald Trump and Roy Cohn’s Ruthless Symbiosis Changed America” by Marie Brenner, published in Vanity Fair in August, 2017 (here). The investigative reporters have been busy, as well they should. It’s the sort of article that should be front and center in everyone’s attention but remains buried under the tonnage of news that crashes over us every week. After reading it I felt like I’d been hit by lightning. Suddenly things became crystal clear.
So, what did Ms. Brenner find out by digging around in our President’s past imperfect? Here’s the header:
In 1973, a brash young would-be developer from Queens met one of New York’s premier power brokers: Roy Cohn, whose name is still synonymous with the rise of McCarthyism and its dark political arts. With the ruthless attorney as a guide, Trump propelled himself into the city’s power circles and learned many of the tactics that would inexplicably lead him to the White House years later.
Sounds pretty juicy, let’s keep going and see what crawls out from under the rocks Ms. Brenner turns over.
You may remember that Trump has said during his tenure in the White House with regard to the Russia investigation, “Where’s my Ray Cohn?” Just who was Cohn and what did he do for Trump? Answers pour forth in Ms. Brenner’s article:
Cohn was best known as a ruthless prosecutor. During the Red Scare of the 1950s, he and Wisconsin senator Joe McCarthy, the fabulist and virulent nationalist crusader, had hauled dozens of alleged “Communist sympathizers” before a Senate panel. Earlier, the House Un-American Activities Committee had skewered artists and entertainers on similar charges, resulting in a trail of fear, prison sentences, and ruined careers for hundreds, many of whom had found common cause in fighting Fascism. But in the decades since, Cohn had become the premier practitioner of hardball deal-making in New York, having mastered the arcane rules of the city’s Favor Bank (the local cabal of interconnected influence peddlers) and its magical ability to provide inside fixes for its machers and rogues.
“You knew when you were in Cohn’s presence you were in the presence of pure evil,” said lawyer Victor A. Kovner, who had known him for years. Cohn’s power derived largely from his ability to scare potential adversaries with hollow threats and spurious lawsuits. And the fee he demanded for his services? Ironclad loyalty.
If that doesn’t send your eyebrows shooting up toward your hairline, I don’t know what will. It’s only too clear what Trump stood to learn from such a person but Ms. Brenner does us the kindness of spelling it out:
Cohn, with his bravado, reckless opportunism, legal pyrotechnics, and serial fabrication, became a fitting mentor for the young real-estate scion. And as Trump’s first major project, the Grand Hyatt, was set to open, he was already involved in multiple controversies. He was warring with the city about tax abatements and other concessions. He had hoodwinked his very own partner, Hyatt chief Jay Pritzker, by changing a term in a deal when Pritzker was unreachable—on a trip to Nepal. In 1980, while erecting what would become Trump Tower, he antagonized a range of arts patrons and city officials when his team demolished the Art Deco friezes decorating the 1929 building. Vilified in the headlines—and by the Establishment—Trump offered a response that was pure Roy Cohn: “Who cares?” he said. “Let’s say that I had given that junk to the Met. They would have just put them in their basement.”
For author Sam Roberts, the essence of Cohn’s influence on Trump was the triad: “Roy was a master of situational immorality . . . . He worked with a three-dimensional strategy, which was: 1. Never settle, never surrender. 2. Counter-attack, counter-sue immediately. 3. No matter what happens, no matter how deeply into the muck you get, claim victory and never admit defeat.” As columnist Liz Smith once observed, “Donald lost his moral compass when he made an alliance with Roy Cohn.”
Sound familiar? It certainly should. Here’s what Cohn did after being disgraced as the McCarthy hearings fell apart into scandal:
Cohn played it as a win. After the debacle, he returned to New York and attended a party thrown in his honor at the Hotel Astor. It would be the first example of his ability to project victory from defeat and induce moral amnesia upon a mesmerized New York—a gambit not dissimilar to those later utilized by his confrère Donald Trump.
Fast forward now to 2019 and an article entitled “In Business and Governing, Trump Seeks Victory in Chaos” by Russ Buettner and Maggie Haberman, published in January in The New York Times (here). Ms. Haberman in particular has long experience convering Trump, both in New York City and through both the campaign and the two years of his administration. The article starts off with a bang:
Three decades ago, Donald J. Trump waged a public battle with the talk show host Merv Griffin to take control of what would become Mr. Trump’s third Atlantic City casino. Executives at Mr. Trump’s company warned that the casino would siphon revenue from the others. Analysts predicted the associated debt would crush him.
The naysayers would be proved right, but throughout the turmoil Mr. Trump fixated on just one outcome: declaring himself a winner and Mr. Griffin a loser.
As president, Mr. Trump has displayed a similar fixation in his standoff with Congress over leveraging a government shutdown to gain funding for a wall on the Mexican border. As he did during decades in business, Mr. Trump has insulted adversaries, undermined his aides, repeatedly changed course, extolled his primacy as a negotiator and induced chaos.
“He hasn’t changed at all,” said Jack O’Donnell, who ran a casino for Mr. Trump in the 1980s and wrote a book about it. “And it’s only people who have been around him through the years who realize that.”
So the past imperfect bleeds into the present continuous. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised, there’s a grammatical logic to it. Might we have a future conditional being added as we speak to the presidential tense repertoire? Stay tuned …
In Praise of Sunshine
When I did my Happy New Year videocall with my relatives in the States I mentioned that the weather here in the Philippines that morning was sunny and 82 degrees Fahrenheit. My brother-in-law, with whom I was talking on speaker at the time, told me, “Your sister is giving you the stink-eye.” Oops.
There’s a reason I moved halfway across the world two years ago. Sitting on my balcony of a morning at the beginning of March when the sun is shining and it’s 82 degrees is at the top of the list of reasons why I’m here rather than freezing my patoot off where my relatives live in the States, way up in the Bitter North, currently under four feet (!!) of snow. Between 2010 and 2015 I lived in Saudi Arabia, where the weather between December and April is like the finest summer weather you can hope to see in the USA. There, too, I thanked my lucky stars whenever I stepped outside my townhouse in what back home are the winter months and felt the balmy Arabian air strike my face. It only took one winter back home in the Bitter North after leaving the Middle East to send me scurrying for a winterless clime. Here I am now in the tropics where Jack Frost is disbarred from entry and everybody is dying to experience snow because they think it would be fun. (Wrong, dead wrong.)
I’ve done a very good job of counting my blessings here with regard to the weather. The older I get the more I resent my time being squandered by the strictures and inconveniences of winter. If you show me calendar pictures from December or January with brilliantly lit snowscapes in the Rockies or the Grand Tetons, you’ll quickly find that we are not amused. Been there, done that. It all looks very nice in the pics but they always leave the shovels and snowplows out of sight. I’d be happy if winter were abolished entirely. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I accomplished by moving to the tropics two years ago. There’s no winter here, mirabile dictu. Just the way I like it.
The decision to move back to the States clicked into place a couple months ago. But I’m footloose and fancy-free so I don’t have to let myself be buried in snow up to my gluteus maximuses if I don’t want to. That’s why God made airplanes, right? The United States is a gorgeous country and I’m quite content to spend the rest of my days there running around enjoying all the landscapes it has to offer, but snowy ones are beyond the pale. Homey don’t play that no more.
So my plan will be to enjoy the heck out of three seasons and then flit away to avoid a fourth. There are plenty of places in the world where the “W” word never crosses lips so it’s just a matter of picking one of them and getting on a plane. Easy peasey. Just call me Mr. Sunshine. 🙂
Masha Gessen’s Rules for Surviving Autocracy
If anybody should know how to deal with the grim task of surviving autocracy it’s Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen. She lived through Putin’s re-establishment of totalitarianism in Russia over the span of some 20 years. I recently re-read her article “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” published in 2016 in The New York Review of Books (here). It’s been a while since I’ve gone down the checklist so I thought it would be a good idea to do it aloud here in the thought journal. Here we go …
First, to make Ms. Gessen’s viewpoint clear, here’s the preamble to the list:
… Trump is anything but a regular politician and this has been anything but a regular election. Trump will be only the fourth candidate in history and the second in more than a century to win the presidency after losing the popular vote. He is also probably the first candidate in history to win the presidency despite having been shown repeatedly by the national media to be a chronic liar, sexual predator, serial tax-avoider, and race-baiter who has attracted the likes of the Ku Klux Klan. Most important, Trump is the first candidate in memory who ran not for president but for autocrat—and won.
I have lived in autocracies most of my life, and have spent much of my career writing about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. I have learned a few rules for surviving in an autocracy and salvaging your sanity and self-respect. It might be worth considering them now:
So that makes clear what baseline she’s speaking from, and at this point, two years after the election, we’ve seen multiple instances of Trump’s autocratic tendencies in full view — for those who have eyes to see, that is. You’ll obviously not find that opinion represented on Fox News anytime soon. Not until after the indictments drop LOL. So, on to Ms. Gessen’s list …
Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. I’d condition the explanation in the article by calling on the phrase, “believe what you see not what you hear.” When Putin says something Russians know how to decode it into the truth underneath the rhetoric because Putin always has something disagreeable but real underneath it. Trump just shoots his mouth off and is completely erratic in his decision-making processes. So you have to condition this rule with the old saying, “actions speak louder than words.” The same goes for the bulk of Trump-appointed administration officials who lie through their teeth because they’re sure they can get away with it. The most glaring recent example is Secretary Mnuchin smiling unctuously like the Cheshire Cat while telling Congress “just trust the President” about the wisdom of removing sanctions from Oleg Deripaska’s companies. Obviously he’d had a chat with Senator McSnap … I mean McConnell and knew that he had the Senate in the bag, so he felt quite comfortable giving the finger to the House of Representatives in yet another disingenuous public performance by a Trump official. Kirstjen Nielsen’s performance that has exposed to her to investigation for perjury was another load of BS that left one’s eyes rolled back in their sockets.
So facts and actions are the baselines and only they should be believed. The words are all gaslighting — speaking of which, let’s inject here a list of 11 signs of gaslighters from an excellent article by Stephanie A. Sarkis in Psychology Today entitled “11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting” (here):
- 1. They tell blatant lies.
- 2. They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof.
- 3. They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition.
- 4. They wear you down over time.
- 5. Their actions do not match their words.
- 6. They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you.
- 7. They know confusion weakens people.
- 8. They project.
- 9. They try to align people against you.
- 10. They tell you or others that you are crazy.
- 11. They tell you everyone else is a liar.
Yes, we’re lookin’ at you Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani — tick all the boxes why dontcha, you creeps.
Rule #2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality. Refer to Number 4 in the gaslighting list above, that’s the basic idea. It’s the nature of humans to normalize situations beyond their control in the interest of self-preservation. Under the extraordinary circumstances of autocracy you have to take on resistance to that tendency to normalize as a decisive personal stance. My mantra for that is to ask continually, “What is the truth of this situation?” Fastening onto the truth will dispel the normalization that inevitably occurs with long exposure to the processes of autocracy, which are relentless and difficult to distance from one’s mental space.
Rule #3: Institutions will not save you. This rule is spot-on if you’re in a place like Russia with a person like Putin, a former KGB operative who never changed his Soviet colors for something more 21st century. And oh boy does he need an extreme makeover. Ms. Gessen makes the Russian situation quite clear:
It took Putin a year to take over the Russian media and four years to dismantle its electoral system; the judiciary collapsed unnoticed. The capture of institutions in Turkey has been carried out even faster, by a man once celebrated as the democrat to lead Turkey into the EU. Poland has in less than a year undone half of a quarter century’s accomplishments in building a constitutional democracy.
Of course, the United States has much stronger institutions than Germany did in the 1930s, or Russia does today. Both Clinton and Obama in their speeches stressed the importance and strength of these institutions. The problem, however, is that many of these institutions are enshrined in political culture rather than in law, and all of them—including the ones enshrined in law—depend on the good faith of all actors to fulfill their purpose and uphold the Constitution.
If the blue wave hadn’t happened last November we’d find ourselves much more in the territory Ms. Gessen describes above. Fortunately we did have a blue wave and all indications are that it will continue to build force as we move toward 2020. She does have a point, however, about the strength of institutions in the USA being due to tradition in political culture rather than to law and dependent on the good faith of all actors to uphold the basic tenets of the system — i.e. the Constitution and the rule of law. We’re fortunate that the populist/nationalist portion of the population who wanted the Trump autocracy is a minority of the electorate — much smaller a minority now in 2019 than it was in 2016. There’s a lot of pushback now so I think it’s safe to say at this point that our institutions will indeed contribute to our salvation. There are some serious changes needed in the matter of constitutional law, however — the populist detour has made that abundantly clear.
Rule #4: Be outraged. In other words, become what Germans call a Schreihals. There’s no good one-word translation for it. Literally translated it means “shrieking throat,” which means you’re one to shoot your mouth off at the drop of a hat to make your objections known. It doesn’t have to be done out loud — doing so in Russia would get you thrown into the klink or shot on the street directly across from the Kremlin à la Boris Nemtsov. Fortunately — despite Trump’s attempts to steer things in the Russian direction — we’ve not reached the point where being outraged out loud gets you into that much trouble. The press has done a good job of keeping up the howls of outrage so my hat’s off to them for that important service.
I think of my personal sphere and realize it’s far more circumscribed than that of the press. I’m probably not the only one who’s heard from the organizers of family gatherings that there’s a gag rule on politics as a topic of discussion. We have a few relatives who are vocal Trump supporters with rhetorical habits not unlike those of the President himself, so the family Powers That Be instituted a vow of silence from both sides of the aisle. I’m mildly astonished to find myself in a position of less freedom of speech among my blood relatives than The Washington Post finds in the nation’s capital, but there it is. If keeping my mouth shut saves me from listening to somebody else get on a soapbox about Trump, I’m perfectly willing to keep it zipped. My resistance at such times becomes positively Russian — i.e. internal. Fancy that, in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
Rule #5: Don’t make compromises. In other words, don’t be like Senator McSnap … I mean McConnell (just can’t keep that name straight LOL) or Devin Nunes. That’s not difficult for me. It would take an act of supreme self-coercion for me to resemble Mitch McConnell in any way, especially since I lack the Senator’s genetics that create the appearance of having nictating membranes. For someone like me avoiding compromising situations becomes a simple matter of GPS strategy. If a particular area is known to have landmines, I don’t go there. It’s that simple. So you’ll not find me popping in to have a peek at the local Republican caucus meeting or asking political opinions of old codgers in MAGA hats sat of a morning in the local McDonald’s sipping coffee while solving the world’s problems. A large part of not making compromises involves steering clear of compromising situations and trust me, Bridget, I’ve been doing that for donkey’s years. At this stage of the game I’m a pro.
Rule #6: Remember the future. Nothing lasts forever, says Ms. Gessen, and she’s right. I began thinking about the future right after the 2018 midterm elections because a future became imaginable once again. My head fills with thoughts suddenly sprung loose by the impact of the blue wave. They swirl around in my head and chase each other in their urgency to form patterns that provide anchors and roadmaps for actions in my own life. Ms. Gessen makes these important points:
Failure to imagine the future may have lost the Democrats this election. They offered no vision of the future to counterbalance Trump’s all-too-familiar white-populist vision of an imaginary past. They had also long ignored the strange and outdated institutions of American democracy that call out for reform—like the electoral college, which has now cost the Democratic Party two elections in which Republicans won with the minority of the popular vote. That should not be normal. But resistance—stubborn, uncompromising, outraged—should be.
She hits several nails on the head, all of which actively occupy my thoughts these days. So a big thank you to Ms. Gessen, journalist extraordinaire, for her tips that have kept me on track over the past two years. I have no doubt she’ll be forthcoming with suggestions for our path through the aftermath of the current derailment. Her perspective is a great resource for us as we engage that work.
Big Apple, You’re On My Blacklist
Let’s do a thought experiment just for fun. Think of any of the major news shows, network or cable, it matters not. Think about what graphic is behind the newscaster. Then think about the start announcement. “Good evening, I’m XYZ coming to you from our world headquarters here in Blah Blah Blah.” What place name is that person gonna say? You basically have two options. One starts with N and rhymes with blue dork. The other is a city that now lives in such infamy we shudder to have its name pass our lips.
Now imagine how different things would be if the start announcement went something like, “Good evening, I’m XYZ coming to you from our headquarters in Pocatello.” Or Dubuque. Or Opa-Locka. Do you still feel that tingle down the spine at the mention of the ooh la la location? Well it’s about damn time we stop being Big City junkies and get real because the truth of the matter, girlfriends, is that only a tiny minority of the country lives in either the Big Apple or The City That Shall Not Be Named. That’s right, 99.99% of us live elsewhere and here’s another newsflash: we’re not chopped liver. Deal with it.
My objection to this arrogance of place goes back donkey’s years and won’t become milder with age. All through my adult life I’ve found myself puzzled by the geographical BDSM the American population subjects itself to so willingly because I’ve never figured out why or how it hurts so good. We seem far too often to end up on the TV back in the Big Apple for some reason that remains opaque to my understanding. Seinfeld, Friends, Sex and the City, NYPD Blue, the list goes on and on of TV shows all about life in the bloody Big Apple. There’s even a Wikipedia page on TV shows set in NYC, for heaven’s sake (here). I just downloaded the PDF of it to see how many pages it has. It’s 12 pages long. Just shoot me.
As heretical as it might sound I wondered when Friends started up why I should give a rip about a bunch of twats living a kind of life in the Big Apple that would send me RUNNING, not walking, for someplace like Seattle or Portland. I lived for two years in The City We Don’t Talk About Now (my cheeks flush with shame as I write the words). Guess how many times I went to the Big Apple during those two years. Here’s a hint: it’s between -1 and 0.000001. Do I feel that somehow life has passed me by? Nope. Quite the contrary. Museums, you counter? Oh sweetie … why would I go to the Met when for about the same airfare and a few more hours I can go to the Tate or the Prado? Do I look that stupid? Tell me the truth, I can handle it.
Now NYC and its cultural detritus have taken over the nation’s capital (no naming of names, please) and turned it into an agonizing spectacle that should be called The Worms of the Big Apple. We find shoved all up in our grill characters that seem like tacky knock-offs from Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm. They’re always from the wrong part of town and their dialect coaches clearly worked on The Godfather. Newsflash: nobody in the Now Nameless City talks like a character in Goodfellas. More news: most of us in the country have never gone in for organized crime as one of our cultural mainstays. Small-minded of us, perhaps, but there it is. And remember: we’re not in the minority. Rudy Giuliani is the minority, just as is You Know Who. The Big Apple is the minority, period end of story. Deal with it.
So enough of this Big Apple crap. Take it back to the boroughs and wrap it up tightly in foil so it doesn’t stink up the rest of the country, please. We don’t ruin your lives so stop ruining ours. Do us all a favor, will ya?
Becoming an Old Fart Is Kinda Fun
It tickles my funny bone to see reactions to me from some younger people when they have a PC filter malfunction. I’m right on the chronological cusp of Old Fartness now and for a lot of people my being early retired pushes me over that threshold without needing too hard a shove. People in the States seldom have the PC filter fail on them these days so when it does happen it’s incumbent on me to look the other way so they can save face — we both know it was never supposed to be said out loud. Oops. In other places, however, that filter doesn’t exist in the first place. Saudi Arabia was the worst. Anybody over 55 is regarded as on death’s door. At 60 it’s a wonder they’re still alive and able to walk. It’s certainly true that Saudis don’t age gracefully, to put it mildly. I’ve never looked my age so when I spilled the beans on it in Saudi it often happened that my interlocutor would blurt out, “Oh, you’re old!” I usually constrained my response to a smile but at times I couldn’t stop myself from bursting out in laughter at the shocked expression I saw. It always made me howl with laughter when I went shopping with a Saudi friend and got major grief because I parked too far away from the entrance to the mall. What? Walk 100 steps from the car to the door? You never heard such pissing and moaning from people half my age about what for me was a welcome chance to stretch my legs. They were the ones having the senior moment well before the age of 40.
Here in the Philippines I get chestnuts lobbed my way all the time. I went to the clinic last week to have a physical exam for a visa application. The nurse who checked me in and did my vitals looked over at me after taking my blood pressure (smack dab on normal) and said with her eyebrows raised in surprise, “Sir! At your age!” Is there some new research I’m unaware of about a correlation between the number of birthdays and blood pressure levels? Maybe so. I just smiled at her and shrugged my shoulders. What’s a girl to say?
I know it’s only going to get worse from this point forward. I’m still a good way off from the big Seven-Oh and I harbor no doubt at all that even at that age people will still think I’m younger than I actually am, but the handwriting’s on the wall. Social interactions have far less to do with me than they have to do with society — i.e. with all those assumptions, beliefs and prejudices that people formulate and then bring collectively to bear on daily life whether or not you’ve signed on their dotted line. I have decades of experience sidestepping such things in other areas of life so I’m sure I’ll do just fine with the issue of aging.
Even if that prospect were more challenging I have the ultimate strategic advantage: not giving a You Know What. At this point in life society is dead to me. I find myself released by my age into a liberation I’d have paid dearly to have earlier in life but was prevented from enjoying by the need to make a living. Those days are over and I’m no longer beholden to anybody for a paycheck. Bully for me. I’m now in the position Virginia Woolf describes as the result of an aunt in India leaving her the legacy £500 a year for life. She writes in A Room of One’s Own about the contrast of the scrambling needed to make ends meet before the legacy came and the freedom of mind it enabled after its arrival:
But these contributions to the dangerous and fascinating subject of the psychology of the other sex — it is one, I hope, that you will investigate when you have five hundred a year of your own — were interrupted by the necessity of paying the bill. It came to five shillings and ninepence. I gave the waiter a ten-shilling note and he went to bring me change. There was another ten-shilling note in my purse; I noticed it, because it is a fact that still takes my breath away — the power of my purse to breed ten-shilling notes automatically. I open it and there they are. Society gives me chicken and coffee, bed and lodging, in return for a certain number of pieces of paper which were left me by an aunt, for no other reason than that I share her name. …
… No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine for ever. Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me.
Amen to that. So when somebody tries to peg me in the old person hole I just do a hair-flip and keep moving. I’m not the one who has to request leave to go on a vacation. Fancy that. Neither am I the one who has to figure out how to get enough moolah together to live comfortably in retirement. Been there, done that, wearing the effing T-shirt, babes. As I move off with a wry smile on my face I may just turn my head and say over my shoulder, “Don’t hate me ’cause you ain’t me.” 😎
Dagnabbit, I Just Wanna Cuss
We’ve already had a public kerfuffle about elected officials saying bad words — what could be called “The MOFO Affair.” Huge shock and public outrage, OMG cover the kids’ ears! I watched the talking heads earlier today, thought about the topics discussed and realized that we’re in so schizophrenic a situation in public life these days that cussing is the only appropriate response. Just think about it.
When you listen to the talking heads you can see most of them struggle as they respond to find a position of “appropriateness.” You can tell that if they just let things rip they’d be throwing cuss words right and left because what they’re discussing is so patently outrageous. They all minimize their rhetoric to words like “interesting” or “fascinating” or “problematic.” The outrageous situations they describe are “dynamics” or “inflection points.” Some of the news hosts are better at keeping things breezy like a talk show rather than an autopsy room with a half-rotten cadaver on the table. Nicole Wallace is one of the best, throwing into her comments enough irony with a smile to let you know that she thinks what she’s reporting is complete BS, but we gotta keep the tone up, don’t we. Of course we do. Too bad the White House folks don’t hold themselves to the same standard.
So I’ve begun to think of the mainstream media as the “High Press” in the same sense that in England there is “High Church.” The New York Times is about as High Press as you can get, save in the opinion section when an unusually obstreperous columnist does a piece that takes somebody out for some inanity or insanity committed in public view. Some few news organizations are “Low Church” — especially those produced by and geared toward a millennial audience — e.g. The Daily Beast or Slate. The category headers are like troll tweets and they’re hilarious. They’re also spot-on appropriate for the crap that’s being reported. If any of those Low Church press types get invited onto a panel on MSNBC or CNN, however, they shift over to “interesting” or “inflection points” in a heartbeat because if they didn’t then Mommy Would Spank.
I’ve just written about Masha Gessen’s rules for living with autocracy. One of those rules is to continue to be outraged by what is outrageous. At this point, two years into the reality TV begging cancellation that our public life has become, it requires far more effort and insight than the average U.S. citizen can muster to stay pitched on the edge of your seat ready to throw a few F bombs at the TV. The waves of outrageousness just keep coming and coming. Compared to the picture average citizens construct in their own minds about what an ideal public life would be, the reality of the current situation is so bad only a torrent of obscenity could begin to express the difference appropriately. We have a president whose campaign staff goes one by one under indictment and ends up convicted of multiple felonies, yet the President himself is supposedly as clean as a whistle after being smack dab in the middle of the whole business. That demands a string of cuss words that would make your mamma cover her ears, not somebody saying, “What I find fascinating about this indictment is ….” in typical High Press fashion.
The list of things that demands a stream of invective is now so long we can’t even keep the bullet points straight anymore. And the outrageous, stupefying and criminal things just keep coming and coming as the list grows day by day. For a lot of people in the general populace the pinball machine has already gone tilt and the task becomes self-preservation from the onslaught of BS, never mind maintaining an appropriate sense of outrage and articulating it in terms acceptable for an Episcopalian high tea.
I can’t be the only one for whom the outrage sometimes loses the “out” and keeps only the “rage.” Having so sorry an excuse for governance fobbed off as something to be taken seriously and analyzed interminably as a “dynamic” provokes at this point the desire just to huff and puff and blow the house down. If Little Red Riding Hood and Grandma get carried off in the process then too bad, so Sad! The public commons can’t sustain this kind of abuse and reality itself can’t withstand this level of erosion without threat of serious damage.
So here’s a suggestion. The press needs to have a special branch that does nothing but call BS. There’s a precedent for that in the history of journalism and it comes from those troublemakers the Suffragettes. Rebecca West was in on the action in her young days as one of the agents provocateurs, as Katherine Mullin cites in her book James Joyce, Sexuality and Social Purity:
So let there be established an Office of Calling BS that keeps track of all the turds dropped by the sh*tshow and reports them clearly, loudly and in the worst possible taste. It would do us all a lot of good to look at that record once in a while to remind ourselves that our worst verbal impulses deliver exactly what the circumstances deserve. One small comfort is that such a service need only be temporary. One day the sh*tshow will finally end and people will finally STFU. Pray for that day.
Oops, I think I see my mom headed my way with a bar of soap, gotta run … Later gator. 🙂
It’s Masha Again With More Bad News …
It must be hard to be really smart like journalist Masha Gessen and figure out a bunch of stuff you wish you never knew in the first place. Her article from January 31st in The New Yorker entitled “The Trump-Russia Investigation and the Mafia State” (here) ticks that box in spades. After I finished reading it I thought, “Masha, you did it again … I don’t know whether to give a thumbs up or rummage for the happy pills.” The premise of the article is that we should think of Putin’s Russia and Trumplandia as mob families. She has a point if you think about it. Putin took the Russian mafia that emerged after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and got stinking rich from the seizure of state assets and he made them his boys (no gals in the mix, sorry girls, that’s one glass ceiling still showing no sign of breaking). Trump grew up absolutely awash in the Mafia culture of New York City before the big clean up happened after 1980. He talks and thinks like a mob boss as if his name were Trumpatelli or some such thing. He even waves his hands when he talks like he’s from Sicily — don’t know how that happened and don’t wanna know …
So Ms. Gessen suggests that we stop “talking in terms of states and geopolitics and begin looking at Mafias and profits.” It’s a fascinating concept and has much merit. But how many Mafias have missiles? How many Mafias have armies? The Mafia structure may well be core to both entities but how at the level of the nation state can you eliminate geopolitics from the equation?
After thinking about the Mafia analogy it occurred to me that perhaps it makes best sense when you consider that Mafias are also corporations or “enterprises” as they are styled in legal language when RICO (aka racketeering) prosecutors speak of a “criminal enterprise.” They’re running a criminal organization for profit, but in that they are no different from many multinational corporations doing the same thing. Regular corporations do illegal stuff all the time. The difference with a real mafia organization is that people can end up dead as one of the costs of doing business. The same could be said of a war between nation states.
So it seems reasonable to me when considering Putin’s Russia and Trumplandia to speak of the geopoliticization of the Mafia organization. The military is the equivalent of the hit guys. You got your dirty lawyers in the judiciary doing what’s needed to keep the boss happy and everybody knows that the treasury is just a bank account for the capo di tutti capi. The model fits rather well, I think. Putin has worked the transformation from the dissolving Soviet state into a new type of Soviet-style mafia state with the kind of mentality you’d expect of a KGB officer. Trump lacks the sophistication of that background but keeps the culture of a NYC mob boss — demanding loyalty, brooking no criticism, telling the whole country what he thinks is the story and if you don’t like it shuduppa you mouth. He can’t push it as far as Putin, who has no compunction about using the state apparatus — i.e. the hit men — to shoot dissidents down in cold blood across the street from the Kremlin as happened with Boris Nemtsov.
And both the creeps have missiles. Is anybody besides me unnerved by the thought of a Corleone having a red button that when pressed could cause the incineration of half the known world? Seems pretty dodgy, just saying …
Well, that Masha is a smart cookie and she’s hit the nail on the head again. I hope next time she has a brilliant idea it’s one that doesn’t send me to the medicine cabinet to see if my prescription for sleep medication needs a refill. Here’s hoping …
RICO Without the Puerto, Another One the Pres Didn’t See Coming
There’s yet another legal acronym in my vocabulary now, I’m sorry to report, which just shows that following the news these days is like going to law school if you pay close attention to the details. After reading investigative reporting a few months ago on the dodgy doings of the Trump Organization the idle thought occurred to me that it’s a pity there’s no statute for legal one-stop shopping for such concerns. Take all the charges, roll them into a single indictment and polish it off in a fell swoop — that sort of thing. The elegance of efficiency recommends it if nothing else does, although I’ll be the first to admit that elegance has little place in discussion of legal matters.
Well, it turns out that if I were a REAL lawyer I’d have known that there is indeed such a statute and it’s called RICO. No, not because it comes from a Caribbean island we all know, love and underfund with disaster-relief money, get that idea out of your head. It stands for Racketeering-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 (18 U.S.C. ch. 96 as 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961–1968. G. Robert Blakey). It turns out to be just the sort of one-stop shopping statute you need to indict a creep factory. It was signed into law by President Nixon — whose cement booties came from a different set of statutes. At least before he left in a hurry he did us the favor of signing the RICO statute into law. It’s proven to be quite useful over the years.
I imagine a confab of Presidents from the past 50 years sitting around a table in a bar. Nixon leans over between slurps and says sotto voce to Trump, “I’ve got a little surprise for you down the road, Donny Boy.” Or maybe we should make that a big surprise.
Investigative reporting on Trump-related organizations from the past year has laid bare so many threads of criminal activity that it became clear to me everything he handles must be rotten to the core. He may not have had regular hitmen like a Cosa Nostra family but the business model isn’t far off the mob mark. That mob-ridden NYC world was Trump’s native habitat — his dad was in the middle of it as Trump was himself. Construction in New York City was dominated by the Mob for decades, including the decades when Trump was making his name as a real estate developer. Once things moved into brand marketing after the economic crisis of 2008 wiped Trump out as a player in the development game the opportunities for dodgy deals increased exponentially and took on an international dimension. There had been a Russian accent to the Trump Organization for a good while. That fact has been well documented in the investigative reporting from the past two years. The laundering that happened turned things green rather than pure as the driven snow.
I came across RICO as a mention in one of the articles I read and it immediately lit a lightbulb in my head. Subsequent research on the statute and its application to organized crime made it clear that the Trump Organization was a sitting duck for RICO investigation. I wondered why nobody was talking about RICO and the Trump Organization since they seemed to fit together like hand and glove. But I’m not a lawyer so I left it to the pros. Well, it seems that some things just take time to pique the interest of Federal prosecutors. I suspected that since the Trump Organization has always been based in New York City it had doubtless bought its way into the legal system (we’ve all heard the skank stories about NYC, right?). That protection must have kept the hounds at bay and investigative eyes from prying, so I concluded. But things change, especially after you accede to high public office.
Recently I read that Trump will probably consider in hindsight that the biggest mistake he ever made in his life was to run for president. High office brings scrutiny and if you’re running a dodgy business that continually skirts or rides roughshod over the law then the last thing you need is flashights pointed at your dark closets. Skeletons aplenty have already come out of those closets. Trump University was sued for fraud and the suit was settled out of court for $25 million. The Trump Foundation was discovered by the New York State Attorney General to be massively fraudulent and is in process of dissolution under court supervision as we speak. The Trump Inaugural Committee is now under investigation by the Southern District of New York (SDNY) for a laundry list of criminal activities including money laundering, mail fraud and wire fraud. SDNY appears to have started investigation of the Trump Organization, as well. That’s no doubt where the mother lode lies.
Last month in relation to the SDNY subpoena issued to the Trump Inaugural Committee Nicolle Wallace on “Deadline: White House” asked panelist Donny Deutsch — who always calls a spade a spade — to speak to the issue. He said that SDNY will “tear the Trump Organization apart … They will RICO it and that will be the end of this president.” Well, that leaves no room for doubt, does it. A few months earlier on another of Ms. Wallace’s panels Deutsch had announced that the Trump Organization has always been a criminal enterprise and that everybody in NYC knows it. When he says that SDNY will tear the Trump Organization apart I take it he means that SDNY prosecutors have probably known for years that Trump’s business was as dodgy as the day is long but had no trigger for investigation. That was before Michael Cohen spilled his beans and before Robert Mueller farmed out things from his investigation to other Federal prosecutor offices like SDNY. So apparently the You Know What has now hit SDNY’s fan. Fancy that. Watching the talking heads for months now has also taught me that Federal prosecutors don’t issue a subpoena unless they already have enough evidence to prove substance. That bodes exceeding ill for the Pres. Or as you might hear it in San Juan, “Ay, que RICO!”
Since Cohen has been working for months with both SDNY and the Mueller investigation it’s reasonable to assume that SDNY has evidence piled up to the rafters. The subpoena to the Inaugural Committee reads like an encyclopedia of criminality that to my untrained eye looks like a perfect fit with RICO definitions. It can’t be long until the Trump Organization follows in suit.
I wonder if the Pres thought about that before he jumped on the campaign bandwagon. His base isn’t going to be of much use to him if a RICO indictment from SDNY hits the Trump Organization naming him as the capo di tutti capi. Perhaps before he decided to go for the White House he should have considered the possibility that he might end up taking a long — a VERY long — sidetrip to Puerto RICO.
Oops. Too late now …