The Fish Rots from the Head: Is there a Case to Be Made for a Second Trump Term?

The United States appears to have reached an impasse, and I hear rumblings about civil war.

With this in mind, let us consider an 1858 speech by President Abraham Lincoln concerning the threat that slavery posed to the unity of the country:

“If we could first know where we are, and wither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it. We are now into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’”

Will Donald Trump lead the United States into such a crisis as Lincoln deemed necessary for the resolution of differences that plagued the nation?

He has certainly led to nation to the brink. Let us examine his record. The COVID death count in the United States is about to reach 200,000.[1] Those American who still have jobs nervously await the next economic downturn. The United States is an international pariah, and increasingly feckless before the growing military, economic, and political threat from China. Foreign nations have interfered in the American election process, and may well do so again. The president plays fast and loose with laws intended to limit his power.  Racial tension is at its highest since the 1960s.  Are we better off than we were in 2012?

A Trump landslide victory in the upcoming election would bring more of the same, with the United States slipping toward a civil reckoning similar to that which Lincoln mentioned.

If Joe Biden wins the election by a narrow margin, Trump will challenge the results.  A Supreme Court stacked with Republican appointees will back him. Biden won’t stand a chance there, and another hole will be poked into the shell of the Constitution. Trump considers himself beyond counsel now. If he wins the election, by hook or crook, he will accelerate the pace of consolidation of personal power at the expense of the system of checks and balances that once girded the United States political system. Further, Trump will continue to foment racial and political discord, fail to take seriously the COVIS threat, and turn his back on the country’s obligations abroad.

A continuation of the Trump presidency would likely bring civil discord in its train. Something would have to give.

Meanwhile, how effective would a Joe Biden presidency be?  If Biden did not inspire confidence, say, thirty years ago, how could he manage the trick now?  In such times as these? Should reasons of health force the 77-year-old Biden from office, then the country would have a black female president, and Republican America would not stand for that.[2]  You will recall the partisan roadblocks that Barack Obama faced as president, and he was at least a male. A Biden or Kamala presidency would likely witness more fraying along racial and political lines, but the chance of a cleansing of the country’s soul would be slim.

We must not lose sight of the fact that the United States has never been anything more than an idea created 240-odd years ago to protect the interests of the wealthy white men of that time. The interests of others have never meant all that much. So much has changed over the centuries that what little remains of the original version of the United States depends upon a president arrogating quasi-dictatorial powers to protect his own interests and those of his diminishing base of support.  This development sits uneasily beside the lofty idea upon which the United States claims to have been founded. Keep in mind that many considered the Soviet Union to be a good idea, until its god failed.

Voltaire once referred to the crumbling Holy Roman Empire as “neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” The United States, as it now stands, is neither one nation, nor indivisible, nor does it provide justice for all.

Re-electing Trump would force a long-overdue civil reckoning. People will only take so much.  Let the chips fall where they may.[3]

The fish does rot from the head.

[1] The United States, which has 4.25 percent of the world’s population, has 22 percent of world COVID cases.

[2] Having lived over twenty years in red states, I write with a fair degree of confidence on that score.

[3] If the United States remains divided against itself, what will the former United States look like in a few years? Well, the West Coast states might form one group, and the northeast another.  Texas, true to historical form, might go its own way. Would Canada accept Minnesota and Wisconsin? What about the rest of the country, the flyover zone between New York and California? The urban centers of the Midwest tend to lean left, while the rural areas lean to the right (Recall what Karl Rove said about Pennsylvania as being Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between). The blue cities sprinkled amid this sea of red might resemble the free imperial cities of the Holy Roman Empire, islands of independence within larger princely territories with oftentimes different religions and systems of rule.

Wither Academic Freedom?

First they burn the books. Then they kill people. History has shown us this repeatedly.

When I was in graduate school, New York University physics professor Alan Sokal submitted a bogus paper to the progressive academic journal Social Text. Suspecting that the editors of the journal would publish anything, so long as it employed popular linguistic jargon, Sokal submitted a bunch of jibberish, couched in trendy academic terms, in which he argued that gravity has no objective existence. In other words, gravity, the phenomenon that causes my pen to drop to the table if I release it from my grasp, is an illusion. Sokal went so far as to include deliberate arithmetic errors that a third-grader could spot on a cursory reading. Social Text published the article.[1]

Three weeks later, Sokal came clean about his hoax:

“The results of my little experiment demonstrate, at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy. The editors of Social Text liked my article because they liked its conclusion: that ‘the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project.’ They apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion.”

Social Text’s editors, such as they were, cried foul, accusing Sokal of playing a dirty trick.  Apparently those responsible for trafficking in such postmodern pap harbored little inclination to do some soul searching or to issue a mea culpa. No, none of that. They simply pointed the finger at the other guy, at the guy who had handed them the cyanide capsule.

Sokal’s accusation of intellectual laziness hit its target, for it lay bare the modern state of affairs: What you say doesn’t need to contain anything of substance, so long as it finds expression in politically acceptable terms. But heaven forfend you don’t use politically acceptable language!

Let us now consider last week’s controversy surrounding remarks made by University of Southern California Business School professor Greg Patton during an online business communication course.  In footage captured on Zoom, Patton, who has spent much time in China, used a Chinese expression to illustrate a point about one aspect of Chinese communication. Unfortunately, the Chinese term he used sounds rather like the N-word in English.

Some black students erupted in indignation and called for Professor Patton’s ouster. He has been relieved of his teaching duties for that course and has issued a formal apology.

Why? Because in order to support a legitimate academic point, Professor Patton employed language that a small number of students considered improper. Perhaps he should have avoided using an example to support an idea.

 Did Professor Sokal’s paper contain anything of substance?  Absolutely not. Did Professor Patton’s lecture contain anything of substance?  Absolutely.  Can language be hurtful?  Absolutely.  Can critical thought disappear when we place undue focus on politically correct language? Absolutely.  

So here we are. This, my friends, is the odor of lost academic freedom.

NB. It gets worse.   Getting academia to shoot itself in the foot has grown into a cottage industry.[2]

[1]Sokal, Alan D. “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Social Text. No. 46/47. (217-52).



Monumental Sins

Several years ago, upon my return from a trip abroad, my work colleagues asked me where I’d visited. Was it Paris? Amsterdam? London?

“Auschwitz,” I said.

Stone silence. Uncomfortable shuffling of feet. Averted glances.

I have an odd penchant for paying visits to sites of self-inflicted human catastrophes. I have stood in stupefied shock before the dome at Hiroshima and the flash shadows on buildings of people going about their daily activities when the bomb exploded.  I have regarded the remains of the Auschwitz gas chambers so hastily blown apart by the panicked SS guards before they force-marched thousands to their deaths in the snows of 1945. I have gazed upon the anguished Holocaust sculpture at Dachau, the prototypical Nazi concentration camp. I visit these places, unromantic as they are, because they are places of sober reflection, and subjects unsuited to our throwaway modern selfie culture. As I see it, a visit to such sites triggers cathartic reflection about the level to which humanity can descend if it is less than careful.  Their psychological and ethical import will endure so long as humans exist.

Now let us turn to American monuments. Monuments there are testaments to victory, to the triumphant forward march of the American Way, regardless of its moral implications. The Washington Monument. The Lincoln Memorial. Mount Rushmore.[1] Amid this ocean of reassurance, where does one turn for proper moral perspective, especially in light of the fact that the country’s diaper-clad president publicly bewails the dismantling of monuments celebrating the achievements of the Confederacy, such as they were?  One wonders if the US, not to mention the world, will survive its infancy.

Where are the American monuments that evoke soul-searching, in the manner of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, or Dachau? The memorial to the Oklahoma City bombing? Ground Zero?  The memorials in those places pay tribute to the innocent dead, as they should.  But those events, while tragic, represent one-offs and provide paltry occasion for higher moral reflection. America in those places was the victim. Where, however, are the memorials to the victims of America? Where is the memorial to the Native Americans wiped out in the nineteenth century, to the Trail of Tears? Or the tribute to the Blacks slaves on whose shoulders the economy of the young United States was built?  Where should Americans go to weep for our accumulated sins?

I suggest Hiroshima.

[1] Those seeking solace from the sting of the US defeat in Vietnam can find it at the Wall in Washington, DC, a memorial dwarfed by surrounding monuments. A strong athlete might jump high enough to place a quarter atop it.

Racism and the Tar Baby

I doubt that many read Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908) these days. The Uncle Remus guy.[1]  He was de riguer reading for children in my day, and his stories involved an old black man named Uncle Remus sharing tales about the Old South, typically with animals as stand-in for humans. Disney made a few animated movies about Chandler’s stories, as I recall. One recurring theme throughout the stories was the rivalry between Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit and the unsuccessful attempts by Brer Fox to catch Brer Rabbit, in the manner of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.

My favorite Uncle Remus story as a child was “The Wonderful Tar Baby Story,” which begins with Brer Fox hatching yet another scheme to snare Brer Rabbit.  The gimmick has Brer Fox creating a human baby out of tar, placing a hat on its head, and situating it in the middle of a path frequented by Brer Rabbit.  Brer Fox lay in wait behind a nearby briar patch for Brer Rabbit to pass by, which he does, soon enough. Brer Rabbit approaches the black baby and greets it.  Infuriated by the disrespectful silence of the Tar Baby, Brer Rabbit threatens violence if the cheeky Tar Baby does not show due respect by removing its hat.[2] Further silence. Brer Rabbit loses his temper and punches the Tar Baby. Of course, his paw becomes stuck in the Tar Baby’s head. Brer Rabbit belts the Tar Baby with his free front paw. Same result. Brer Rabbit attempts to kick the Tar Baby into submission, achieving the same predictable results. After head-butting the Tar Baby, Brer Rabbit is entirely stuck.

I wonder if we might learn something from this story. Perhaps we might consider the Tar Baby as black America, and Brer Rabbit as the system that resorts to violent measures to cow dissenters into submissiveness should blacks not know their place. The more wedded to violence, the more hopelessly we find ourselves ensnared in the tar of racism.

So, what happened to Brer Fox, you ask?  We left him hiding out in the briar patch. Did he eat Brer Rabbit? Well, no. While Brer Fox contemplates how to kill his prey, Brer Rabbit implores his captor not to hurl him into the briar patch. Eventually, Brer Fox does just that, and Brer Rabbit escapes to a nearby hilltop, from where he mocks Brer Fox.
“Bred en bawn in a brier-patch, Brer Fox–bred en bawn in a brier-patch!”

So who or what does Brer Fox represent? To me, he represents the US justice system. So how is it that Brer Rabbit escapes justice? You tell me.

[1] A quick biography of Harris can be found here:

[2] (“‘I’m gwine ter larn you how ter talk ter ‘spectubble folks ef hit’s de las’
ack,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. ‘Ef you don’t take off dat hat en tell me
howdy, I’m gwine ter bus’ you wide open,’ sezee.)  The text of the story can be found here:

Can Book Clubs End Racism in the US? Hmmm…well…

The Huffington Post published an article on August 19 about the increasing popularity of book clubs focused on racism. The author of the article concludes that such clubs represent a first step in the path to appreciating the effects of racism on both sides of the divide.  I suspect that some white people will buy these books so as not to be caught flat-footed when the subject of recent literature on white supremacy arises at a cocktail party, or at whatever passes for a cocktail party in the year of Covid-19.[1] These are the Good Whites, those desperate to keep up the appearance of open-mindedness, but resolutely opposed to measures that might increase black presence in their neighborhoods and their children’s schools. All well and good, I suppose.

I, like any Good White, learned in school the officially-stamped US version of the history of racial oppression, which informed me about slavery, then the Civil War–which liberated the slaves—Reconstruction–which healed the wounds of the war–a bit of Jim Crow, a dash of Civil Rights, and ipso presto, a renewed nation in which any economic and social lag among blacks was attributed to laziness, drug abuse, etc. One who reads books such as White Fragility or White Rage might move a bit further along and arrive at the conclusion that despite the institutional racism that blacks have confronted for over 400 years, despite ongoing police brutality, despite statistics pointing to the widening chasm between black and white on sociological fronts too numerous to recite, we need only to engage in meaningful conversations and stir in a pinch of American optimism, and everything might turn out all right in the end.[2] 

Both books deplore institutional racism in the United States, and rightly so, but then peter out into softly-worded recommendations of ways to ameliorate the situation. I, however, believe that one must know the causes of a disease in order to attempt to cure it. In line with this, a knowledge of the history of race relations in the United States should be a prerequisite for discussing the matter intelligently. After finishing White Fragility, I was no better informed about racial tension in the US than I might have been had I read something by Charles Dickens. White Rage does provide a history of white suppression of blacks in the US, in a somewhat vitriolic tone, but in the end offers up a few pages of anodyne suggestions. The real problem is that this US racism business works at the gut level.  It is so deeply baked into the bread of US society that even well-meaning people on both sides find themselves incapable of expressing their thoughts on the matter without leavening that bread with apologies and mealy-mouthed suggestions as to how to rectify the problem.

If one wants to approach the issue of racism in the United States, one has to get one’s fingernails dirtier than that. As for books, I recommend the following works that cover the early history of slavery: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist and Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon.[3] These titles suggest that a full appreciation the legacy of slavery might resist a book-of-the-month-club bromide. These two books make for grim reading, indeed. Any book that includes a chapter entitled “Anatomy of a Slave Mine” makes for grim reading, the harrowing stuff that causes you to bury your face in your hands as a Good White, as a beneficiary of institutional racism.

Let us, then, turn now to yet another book, one that keeps coming to mind when I think about the recent racial crises. Several years ago, Thomas Frank author of a book called What’s the Matter with Kansas? posed the question of why struggling small farmers from places like Kansas supported a Republican party whose policies undermined their economic position on every level.[4] Such people struggled far more mightily under measures put in place by Republican policymakers than they might have had the Democrats held the reins of power. Why did such people, in election after election, vote in ways that jeopardized their economic present and the future of their children? The answer: God and guns, over a bottle of domestic beer. Workers quivering on the cusp of financial ruin would rather have endured penury so long as the man occupying the seat of power purported to share their sentiments on two articles of the bill of rights, and voiced the message they sought in the “aw, shucks” manner of George W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan.  Republicans across the country knew that, played to it, and remained in control of the presidency and Congress until a couple of mis-managed wars and Barack Obama did them in.  In 2008 it had for a brief moment appeared that the US had finally surfaced from below the waves of its racist past.  Instead, the solution bobbed there unsteadily for a few years before being pulled back down again. In my view, the reaction to the election of Obama in places like Kansas unearthed the third, erstwhile unspoken, pillar of Republican support: racism. And we’re back where we were, except that our current president makes no bones about his distaste for people who don’t look like him. It’s on now…

White supremacists cling to racism like they cling to their belief in their god, or to the barrels of their guns. Racism in this context is a visceral, gut sentiment with centuries of momentum behind it.

To wit, not long ago I was forwarded a text from Fox News covering the near-fatal shooting of Chip Banks, a former NFL player, black, who lived in Atlanta after his professional career ended.  I read the Fox News briefing and scrolled down to the reader comments. No words of sympathy, no hope for Banks’s recovery. Instead, I came upon comments suggesting that Banks had got what he deserved, that he was in the ‘hood, and death would be the best thing that ever happened to him. One commenter posted a set of dubious statistics—pregnancies, drug usage, welfare—in support of his notion that blacks should be run out of the USA.  There were full-throated racial epithets as well. All this for a man clinging to life.[5]

No civil conversation, no book club, can contend with that.

If you wish to understand the sinister racist subtext, the baked bread, of American society, set aside the books and watch Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. In that movie Sal, a white owner of a pizzeria in a black neighborhood in New York City, has throughout the movie called out his older son, whose openly racist attitude offends Sal’s black customers. Sal goes so far as to tell a black employee named Mookie that he considers him a son.  Late in the movie, Sal objects to the loud music emanating from the boombox of a black customer named Radio Raheem. When Radio Raheem increases the volume, Sal hurls the N-word at him.  After a struggle, the place erupts, and white police officers arrive to finish the job by killing Radio Raheem with a chokehold. The pizzeria burns. Sal was a Good White, who said the right things until the tension between black and white became too great, and he revealed his racist colors in the end. Do the Right Thing was made in 1989.  It might have been made in 1979, in 2019, or in 2049.

[1] I suspect that the popularity of current best-sellers on the subject of racism will wane in time, just as the post-9/11 uptick in popularity of books about Islam subsided.

[2] DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Beacon Press, 2018. Anderson, Carol, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, Bloomsbury, 2017. I believe that I could have chosen any two books on the topic at random and come away with the same opinion, such is the surfeit of books on racism in 2020.

[3] The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Basic Books, 2014. Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, Anchor Books, 2008. A review essay focusing on these titles will appear in a later post.

[4] Frank, Thomas, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Picador, 2005.

[5] I have since learned that Chip Banks is on his way to recovery.

Past as Prologue, or Observations During a Plague Year

A note on Daniel Defoe and the Great Plague of 1665-66.

You may recognize Daniel Defoe as the author of Robinson Crusoe. He wrote a less famous work with the title Journal of a Plague Year, which recounts the Great Plague of London of 1665-66.  As Journal of a Plague Year was published in 1722, some fifty-five years after the events it describes, the work has come in for some criticism as to its historical veracity; Defoe would have been a small child at the time of the events that he describes. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that he would have invented the response of Londoners.  He certainly would have learned of events from those who had survived that visitation of the plague. What is more, Defoe’s account is largely confirmed by the diary of Samuel Pepys, a first-hand witness of the events of 1665-66.

How did Defoe describe the behavior of Londoners during the outbreak? Those with the means to do so fled to the countryside, including the king himself, along with his court. Those who remained—typically poor– were placed under quarantine if a member of the household found him/herself under suspicion of infection. The remaining rump of the government assigned supervision of quarantined houses to anyone willing to perform the task, and these people often looked the other way as inmates under their supervision broke quarantine to visit ale-houses or conduct personal business, thereby assisting the spread of the plague. The medical and ecclesiastical infrastructure in place were ill-equipped to handle the deluge of the infected and the corpses, and the dead in their great numbers were deposited in mass graves.  The economy, meanwhile, suffered from the diminution of local trade and the British crown’s ban on imports from the continent.  

Let’s investigate possible parallels with the handling of the 2020 crisis. Ineffective authorities?  Check. The medical infrastructure overwhelmed?  Check. Corpses in the streets? Roger. The poor succumbing in disproportionate numbers? Church dat. People defying sensible protocols put in place to prevent further spread of the disease? You bet.

Welcome to the eighteenth century.

Oh, and the London population recovered, and resumed its Malthusian trajectory. Now, who or what is Malthus?

A note on Thomas Malthus.

Wise minds look to the past as a guide to the present.  In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, those seeking historic parallels frequently point to the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918-1920 as a guide.  The Spanish flu did claim millions of lives, after all. But perhaps a glance into the deeper past might throw further light on the situation in 2020. Perhaps we did this to ourselves and are little better equipped to deal with a plague than were our seventeenth-century British forbears.

To illustrate my point, I turn your attention to Thomas Malthus, an eighteenth-century English clergyman and economist. Malthus argued that while food supply increases arithmetically over time, population increases exponentially. Thus, any increase in food supply will be far outstripped by a growth in population that this increase in calories cannot sustain.  Nature periodically addresses this overpopulation through plagues, famines, and warfare (starving peoples will attack their neighbors in their quest for food). Not surprisingly, it is the poor and undernourished whose number diminishes most from such demographic crises. The reduced post-disaster population will, after a time, resume its exponential growth that exceeds the food supply necessary to support it. Until the next demographic adjustment, that is.

Now, the world population at the time of Malthus’s essay in 1798 was about one billion. By 2020, this figure had swelled to 7.8 billion, an average increase of 780%, or 3.5 percent per year. However, this average increase is itself growing, shall we say, exponentially. To wit, the world population has grown to its current number from 6.1 billion in the year 2000, a 28 percent increase in a single generation.[1] Some estimates suggest that the world population will peak at 10.9 billion around the year 2100.[2]  But is that number sustainable?[3]  Let us not lose sight of the fact that global warming may well threaten the sustainability of the global food supply.

I am no demographer, but I wonder if the world is spitting us out. Are we a billion or two too many? Does this visitation of coronavirus indicate the onset of a new Malthusian crisis? Will further visitations occur, as was the case with earlier plagues, this time having morphed beyond whatever remedy we can come up with?

[1] Of course, advances in medicine and industrialized agriculture have facilitated much of this growth; we do not inhabit the same world as Malthus.

[2] More on the reliability of statistics in a later post.

[3],of%2020.0%20(Figure%202.1). The creators of this website hold a somewhat optimistic view of trends in global malnutrition on the basis of the proportion of the world population that is undernourished.  But the absolute number surely have increased?

In Defense of Zoe Saldana’s “Nina”

Recently Zoe Saldana, an actress of color, tearfully apologized for portraying African-American singer Nina Simone in the 2016 biopic Nina. Saldana has come under heavy criticism for darkening her skin and wearing a prosthetic nose to appear more like Simone in the film.[1]  The more I read about this situation, the more I wonder whether any African-Americans had expressed interest in playing Nina Simone. Has anyone raised this question? I wonder further whether Ms. Saldana might have been better off had someone else who looked like Nina Simone but lacking in acting talent been cast in the role. In any event, the movie was fraught with inaccuracies and was universally panned.[2]

I happen to enjoy Nina Simone’s music, admire her defiance toward American racism, and believe there is a good biopic about her waiting to be made.  Along these lines, what if Ms. Saldana, a woman of color, happens, like me, to be a passionate admirer of Nina Simone?  What if Ms. Saldana’s dream has always been to show her respect for Nina Simone by acting in a film about her?  Why is that unacceptable?

In 2010 a biography of Nina Simone appeared.  David Brun-Lambert, its author, offered up convincing explanations for certain manifestations of her oftentimes prickly behavior.[3]  I read the book and came away with an appreciation of not only Nina Simone’s music, but also of her tenacity in pushing back against the racism that thwarted her dreams on several fronts and faced her at every turn.  Mississippi Goddam, indeed!  Now, Mr. Brun-Lambert is white.  I recall no politically-inspired condemnation of Brun-Lambert’s work. As far as I know, he issued no formal public apology.  Because of Brun-Lambert, many readers are closer to Nina Simone than they would have been without him.  I know that I am. If a white male can write an acceptable biography of a Black female, then why can’t a Jamaican/Puerto Rican female portray a Black female in a movie? What if viewers of Nina, intrigued by the film, took further interest in the music and message of Nina Simone?

I, for one, have a hard time accepting the fact that Ms. Saldana felt the need to apologize for portraying Nina Simone.  Ms. Saldana’s supposed sin lies in acting in the role of Nina Simone. But isn’t the portrayal of others the quintessence of acting? Criticism of Ms. Saldana’s performance should be based upon her skills as an actor, not upon the color of her skin or the make-up job. Shouldn’t we assess the film on its artistic merits instead of injecting issues of race into the discussion?

Has racial enmity come so far that art, which should count among its duties the bridging of racial differences–however constituted—must instead accentuate them?  Must we assign racial pigeonholes to our artists? Isn’t the Zoe Saldana case censorship’s kissing cousin, masquerading under the guise of political correctness?

[1] Before her apology, Ms. Saldana pointed to Elizabeth Taylor’s role as Cleopatra in 1963’s Cleopatra as precedent. The casting of Taylor in the role of an Egyptian has met with sporadic condemnation over the years. Nicole Kidman wore a prosthetic nose to appear more like Virginia Woolf in The Hours. That was an Australian attempting to pass for a Brit. But how, then, do we explain Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of an African-American professor in The Human Stain? Or Richard Gere portraying an American of Japanese descent in Akira Kurosawa’s Rhapsody in August? Why do such cases not come in for deeper scrutiny?

[2] Those interested in watching a worthwhile film about Nina Simone should turn instead to the 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, which contains ample footage of the actual Nina Simone.

[3] Brun-Lambert, David. Nina Simone: A Biography. Aurum Press, 2010.

Trump’s Coronvirus Approach Goes to Eleven

United States President Donald Trump has come in for a fair bit of criticism for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Those critics who rushed to judgment upon viewing Trump’s recent interview with Jonathan Swan of Axios may wish to reconsider their assessment of the president’s performance on the Coronavirus front. For there is more at play here. To frame the president’s comportment under Swan’s questions, we need to go back in time, all the way back to 1982.

I point you to veteran rockumantarian Marty DiBergi’s interview with hard rock band Spinal Tap lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel. This footage shows Spinal Tap’s Tufnel fielding, with consummate clarity of expression, difficult questions posed by DiBergi. Note how assured Tufnel appears as he shares the secrets of his craft. I enjoin you to pay particular attention to his flawless command of statistics at the end of the conversation, and DiBergi’s respectful silence. I, for one, took away from this interview an unstinting appreciation for Tufnel’s knowledge of, and commitment to, his art.

NIgel Tufnel: artist and professional,

I now refer you to the first 1:42 of the Trump/Swan interview below. Pay attention to the cogency and clarity of the president’s responses to Swan’s tough lines of questioning, his cool-headedness, his respect for the give-and-take of the media interview process, and his mastery of statistics. Note the parallels with Tufnel’s performance.

Close your eyes, listen to the two interviews a second time, think away Trump’s formal apparel and, er, non-mullet, and imagine how smoothly the Tufnel interview might have played out with a bit of coaching from the president.

Why United States Presidents Ignore History at Peril

Iranian students after having stormed the US embassy in Tehran, 1979.

There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” Harry S. Truman[1]

United States President Donald Trump has announced his plan to withdraw significant US military forces from Germany, at a stroke weakening America’s commitment to NATO, a large part of whose mandate is to protect Europe from Russia.

Germany has long represented a bulwark, protecting Western interests from threats from Russia.  Think back to Ronald Reagan in Berlin appealing to Mikhail Gorbachev, to John F. Kennedy’s (somewhat mangled) assertion of identification of spirit with West Berliners, to the Berlin Airlift. Germany has been the cornerstone of western European security since 1945. Generations of US military personnel have stood post there, gazing eastward.[2]

Trump’s decision undermines all of this. Does he begin to comprehend the historical significance of Germany? Does a US president need to appreciate history? Do any of us?

I’ll answer this question with an anecdote of sorts. One evening in late 2003, I read Stephen Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. In the introduction, Kinzer recalls asking an Iranian author what she could tell him about the American-led coup against democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who was replaced in 1953 by the vicious American puppet, Mohammad Reza Shah. The author’s response is worth quoting:

“‘Why did you Americans do that terrible thing?” she cried out. “We always loved America.  To us, America was the great country, the perfect country, the country that helped us while other countries were exploiting us.  But after that moment, no one in Iran ever trusted the United States again.  I can tell you for sure that if you had not done that thing, you would never have had the problem of hostages being taken in your embassy in Tehran.  All your trouble started in 1953.  Why did you do it?’ ”[3]

I recall an interview with Kinzer, in which he mentioned how few Americans were aware of their government’s role in a coup d’etat against a democratically elected foreign leader. I counted myself among the ignorant on that day, for I did not learn of the coup until I heard the interview with Kinzer. I had followed the 1979 hostage crisis as closely as anyone, but I remember no mention in the US media of how the Shah had been foisted upon the Iranian people.

Perhaps trouble with Iran, in 1979 and now, could have been avoided had the US leadership known a bit of history.  Allow me to extend this notion: perhaps the US might have avoided a number of unsightly political missteps had its recent leaders known a bit of history.

George H.W. Bush lost the 1992 election in large part because his re-election campaign focused on the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War instead of on the faltering US economy (“it’s the economy, stupid.”).  He banked on political triumph by basking in the glory of victory in a distant war rather than concentrating on the matter that Americans have historically held most dear: the economy.  Bush lost the presidency to Bill Clinton. Badly.

Had Bill Clinton throughout his presidency appreciated the ferocious anti-American Islamic sentiment of the US-backed mujahideen in Afghanistan, who felt betrayed and abandoned by America once the Soviet army had withdrawn from the country, and had he not become distracted by frivolous sexual excursions, he may have paid greater heed to indications that those very mujahideen were channeling their resentments into plans for the greatest surprise assault in recent memory.

If Bush Senior had misinterpreted traditional American values, at least he could locate Iraq on a world map and was wise enough not to authorize coalition forces to follow the Imperial Guard as it fled back within Iraqi borders in the winter of 1990-91.  George H.W. Bush was misinformed.  His son George W. Bush was outright ignorant, and was poorly advised on top of that. Had he possessed even a modicum of knowledge of the history of the Middle East region, he may have resisted the Neo-Cons who cajoled him into invasions of Afghanistan (mishandled) and Iraq (unwise in its conception and bungled on every level). History might have taught him simple lessons. 

The first lesson Bush Junior may have taken away from opening a book or two along the way is that Afghanistan is known as “The Graveyard of Empires” for a reason.  One needs only a cursory familiarity with the country’s history of rough treatment of invaders to realize that Britain had a hard time of it there in the 19th century, and withdrew.  If George W. Bush was unaware of that stretch of history, he certainly must have known about the bleeding that Afghan mujahideen—in no small irony financed and armed by the United States—had meted out to the invading Red Army in the 1980s, using surprise hit-and-run tactics.

The second lesson George W. Bush should have gleaned from history is that Arabs view military tactics differently than do westerners.  Western military leaders have tended to seek pitched battles in which technological and logistical superiority carry the day. Generals seek accolades. This mindset has traditionally found small purchase among Arab military leaders, who over the centuries have preferred surprise hit-and-run tactics. The Crusaders learned this lesson the hard way in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  Time and again, Arab forces feigned retreat before crusading hosts, thereby enticing crusaders to break ranks in pursuit and into massacre.  The Crusades, if my reading has served me correctly, failed, though they did leave behind lingering enmity and mistrust toward westerners. Similarly, one need to look no further than to Napoleon Bonaparte’s ill-fated expedition in Egypt to see the effectiveness of localized terrorism on western occupiers.  His forces continually harried by hidden attackers, Napoleon fled ignominiously homeward, abandoning his men to their fate.  Arab commanders seek no accolades. Yet, George W. Bush, seemingly ignorant of any of this, blundered into the region, at considerable cost in human life.

Why do I write all of this as a prelude to my assessment of Donald Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from Germany? Well, ignorance of history is a harsh master. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Russian history will recognize its designs on central Europe and its traditional need for a warm-water port (read: Istanbul). Russia’s military incursions into Ukraine over the past few years represent a preliminary thrust in that direction.

Let us examine the matter further through the lens of history. Russia under the tsars took part in three eighteenth-century partitions of Poland, wiping that country from the map. In the First World War, Tsar Nicholas II cut a deal with Britain and France, whereby command over the Ottoman-controlled Bosporus Straits–and access to the Mediterranean Sea–would have fallen to Russia in exchange for concessions to British and French interests elsewhere in Europe. In 1920, revolutionary Russia invaded a reconstituted Poland, only to be beaten back soundly, this in the midst of Russian-hatched initiatives to overthrow the German Weimar Republic.  Nineteen years later, the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin acquired half of Poland via the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Nazi Germany. In 1940, the Soviet Union absorbed Estonia and Latvia under the terms of the same deal, and would have taken Finland had the Red Army not met with unexpectedly stiff resistance there. A glance at a map of post-World-War-Two Europe supplies a fair idea of a European political arrangement to Russia’s liking.

President Trump ignores all of this by stripping central Europe of a cornerstone of its security on the pretext that Germany hasn’t met its financial obligations to NATO.  Meanwhile, Russia’s historical imperative directs its interests toward central Europe and Turkey.

If I lived in Turkey, I would be worried right now. If I lived in Poland, I would be worried right now. If I lived in Germany, I would be worried right now. If I lived in the United States, I would be worried right now.

[1]Kinzer, Stephen, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2008), v.

[2] For an account of the visceral fear that the presence of Russian troops on German soil arouses among Germans, I point you to the following book. Huber, Florian, “Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself”: The Mass Suicide of Ordinary Germans in 1945. Little, Brown, and Spark, 2020. This is a harrowing read.  Germans viewed Russian soldiers with horror, and the Russians did not disappoint.

[3] Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, xxv.

The Best of Times

The Relevance of The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years by Haynes Johnson.

While commuting home from work one evening in 2002, I came upon an interview on NPR with the journalist Haynes Johnson, whose book had just come out. I listened to Johnson making a convincing argument that the 1990s, following the demise of the Soviet bloc and “The end of history” (I’m looking at you, Francis Fukuyama), the US media turned inward, diverting funds from international coverage toward more salacious fare, such as the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, the Bobbit case, the O.J. Simpson trial, and Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress.

What was the result of this media masturbation? Well, for one, the US citizenry lost all taste for events playing out beyond the country’s borders. No one held the US government’s finger to the fire to account for its mis-dealings abroad.  The Pentagon had, after all, armed and funded the Islamic jihadists in the proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and had subsequently ignored them once the USSR had withdrawn its forces from that country. To be sure, Bill Clinton was not unaware of Osama bin Laden’s existence, and even authorized the bombing of a Somalian aspirin factory in a half-hearted effort to eliminate him (bin Laden was nowhere near the target).

From 1999-2000, I was performing research in Germany, and I followed closely articles in The Economist and the German media.  I noticed that European reporters viewed the consolidation of the Taliban and the rise of al Qaeda with mounting alarm.  Their American counterparts, meanwhile, devoted their energies where the money was, toward enlightening their public about the blue dress.

Today we see the US media outlets—virtually all of them—focusing their coverage almost exclusively on domestic matters in an election year.  President Trump’s politicizing of everything elicits triumphant cheers among his base and sneers of derision among the Left. A  Center no longer exists, as far as I can tell.

Meanwhile, what is China doing while the leader of the free world defends icons of the Confederacy and undermines straight thinking about the virus?  Why, it is inciting border skirmishes with neighboring India and asserting itself militarily in the South China Sea, depredations that threaten stability in a region that has supplanted the Middle East as the next hotbed of global conflict. Once the virus clears and racial tensions in the US subside (highly debatable suppositions), the US may open its eyes to its new status:  that of a pariah superpower in slippery decline. Perhaps an account of the Trump years might be called The Worst of Times: America in the Trump Years.