Thursday, December 20, 2018

Visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care

Happy Holidays.
(Half a dozen Fox News people just rolled over in their graves!)

It’s time to focus one’s attention on gift-giving. So, here we will examine history to determine how to select a gift for your favorite Republican. 


In his (in)famous 1952 “Checkers” speech (in response to accusations about a political slush fund) Richard Nixon, fighting to remain on the Republican ticket as candidate for the vice-presidency, poor-mouthed that his wife didn’t wear a mink coat but “a respectable Republican cloth coat.” While Pat Nixon shivered through a few winters without a fur wrapping, Dick was apparently always thinking about fashion. For, when he became president in 1969, he decided that the White House police needed a new kit: a “white‐tunicked, gold‐braided, pillbox‐hatted ceremonial uniform.” (1)

If Nixon was concerned about outfitting those around him, his Supreme Court appointee William Rehnquist was concerned about his own threads. He eventually decided that his sitting on the bench as Chief Justice (after nomination by Ronald Reagan) called for new robing. Here’s the report in the New York Times:
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist appeared on the bench in a black robe adorned with four gold stripes on each sleeve. The courtroom audience was too polite to point or exclaim, but an explanation was clearly in order and, within hours, the Court's public information office provided one: the Chief Justice had designed a robe after one worn by the Lord Chancellor in a local production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanthe," and he intended to keep on wearing it. (2)
Gilbert and Sullivan, perhaps, instead of The Student Prince to the Times’ eyes, but to mine, those stripes on the robe reminded me of nothing other than the length-of-service stripes on the ancient waiters at the Gage and Tollner restaurant in downtown Brooklyn. (3)


Having offered advice for gifting Republican fashionistas, we can turn our thoughts (in our not-quite-Martha-Stewart way) to jollying-up GOP office decor. 

We can start with a custom hardwood table, chairs, and a hutch for 31,561 taxpayer dollars for that bargain shopper Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development. But for a mega-list of gift ideas we had best turn to recently-resigned (but not lamented) Scott Pruitt, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. 
[Pruitt] installed a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office that the Government Accountability Office has deemed violates federal spending laws.Another $9,000 was spent sweeping Pruitt’s office for listening bugs and installing biometric locks. Pruitt’s head of security wanted to spend another $70,000 to replace two desks. A total of $1,560 was billed to the EPA for 12 customized silver pens. (4)

Hopefully, this post has eased the burden of your GOP gift selection anxieties. If you somehow forget these particular items, you can’t go wrong by adhering to the following advice: 

Make sure it’s costly, unnecessary, tasteless, and paid for by other people.


(1) To the Washington Star the men looked like West German traffic policemen: “One's first inclination ... is to ask, ‘Wo ist der Bahnhof?’” (“Where is the railroad station?”) The Cleveland Plain Dealer thought they looked more like “generals in the banana republics to the south of us.” To the Chicago Daily News they were like movie characters in “a rerun of ‘Graustark’ or ‘The Student Prince,’” the Detroit News found them “unusual but ghastly,” while the Buffalo Evening News said “even ushers at old‐time movie palaces were garbed with greater restraint and better taste.” “Ruritania, D.C.,” scoffed The New York Times. 

(3) For decades Brooklyn’s finest would be served she-crab soup, Baltimore broiled clams, English mutton chops and kidneys en brochette by waiters in gold striped uniforms that indicated their length of service, with the Gold Eagle the most prestigious award, signifying 25 years of service.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Polls, Taxed

“Raise your hands, all in favor of declaring that gay people are no longer afflicted with a mental illness.”

Well, it wasn’t done as starkly as that, but as Andrew Scull points out, the declaration “that homosexuality, previously labeled a mental illness, was nothing of the sort” was decided “by a majority vote of America’s psychiatrists,” and thus the second edition of the bible of the profession, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM), published in 1968, eliminated that diagnosis. It was, Scull writes, “surely an odd way to decide a scientific question, though, to be sure, one that all but the most bigoted would eventually endorse as appropriate.” (1)


A few years before that change in the mental health field, a massive headache afflicted a good number of editors and writers upon first gazing into Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, published in 1961 by Merriam-Webster. Those folk were appalled because, as they saw it, the new dictionary left the vast public of English speakers up the language creek without a prescriptive paddle.

To the rescue came a new dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary. What was special about the AHD was that its parent company gathered together a panel of 105 literati and others to advise “with regard to dubious or controversial locutions.” (2) The voting by the panelists on questions of English usage was, to paraphrase Scull, surely an odd way to decide language questions, the answers to which are not determinable by democratic shows of hands. And what do you do when you have a tug of war over the use of the split infinitive—with half the panel on each side of the rope?


I remember, in that general period of time, that one year when Downbeat, the jazz magazine, was conducting its annual awards poll, one of the magazine’s writers refused to participate in selecting a best trumpeter or best pianist (and the rest), because, he claimed, art is not to be judged like a beauty contest or sporting event. (3) Of course, no one in any artistic field pays any attention to such an argument. So the public is offered a steady diet of meta-lists, as “experts” in the theater and music (and so on) are polled to anoint the BEST actor of all time (Judi Dench, as I recall) or the BEST pianist (Rachmaninov, wasn’t it?) 

While one doesn’t expect that the next show of hands by American psychiatrists will decide that gays really are neurotic or psychotic (or whatever), artistic polls (being totally subjective) are quite quixotic. Consider the movies (or should I say “cinema” in this context?): For gazillion years the BEST movie of all time was proclaimed to be “Citizen Kane”; then, out of the blue, in 2016, “Vertigo,” Alfred Hitchcock’s neutron bomb (4) of a movie, topped Sight & Sound’s 10-yearly poll. (5) 

How is it, I wonder, that when nothing had changed in ten years (“Vertigo” did not pitch 5 no-hitters, during which time “Citizen Kane” suffered through several prolonged batting slumps) that the former film could leapfrog over the latter? 

All who proclaim “Total Bollocks” raise your hand.

As for me, I have more faith in magazine polls that list New Jersey’s best dentists.   


(3) I don’t recall which writer it was (perhaps Leonard Feather), and, even more regretfully, I don’t recall his exact argument. So, I offer the assumed explanation above with fingers crossed that I came close to his argument.

(4) “A weapon that killed [people] by irradiation while sparing property.”
I fully expect to discuss “Vertigo” in a future post, but today’s my birthday, and I don’t want to have to deal further right now with that dud of a film.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Raindrops Falling on His Head

The news this weekend was interesting. The President of the United States finked out of a once-in-a-hundred-year commemoration of the end of the War To End All Wars (which, of course, didn’t). The official excuse for his not showing up at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in Belleau, France was that his 50-mile trip was “canceled due to scheduling and logistical difficulties caused by the weather.”(1) The weather (rain) supposedly made the ceiling too low for a flight by helicopter. Sarah Hockey Puck Sanders, White House Press Secretary, produced a photograph of the climatic conditions for the assembled press corps (minus CNN's Jim Acosta, naturally):

When questioned by incredulous newsmen, she denied the photo was “doctored.” 

The ceremony was attended by Chief of Staff John Kelly, who traveled by automobile. The White House later issued a statement that the President himself couldn’t go by car because of a fear of causing a traffic jam.(2)

Cynics immediately responded by claiming that while rain was indeed the issue, it wasn’t about helicopter altitude, but about hair altitude—that Trump was afraid that this:

would end up looking like this:(3)

Safe from the rain, Trump apparently stayed high and dry in his hotel room, where he could focus on the greatest mobilized threat a president has faced since the Battle of the Bulge—THE CARAVAN:

That is, the refugees from violence, hunger, and economic despair filtering through Central America toward the southern border of the US. But who were, according to Trump, infiltrated by shady Middle Easterners:

In his hotel room Trump presumably was fashioning orders for the mobilization of crack army troops to secure the border:

The greatest beneficiary of Trump’s troop movements would be his firmest political base—the white evangelical Christian bloc—here seen praying against Shakespeare(4): 

What these evangelical Christians would gain from the barring of the Latin American asylum seekers would be never having to mix in their congregations with a bunch of Latinos named Jesus.




Thursday, November 8, 2018

“I’m hungry; may I have a piece of bread?”

Friday is the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass. The pogrom of 9 November 1938 in Nazi Germany demonstrated to the Jewish population their lives were in urgent danger and that they must leave if they could. But where to go?(1)
One answer—if not for the escape of the parents—was for the children to be sent out of the Reich on what became known as the Kindertransport. The United Kingdom accepted 10,000 evacuees.(2) 

Another 669 children from Czechoslovakia were rescued singlehandedly by the remarkable English stockbroker Nicholas Winton:
[H]e made lists of the children, took their photographs, got them Home Office entry permits, found them foster families and organised their departure on trains, via the Netherlands, to Liverpool Street. After just three weeks in Prague, he went back to Britain and carried on the work from there.(3)
He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2003, but he never considered himself a hero.


But an even larger evacuation of children in the twentieth century took place from a land I (and, most likely, you) would never have guessed—Finland. 
During World War II, the Finnish government evacuated about 70,000 children to protect them from the danger, stress and uncertainty of war. Their parents agreed to send them to foster homes primarily in Sweden.(4)
The program may have spared those children the dangers of war, but there were apparently long-term costs due to their separation from their parents. Indeed, as Moises Velasquez-Manoff, the author of the Times article notes, “[Y]ears later, some would consider the program a grave mistake.”

Studies conducted some four decades after the children returned home discovered both psychological and health differences between those children and a control group who were not evacuated. Among the findings:
Men evacuated as children, Finnish scientists found, were more likely to have mental health and substance abuse problems than men who weren’t. Both sexes were more likely to suffer from depression if separated. . . .Illness and death from heart disease were more common in the separated group. They had about twice the risk of heart disease and a 40 percent increased risk of Type 2 diabetes. They had slightly higher blood pressure — particularly women.

Why bring all this up now? 

Because, as Velasquez-Manoff points out,
This research, which is ongoing, helps us understand the long-term consequences of another mass separation of children from their parents — the one orchestrated by the Trump administration.
More than 2,500 migrant children were taken from their parents and detained. Most have since been reunited, but 12,800 migrant children — a record, as we learned last week [i.e., in September]— remain in detention.
And his conclusion is damning:
The Trump administration probably intended the separation of children from their parents to be cruel. Conceived as a deterrent, it was meant to hurt. But was it supposed to impair cognitive development and cause heart attacks, diabetes and mental illness decades later? This may be its more sinister legacy: a subtle but lifelong derangement of mind and body.


Stephen Moss, the author of the Guardian article, tells of two Kindertransport children, now a married couple in their nineties, who go
into schools to talk to young people about what they and their parents suffered, testifying both as an act of remembrance towards their parents but also as a warning to the next generation that intolerance, hatred and scapegoating of minorities are ever-present threats.
While we keep learning about the consequences of warfare that extend beyond the piles of the slaughtered (both military and civilian) and the daily agonies of the wounded and the maimed, perhaps the testimony of these survivors can prevent peacetime from producing its own evils.


(2) The Guardian is telling the story of six of those children (see above footnote). 

Note: The title of this essay comes from another of Stephen Moss' articles on the Kindertransport children:

Wednesday, October 31, 2018


Had a dream the other night. It was in the form of a black-and white motion picture.

The opening shot is from on high, looking down on a massive athletic stadium, where a soccer game is in progress. As the camera zooms in, a player is in the clear, dribbling down the right side of the field and into the penalty area. Suddenly, out of nowhere, an opposition player comes careening into him, laying him flat out. The camera pans from the face of the stricken player to the face of the offender—it’s Chico Marx.

The referee rushes over to Chico with a card in his hand (it can only be red, of course). As he waves it in Chico’s face, another hand swoops in, and grabs it away. Harpo (who else?) then puts the card in his mouth and eats it. The referee now has four things to see to—the sending off of Chico, the condition of the injured player, the setting up of the penalty kick, and dealing with Harpo’s lèse-majesté. 

After setting the ball on the penalty spot, the referee walks over to Harpo, who, when the referee puts his hand in his pocket, also puts his hand in it. The referee then struggles to get his hand out to issue Harpo a card, but when he does so, the force of both hands coming out together unleashes a spray of cards, which land all over the turf. Harpo, seeing that, with one of his great grins on his face, pulls out a deck of cards from his shorts and starts playing war. Since Harpo’s deck is, naturally, all aces, he takes trick after trick, honking his horn, gloriously happy. 

Meanwhile, with the referee trying to deal with both Harpo and the moaning player, Chico surreptitiously nudges the ball away from the penalty spot. When the referee glances over, he sees the ball wrongly placed and goes over to replace the ball. This repeats itself several times, until the referee takes the bull by the horns and sternly orders both Chico and Harpo off the field. Harpo, looking abject with his lower lip drooping, approaches the referee with his hand out in full apology mode. The referee responds, and after the handshake, Harpo walks away to stand inside the right post of the goal, joining Chico, who is standing inside the left goal post. 

We see this from the perspective of the player who is to take the penalty kick. He (and we) sees Harpo and Chico inside the goal and in the middle Groucho, wearing his tailcoat and old-fashioned American football pants, with his mustache and eyebrows painted thickly on (as in the early films). He is smoking a large cigar. The camera cuts to Harpo, who blows the referee’s whistle (remember the handshake). 

Play thus resumes. From a camera angle behind the penalty taker, we see both his run up to the ball and the three Marxes in the goal mouth—each now clad in a baseball catcher’s chest protector and mask, with a catcher’s mitt on his left hand. 

The camera angle now changes, and from the goal mouth we watch the completion of the penalty taker’s run, the swing of his leg, and the contact with the water balloon, which a long time ago Chico had substituted for the soccer ball.

With water spray filling the screen, the credits begin to roll.

(Anybody know Steven Spielberg’s phone number?) 

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Charming Billy (Consciences and Conservatives, Part 2)

In November or early December of 1957 I went to see Mort Sahl at the Village Vanguard in New York City. One piece of his satirical monologue remains in my memory to this day—his explanation of the difference between conservative Republicans and moderate Republicans.(1) 

Conservative Republicans, Sahl claimed, would not do anything for the first time, while moderate Republicans were willing to do something for the first time—but not now.


The essence of conservatism isn’t hard to discover—it’s right there in the name. It’s the desire to maintain, preserve, cling to what one has. In societal terms, it is to defend the status quo, the existing order against the fear (reasonable or not) of an unleashed anarchy. Probably the strongest statement in literature of this fear is the speech by Ulysses in Act I, Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida [excerpt]:

O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows!

Order is achieved through strict maintenance of a class structure (“degree”). Just as the heavenly harmony of all the planets (the music of the spheres) is threatened by disorder in the heavens (“when the planets/ In evil mixture to disorder wander”), the harmonious music of civilization is untuned by class disruption. Maintaining the prerogatives of the established political, ecclesiastical, and commercial powers is of the utmost necessity to the conservative mind. It was the Conservative Party who kept the propertyless, women, dissenters, Jews, and Catholics from full citizens’ rights in England, while advancing the interests of the aristocracy, the landowners, and the established church. That political and religious conservatism go hand-in-hand should not be ignored. It was more than a jest when Maude Royden (1876–1956) famously spoke of the Church of England as “the Conservative Party at prayer.”


Perhaps the most notorious American outburst against change is this yelp from William Buckley, Jr., in his introductory proclamation in the first issue of his magazine, National Review
A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.(2)
It was not so much “Stop the world, I want to get off,” as “Stop the world, I want to preserve ‘civilization’ (the boundaries of which conveniently are co-terminus with my own privilege and power).” Do I detect a scent of solipsism?

The white Ivy League Colossus standing “athwart history,” in the words of William Hogeland,
ordained himself the leisure-class warrior-philosopher, provoked to militancy by ubiquitous barbarism, defending on behalf of conservatism not mere intellect but the highest cultural sophistication and refinement.(3)  
Buckley’s civilization was the civilization of the white race. He asked, should the white Southerners, although in a minority, be allowed to maintain segregation—are they indeed “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally”? [emphasis mine] 

Buckley’s “sobering answer”(4) was “Yes”--they were entitled, because the “White community” is “for the time being . . . the advanced race.” 

Thus it should come as no surprise to learn that Buckley and his National Review opposed school integration and civil rights legislation, such as the Voting Rights Act. Buckley was also in favor of jury nullification—that is, juries deciding against the evidence to acquit in cases where Southern officials were tried for such undemocratic acts as failing to count the ballots cast by black voters.

Buckley’s conservatism was antidemocratic at its core.(5) Hogeland points to the following three-part statement of Buckley’s as the heart of his conservatism:
The claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage. . . . If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. . . . sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence. 
Buckley proclaimed the need to defend “civilization” against democracy. Which “enlightened” action was gleefully undertaken by such defenders of the arts and sciences as Bull Connor, Commissioner of Public Safety of Birmingham, Alabama. Meanwhile, Shtarker Billy, the street-fightin’ man in the button-down collar, stayed safely above the Mason-Dixon line, coming out with some memorable lines (quoted by Chris Orlet):

1—“[R]epression is an unpleasant instrument, but it is absolutely necessary for civilizations that believe in order and human rights.” 

Repression is necessary for human rights? The man was positively Orwellian!

2—“It is for each man’s conscience to decide in the specific case whether segregation is being practiced morally or immorally.” [emphasis mine]

Ah, yes, the conservative conscience again. Don’t you feel relieved that it could be at ease with morally-practiced segregation?


(1) There were such fauna six decades ago.

(2) “Our Mission Statement” in National Review (19 November 1955).

(3) William Hogeland, “American Dreamers,” Inventing American History.

(4) No, there is no Swiftian irony here.

(5) And authoritarian down to his lace-ups. In a remark that would be crushingly satiric if made by practically anybody else, he excuses Francisco Franco of Spain as “not an oppressive dictator. He is only as oppressive as it is necessary to be to maintain total power.” 


Recommended reading:



Here is Ulysses’ complete speech in Troilus and Cressida:

Troy, yet upon his basis, had been down,
And the great Hector's sword had lack'd a master,
But for these instances.
The specialty of rule hath been neglected:
And, look, how many Grecian tents do stand
Hollow upon this plain, so many hollow factions.
When that the general is not like the hive
To whom the foragers shall all repair,
What honey is expected? Degree being vizarded,
The unworthiest shows as fairly in the mask.
The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself. Great Agamemnon,
This chaos, when degree is suffocate,
Follows the choking.
And this neglection of degree it is
That by a pace goes backward, with a purpose
It hath to climb. The general's disdain'd
By him one step below, he by the next,
That next by him beneath; so every step,
Exampled by the first pace that is sick
Of his superior, grows to an envious fever
Of pale and bloodless emulation:
And 'tis this fever that keeps Troy on foot,
Not her own sinews. To end a tale of length,
Troy in our weakness stands, not in her strength.