Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Boxing Day

Some old holidays were of such importance that one began marking them a day early, on the “eve” or “even”, as is still remember in the language in New Year’s Eve and Hallowe’en, on in Keats’s “Eve of Saint Agnes,” when “the owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold”.   The tendency to anticipate solemn or festive days was matched by a tendency to extend them.  Thus, for much of the English-speaking world the day after Christmas is still denominated “Boxing Day”.  My wonderful mother-in law, an English lady of the middle classes born in 1898 and departed from us now for many years, was old enough to remember and recall for her children the actual custom that gave “Boxing Day” its name. 

Her world, though very far removed from Downton Abbey, was nonetheless one in which domestic servants and accommodating tradespeople loomed large.  By “accommodating” I mean that they came to you with deliveries of groceries, baked goods, dairy products, ice, household services of many kinds.  It was an economic model in some ways being recreated by today’s Internet, only more direct, more personal, more immediately transactional.  On the day after Christmas it was customary for such people to knock at your kitchen door in the legitimate search of a little something, a gratuity in cash or kind.  The fellow who had been so faithful throughout long months in supplying you with cartloads of coal could expect to find on that day a little gift box for himself and his family.  Boxing Day was the day that such boxes were distributed.  This was all rather “feudal” from Marx’s point of view, but also “ideal”.

“Boxing Day” now means only “the day after Christmas” in England, and I note that the phrase has also to some degree found a home in American English.  This year, in an entirely new way, I well and truly had a Boxing Day experience.  It related less to ideal social relations than to single-stream recycling.  I have to say, first, that we had an absolutely marvelous Christmas holiday, as I hope was the experience of every reader of this blog.  We had a completely full house—all three children and their spouses, all six grandchildren, one attached boyfriend, fifteen in all.  And we have the photograph to prove it.  This blissful conjunction is unlikely to occur again soon, if ever.  I say this out of no valetudinarian pessimism but in simple recognition of the dizzying dynamism of the lives of the younger generations.  Our sumptuous midday feast picked is gastronomic path flawlessly through the cultural landscape of vegetarians, kosher-keepers, and Irish carnivores to its triumph of unity in its mountain of baked deserts.

Back to the boxing bit, however.  As a family we like to give lots of gifts.  The general rule is one “real” gift and several semi-facetious ones per recipient, with waived limits for really small people, of whom there were three.  What I mean by “semi-facetious” is this.  My eldest son and I exchanged identical cans of kippered herring, colorfully wrapped of course.  Gifts of the Magi.  The anchovies and the upscale tuna were separately packaged.

Some of our children, sensibly concluding that having their gifts shipped to Princeton in care of the APs was better than trying to bring them themselves in their various modes of conveyance from their various home bases, unleashed the awesome power of  By the beginning of the last week before Christmas our vestibule was stacked high and wide with Amazon cartons with their distinctive slinky curved arrow signs and, often, their portentous blue “Prime” tape.  Then as their rightful owners arrived just before the holiday, there were competing orgies of repackaging the goods in what later appeared to be about 200 square yards of decorative wrapping paper.  Very shortly thereafter, in the rampage that passes for “gift exchange” around here, the paper was removed, often by unceremonious infantile hands.   The result approximated the aftermath of a ticker tape parade.

Our local recycling is done on a bi-weekly schedule, every other Monday.  For reasons irrelevant to this account we missed the pickup on December 12.  So there was already a detritus backlog as we came into Christmas week.  And because Christmas fell on a Sunday, the pickup that ordinarily would have been made on the Monday (26th), Boxing Day,  has been postponed until Saturday (31st), on which date we shall be in South Carolina.  The meaning of the misalignment of the stars is that the next recycling date for which we shall be personally in residence is January 9th.  There are certain favors I am prepared to ask of my neighbors, but rummaging through our garbage is not one of them.  So I have spent half a day compressing shards of Christmas wrapping into Amazon shipping boxes, and breaking down little boxes to cram into larger ones—the product of which labor to be stored tidily somewhere in the house until dawn on January  9th.   On this Boxing Day there is no room in the manger.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Long Overdue

Arthur Boycott, FRS (1877-1938)

Though difficult to define with precision, the “American dream”, which featured large in political discussions during the recent electoral campaigns, holds to the belief in the possibility of the steady, long-term, progressive improvement in the material circumstances of the American family.  I have perhaps more than once commented in these essays on the huge differences in the life led by my grandparents, all born in the nineteenth century,  and the lives of my grandchildren, mostly born in the twenty-first.  Without presuming to touch upon either the economic possibility or theological probity of infinitely expanding material prosperity, I have begun a list of things that were common in my youth and now are rare or non-existent. 

            It once was a very common experience for a child from a neighboring family to appear at the door, with basket, bowl, jar, or cup in hand, with a polite request from the neighbor-mother to “borrow” an egg, a stick of margarine, a cup of sugar or some other food staple.  Such items were invariably scrupulously returned (or, one hopes, replaced) with elaborate thanks.  I noted early that there was a kind of hierarchy in borrowing.  No child would ever appear in search of a twenty-dollar bill, or even seventy-five cents to buy a dozen eggs.  There were indeed private loans of money, but they were a rather solemn, adult-male sort of thing, always arranged outside of my sight and hearing.

            No doubt professional sociologists and anthropologists have studied this sort of thing.  Certain items are so culturally borrowable as to threaten any meaningful distinction between loan and theft.  Umbrellas seem to fall into this category.  But in my particular line of work it is the book that most readily comes to mind.

            A woman named Barbara Roston just returned to the Brooklyn Public Library a copy of Gone with the Wind that had been overdue since 1959.  At the time she checked it out, Ms. Roston was fifteen years old and a sales-girl, or sales pre-woman, at Macy’s Department Store.  She simply forgot about it for approximately seventy years.  Fortunately the book’s lack of a barcode presented the librarians with such knotty technical problems that they entirely forgave her the accumulated thousand-dollar fine.  There is quite a bit of sociological interest here.  Are there still fifteen-year-old Americans whose idea of a big time after a hard day’s work is to hunker down with 400,000-word novels without any pictures but with lots of three-syllable words?  I have my doubts.

            But even Ms. Roston’s liberal attitude toward book-borrowing seems somewhat constrained when contrasted with that of Professor Arthur Boycott, FRS (1877-1938).  Alice Gillett, the granddaughter of this once eminent British scientist, recently discovered among her inherited possessions a copy of The Microscope and Its Revelations (1856) by William B. Carpenter.  This book manifestly was the property of the library of the Hereford Cathedral School, where her grandfather had been a pupil between 1886 and 1894.  Hence it was overdue at the very least by 122 years.  Even worse, it appears that the book, though removed from the library, had perhaps never actually been checked out.  Ms. Gillett hastened to return it forthwith.  Given the facts that boffins are notoriously absent-minded, and that certain improvements in microscope technology since 1854 have rendered Carpenter’s volume somewhat less than indispensable, the British authorities, too. forgave Boycott’s estate the hefty fine of £7,446.
            Actually, it is very hard to keep track of one’s library books with zeal, especially if you have scores of them borrowed and at hand at any given moment, and especially if they are the kind of book that very few other people actually read, and fewer still have the will to recall.  After you have had a visiting book in your home office for a year or two, you develop a nearly unconscious attitude of surrogate ownership.  I feel morally certain that by about the year 1900 Professor Boycott assumed that he really did own The Microscope and Its Revelations.

            My personal record, which is probably about average for senior scholars in the humanities, is roughly a hundred to two.  That is, I have actually lost two library books.  During those same long years I have lost roughly a hundred of my own.  I could explain to you how losing the library’s two books was not my fault, how they cannot really be lost, how they are bound to arise intact at the Last Trump from some surprising corner to justify their borrower.  What I cannot explain is the vanished hundred of my own.  First you forget exactly what book you loaned to whom.  Then the who part disappears entirely from the mind, followed not too much later by the what part.  The books are simply gone with the wind.

When flesh fails one’s sole hope is spirit.  I have hanging above one of the door of my “study” a facsimile of a sign to be found in various of the old Spanish libraries.  It announces the special excommunication “reserved by His Holiness against any people who…swipe any book, whether parchment or paper.”  Who is to say it doesn’t work, that without it my losses would have been two hundred?  The Puritans who founded the great American academic libraries were hardly less severe.  There used to be a notice posted at our circulation desk that read:  “To err is human; to forgive is not library policy”.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Phyllis Billington (1927-2016)

One paradox of the Christmas season, a kind of social manifestation of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, is that we are too busy doing it to do it, so to speak.  Four centuries past in one of the great poems of our English tongue, John Donne wrote thus in “Good Friday, 1613--Riding Westward”:

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this, 
The intelligence that moves, devotion is, 
And as the other Spheares, by being growne 
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne, 
And being by others hurried every day, 
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey: 
Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit 
For their first mover, and are whirld by it. 

This is not an easy poem to understand, even if one can grasp with sympathy the situation of the speaker.  The day is Good Friday, the annual memorial of the Crucifixion of Christ in Jerusalem, a place in its geographical relation to southern England distantly eastward.  To this stupendous sacrificial event the speaker’s mind should naturally turn; he is, however, constrained by some unspecified business to be traveling westward.  His larger complaint is that “pleasure or businesse” (the appetite for gratification, the burdens of mundane necessity) generally supplant “devotion” as the animating forces of human life: matter over mind, flesh over spirit.

Phyllis and David Billington

            Three and a half months ago our dear friend Phyllis Billington, the wife of my eminent engineering colleague David Billington, died in Los Angeles.  Four of their children live on the West Coast.  It was a natural place for them to head when they left Princeton some years ago.  Their departure was for us a great personal loss.  What we call “aging” is often so gradual a process as to be imperceptible.  That is what makes its major moments of inflection so brutal and the news of old friends so dramatic.  One learns that someone has fallen and broken a hip, or “gotten a diagnosis;” they downsize from the large family house with which you associate them in mind and memory, they disappear to retirement homes near a daughter in Dubuque.  Too often they simply drop dead.  Still, we were lucky enough to have one good visit with our beloved friends when I gave a talk at Stanford a while ago.  They were living in Palo Alto then.

            On the twenty-eighth of December in the Princeton church where we were fellow parishioners for half a century there will be a memorial service for Phyllis organized with devotion and no small difficulty by the families of her many adult children, who recognized that their mother should be honored here in the community where she spent most of her long life.  All of them will have travelled considerable distances for the service.  But the Flemings will not be there.  We will be riding southward towards Charleston, South Carolina, to participate in the long-scheduled pleasurable business of a “Renaissance Weekend”. 

At least, “pleasurable business” is what I am anticipating.  Over many years we have repeatedly been invited to one of these annual events; over many years we have repeatedly almost gone.  This is the year it was, for us, chiseled in stone.  Since this is actually going to be my first experience, I don’t know exactly what to expect.  One old hand described it to me as “a poor man’s Davos”.  Another agreed in general—“except for the ‘poor man’s’ part.”  The Renaissance Weekend website itself is replete with elliptical enthusiasm: “More than a conference: Intellectual content punctuated by laughter, music, adventures and the power of personal stories. Passionate change-makers, of all ages.  More light than heat: Traditional adversaries disagree without being disagreeable.”

I don’t know how passionate a medievalist’s change-making is likely to prove, but it is clear from the materials with which I have been provided that we owe our invitation to the obscure Spheares of preaching, teaching, and blogging  that have for so long been spinning all about us.  Renaissance is French for “rebirth”—a concept in which I firmly believe in many senses, including (and especially) that old-fashioned one perhaps most immediately relevant to a dear friend recently departed from transitory to eternal life.  Augustine reminds us that all funerary and memorial rituals are of necessity palliatives for the living, not honors for the dead, now beyond such needs.  Thus will I excuse myself for my southward-riding, as I hope also our beautiful friend Phyllis would have done.  And how beautiful she was!  I think she was an actual beauty queen in her undergraduate years at Northwestern, and she was lovely still in advanced age.  But of course what we all knew was the spiritual beauty of her life as musician, wife, mother, neighbor, and for a privileged few of us a friend for decades.  Hers was a life in which the intelligence that moves was ever mindful of its naturall forme.

Portrait of the Artist: Death, be not proud...

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

All the News That's Fit to Fake

good news for the Pope 
The American people have been falling for fake news, and that’s a big story among the indignant purveyors of the other sort, whatever that may be—genuine news?  Just at the moment the genuine newsers are sore at the fake newsers, whom they find partly or mostly responsible for the electoral victory of Donald Trump.  This may strike you as an odd opinion, but puzzling events often attract puzzling explanations.  We have just been through a thoroughly democratic election.  Concerning the American electorate, Mencken still has the last word.  “No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”  Mencken wrote a long time ago, before academic social scientists had come up with the useful euphemism “low information voters”.  His more pungent term was boobocracy.  One might lament that our national leadership is determined by people inclined to believe that Barak Obama is a Kenyan or that John McCain sired a black baby, but even silently to wish that "the great masses of the plain people" refrain from voting without first finding out what Aleppo is would be "voter suppression" by thought crime.

From my point of view the great scandal about fake news is that so many people seem scandalized by it.  Newspeople lie.  Presidents lie.  Presidential candidates lie through their teeth.   But philology does not lie, and what philology demonstrates is that reporting the news is so close to making things up that for all practical purposes the two are the same thing.  News is the English equivalent of the French nouvelles (or, since it is the Christmas season, Noëls).  The commonest English word meaning “extended prose fiction” is novel.  A slightly more specialized one is romance.  What the latter term meant was the vernacular language (the tongue of the “plain people”) as opposed to Latin.  European romance really got going in the twelfth century, the European novella (news flash) in the thirteenth.  Fake news.

Fake news is of course much older than that.  In the Æneid a hideous creature named Fama (usually translated “Rumor”) flaps about North Africa spreading the account of a love affair between Dido and Æneas.  Her news reports are designed to cause mischief, and they do.  Concerning Fama Virgil says something very revealing.  She isn’t just a liar.  Rather, her news reports promiscuously combine truth and falsehood.  That is a characteristic of much rumor as, for example, many of the legends exhibited by the African-American “grape vine”.  You didn’t realize that Aids was a genocidal plot?  It’s fantastic, but from a certain point of view cruelly plausible.

It hardly need be said that fake news has played a huge role in world history.  Consider for a moment the “Donation of Constantine”.  The Emperor Constantine gave away the Western half of the Roman Empire to the Pope!  It said so, clear as day, right there on a piece of parchment.  There were even pictures.  It took the best minds of Europe a few centuries to conclude that it ain’t necessarily so, but by then it hardly mattered.  More recently we had the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Zinoviev telegram.  The newscaster Dan Rather sank into disgrace over his obdurate credulity concerning a piece of fake news about George Bush’s career in the National Guard!  One unfortunate thing about human beings is that we have a tendency to believe what we want to believe.

Fake news is sometimes well-intentioned, and it can even perhaps have some beneficial effects.  When I was in high school back in the Cretaceous, sex, though on all our minds, was not a matter for public discussion.  It was definitely back-of-the-bleachers stuff; and we depended for our news mainly on second and third-hand reports possibly originating with the unseen elder brothers of our classmates.  One chilling item concerned venereal disease, a terrible affliction with but one medical treatment, namely “a shot in the balls with a square needle”.  That’s the kind of news designed to encourage perseverance in the straight and narrow.

There is, finally, a large body of fake news that is either unintentionally or intentionally delightful.  The former is represented by various tabloid papers one views chiefly from the checkout line in supermarkets.  One of my favorite headlines from this source is “Dead Mum Gives Birth to Child in Coffin!”  In our end is our beginning I suppose.  The latter is represented by the Onion, and on many college campuses, an annual “April Fool” edition of the student newspaper.  The problem is that in our current situation the gap between straight reporting and parody is razor thin.  But I still remember with the greatest pleasure a travel-documentary I saw on British television many years ago.  Its subject was the annual spaghetti harvest in the Tuscan countryside.

The spaghetti harvest in Santa Cristina in Salivolpe in an undated photograph from the 1950s.  Today, mechanization is threatening traditional folk ways and, according to some, the quality of the al dente.


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Leonardo and the Cherry Pickers

Many of us are disturbed by issues of “social justice”—a term I bracket with quotation marks only because it means different things to different users—having to do with large disparities evidenced in the economic resources of our citizens.  In the shorthand language of our political discourse we identify some of the issues as income inequality, the living wage, the minimum wage, equal pay for equal work.  To what extent is the State authorized to coerce “justice” in the creation and distribution of wealth?  To what extent is it competent?   A good deal of modern history, certainly since the time of Karl Marx, has been driven by such questions.  We have the hecatombs to prove it.

If we have no agreement on what a minimum wage should be we seem to have none at all about a maximum wage.  I was fascinated by a recent press report from the world of art commodification.  A few years ago a group of art dealers paid  less than twenty thousand dollars for a Renaissance painting of Christ thought possibly to be from the “school” or “workshop” of Leonardo da Vinci.  Later super-experts concluded that the artist must have been Leonardo himself.  Very rarely do humanities professors make the Market quiver, but this time they did. Sotheby’s, the famous auctioneers, facilitated the sale of the re-evaluated painting to a Swiss buccaneer of the beaux-arts named Bouvier for eighty million dollars.  Almost immediately Bouvier flipped the painting, as though it were a rehabbed loft in Bushwick, to a Russian billionaire collector named Rybolovlev for $127,500,000.

Now everybody is mad, and the suits are filing suits.  The art dealers think they were stiffed for roughly fifty million.  Ryboloviev makes a similar complaint since, he asserts, Bouvier should have been operating as his agent in the original purchase.  Sotheby’s is aggrieved that their probity has been called into question.  Fleming is mad because a beautiful painting of Jesus Christ as “Savior of the World”, quite possibly actually by the hand of one of the greatest Christian artists of the Renaissance, has become a talisman of obscene wealth.  Read the forty-fifth canto of Pound: No picture is made to endure nor to live with but it is made to sell and sell quickly, with usura, sin against nature.  

Of course “Christian social teaching,” though frequently invoked, is not exactly clear and prescriptive.  Jesus did say “The laborer is worthy of his pay,” but what should that pay be?  Since I was a child I struggled with the parable of the “Workers in the Vineyard” (Matthew 20).  A landowner hires men to work in his vineyard.  Some start out at the beginning of the day.  A few hours later he hires some more, and so on throughout the day.  But at the end of the day he pays each man an equal wage—a denarius, the standard daily wage of an agricultural worker—with no differentiation between those who worked all day and those who worked an hour or two.  The point of all this, according to Jesus’s cryptic conclusion, is that “the last will be first, and the first last.”  (My wife, a Bible scholar, tells me not to fret about this, as it is almost certainly a posterior addition to the parable.)

Naturally those workers who began at the crack of dawn did not think this was fair, and I have never been able to figure it out myself.  In 1968 we were living in the south of France, at Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, near to Petrarch’s old retreat at the Fontaine de Vaucluse, when the Revolution exploded.  The Revolution, for the youngsters among my readers, was a bit of French student guerrilla theater that got out of hand.  Paris was the scene of most of the action, but even the remote provinces experienced serious dislocations on account of transportation strikes and, especially, the unavailability of gasoline.  The sister of the farmer on whose property we were lodged had a large cherry orchard; its annual crop was the chief source of her yearly income.  The Revolution created a crisis, since her fresh, ripe cherries could not be gotten into the produce markets.  The best she could do was wait in vain hope that the strikes would end.  When the fruit was over-ripe, she tried to salvage something by selling the crop for a pittance to a nearby jam factory.  She was so desperate for pickers that Joan and I agreed to help out gratis.  It was great fun but also hard labor, and when I got tired I simply awarded myself a work-break.  Several of the hired hands grumbled openly about this; but I thought my response was invincible.  They were being paid.  I was working for free.  The landowner in Jesus’s parable asks “Why be jealous because I am kind?”  But one among the cherry pickers was not silenced.  I should not be allowed to work for free or to take unauthorized breaks.  All cherry-picking and cherry-pickers should be the same.  Egalité trumped Liberté, and to hell with Fraternité.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Grandad Repatriates a Book

Ruby with her authorial father (photo credit: K. Dixon, omni-talented mother)

The past week for me was mainly a happy swirl.  I spent it on Washington Square in New York, mainly “helping out” with two of my grandchildren (Lulu and Cora) whose father had to be out of the country lecturing.  It was delightfully light duty, mainly a matter of being around in the evening and putting together a few meals.  My daughter was able to set me up with a computer and a fine place to work during regular work hours.  These circumstances allowed me to insulate myself somewhat, but only somewhat, from the chill and gusting political winds unleashed the previous week.  My workspace overlooked Washington Square Park, and on at least three days there were raucous anti-Trump demonstrations.  At the very end of the week we all migrated to my son Richard’s house in Brooklyn, where we had a mini-party in anticipation of second-youngest granddaughter Ruby’s fourth birthday and to mark the somewhat more-than-fourth of her aunt, our dear daughter, which falls close by. 

Five out of six of our grandchildren are girls, each of them delightful in a distinctive way.  Being able to hang out with some of them for several days of their routine school lives was a rare treat.  There is a special kind of investment one makes in one’s grandchildren—more mellow and reflective, perhaps, than that one had made in their parents.   Our grandchildren are living indices of rapid social change.  I knew all four of my long-lived grandparents quite well.  They were all of the nineteenth century.  When I compare their lives with those even now being lived by my grandchildren I am nearly staggered by the scope, breadth, depth, and existential consequences of the differences between them.  But our country has always been a cauldron of dramatic change, as I was led to meditate by the accidental recovery of one of my strayed books.

Our eldest child, Richard, the father of Ruby, is a man of parts with a special interest in the post-colonial world of the Caribbean.  As Cuba now sets out on its new path toward Chinese style pseudo-socialist bureaucratic plutocracy his book, Walking to Guantanamo, already a classic of offbeat travel literature, will become ever more valuable for its portrait of Fidel’s “old” new Cuba.  Richard has spent even more time, however, immersed in black Caribbean Francophonie.  Enabled by an impressive command of the Haitian creole, he pursues various fascinating cultural projects in Haiti.  My eye caught something familiar on his bookshelf—namely my copy of the Library of America anthology of the writings of Lafcadio Hearn.  I had forgotten, as I usually do, that I had lent it to him; but Rich is Hearn’s ideal reader.

Patrick Lafcadio Tessima Carlos Hearn was born in 1850 on Lefkada, one of the less famous of the Ionian Islands, and died in Tokyo in 1904.  In his intense, questing, adventurous, and often desperate life of fifty-four years he lived out and recorded in his lush writings an exotic version of the “American dream” that is perhaps unlikely to be the first to appear spontaneously in the mind of the casual auditor of that hackneyed phrase.  His father was an Irishman, a medical officer in the service of the occupying British army, his mother an illiterate Greek islander unfortunate enough to have fallen in with him.  

They played hardly any role in his miserable early life.  In his mature years Lafcadio could remember ever seeing his father only four times in his life; the mother, having been dumped by the father through the instrument of a particularly egregious annulment, eventually died in a Greek mental asylum.  Hearn was grudgingly educated by reluctant relatives and supposed family friends in Ireland, England, and France.  Coercive overexposure to Christianity in its Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant forms perhaps eased his eventual embrace of Buddhism, which he eventually adopted along with Japanese citizenship.

In 1869 Lafcadio himself was dumped with a one-way ticket to America and instructions to proceed to Cincinnati.  There, on the Ohio River, that meandering extension of the Mason-Dixon line, still roiling in the wake of a great war that ended the institution of what he rightly called “American feudalism”, Hearn arrived penniless.  The “immigrant narrative” is that people came to America “in search of a better life”.  What that often actually meant was that other, more powerful people in Europe, while sometimes being unwilling simply to kill them off, didn’t want them around any more.  Young Hearn eventually found his feet as a journalist—in Cincinnati, in New Orleans, and in the French Caribbean.  He left a unique body of commentary on the cultural diversity, much of it founded in a long history of the forced migration of African slaves, of the aging New World.  To his practical fluency in French he added a deeper philological impulse that led him toward folklore and anthropology.  He was fascinated by the cultural dynamism of creole social alloys.  He himself was married for a time to a former slave woman in violation of the miscegenation laws on the statute books of the State of Ohio.  Hearn has been credited with the “invention” or literary discovery of New Orleans as a principal site of the American picturesque.  If you have time but for a single brief essay, let me suggest “The Creole Patois” (pp. 744-748).  All this of course came before his “Japanese period,” for which he is best known among those who know him at all.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

What News?

The very sad news of the death of the journalist Gwen Ifill, one of the anchors of the PBS News Hour, is in our house a kind of “objective correlative” of a more pervasive distressed mood following the general election.  I had no personal acquaintance of Ms. Ifill, but I was a great fan.  She was a luminous presence of intelligence, amiability, and spiritual generosity, a person of refinement and moral weight.  She understood the distinction—strangely unobserved by many of her professional peers—between reporting the news and trying to make the news. 

Journalism has played a huge role in recent political events, either through an actual or a perceived “media bias”.  We say that seeing is believing, but it as often works the other way around.  We seek confirmation of what we already believe, often with great success.  That is perhaps the essence of living or writing in a “bubble”.  My fear going into the election was that, whatever the outcome, about half the country would be left feeling aggrieved.  I was right about that, though wrong in identifying which half.  From one point of view this election barely had a winner.  Trump was behind in the gross popular vote, and he won only because of the vote in the Electoral College—the way the Cubs won only because of the rules of baseball.  According to most of the sources I read Donald Trump won because large swaths of the American electorate cannot accept America’s increasing “diversity”.  I think that is exactly backwards.  Mr. Trump won because America is already “diverse” in ways apparently unfathomable to the nation’s elite journals.  Looked at from the broad perspective that includes the “down-ballot” and state elections the vote was a stupendous Republican victory, an electoral blizzard.

Years ago, while I was researching my book The Anti-Communist Manifestos, I came upon a man named Sender Garlin, an American Communist journalist and one-time staffer on the Daily Worker.  Among other things, Garlin had played a role in the conversion to Communism of the young Whittaker Chambers.  Though his politics were grim, he was a fellow of good humor as is suggested by the following anecdote he reported.  In 1927 Garlin was working for the Bronx Home News, and was assigned to write the story about Lindbergh’s solo flight to Paris in May of that year.  His editor, ever mindful of his journal’s parochial mission, put the following headline on the story: “Lindbergh Flies over the Bronx on Way to Paris”.  I was reminded that cosmopolitan self-absorption is still vibrant in the Borough of Manhattan as well, when on the second day following the election the New York Times ran a two-banner headline proclaiming that “Democrats, Students and Foreign Allies Face the Reality of a Trump Presidency.”

            Hard upon that, I was sedately tooling about in my second-hand Mazda, with my radio tuned, as always, to NPR.  NPR has suspended its regular programming in order to focus full time on their “International Festival of Sore Losers,” an enterprise possibly accordant with my own mood.  The “New Yorker Hour” came on, featuring the famous magazine’s editor (David Remnick) and two of its staff writers (George Packer and Amy Davidson) in conversation about the election and its meaning.  These are three extraordinary intellectuals.  I actually remember Remnick as a brilliant Princeton literature major nearly forty years ago.  And you don’t get to be a New Yorker staff writer by just showing up.  But this conversation, I mean…Tell me not in mournful numbers.  Concerning the rubes who elected Trump there’s been an intellectual development among the Sore Losers.  They (the rubes) are more to be pitied than censured.  True enough that they may mostly be academically uncredentialed and unpigmented persons of xenophobic, homophobic, and racist character, but one has to make allowances for their upbringing, which has been among grain silos, cow pastures, revival meetings, and meth labs.  The conversation partners joined in the heavy, heroic effort to understand their compatriots in Bartlesville and Altoona, though they had to stoop ever so low to do it.  Being deplorable in elite eyes might be painful; but being pitiable must be crushing.  I hope it will not come to suggesting “Hug a Hillbilly” lapel buttons.

            I think that we can conclude that American journalism—as opposed to certain inspiring American journalists—failed us rather badly during the late political campaign.  Fortunately as we face the anxious days ahead we do have other and more promising institutions, and in particular our Constitution with its reasonably clear delineation of powers and the limitations on those powers.  For stamp our little feet as we may, wave “Not My President” signs as we wish, he will indeed be our president.  According to Mr. Trump Americans have become so used to losing that we don’t know what winning is.  That is one of several of his positions for which I find scant empirical backing.  It seems to me that a large cohort of Americans—including some who wield the overwhelming power of the press—are so used to winning that they have forgotten how to lose in the spirit of the democratic compact.