Tag Archives: Trump

The Feral Detective, Jonathan Lethem

 A contemporary noir, loosely-framed by the protagonist’s despair at the election of the ‘orange monster’ and the economic and cultural divides it reflects, but also deeply embedded in broader 21 st century dislocation and despair.

Intriguingly, Lethem tells the tale thru the voice of Phoebe Siegler, a refugee from the urban entertainment/media complex, rather than Charles Heist (what a surname choice that is!), his idiosyncratic detective. This allows for more thoughtfully-analytic observations by the character, and a more literate tone than would the latter. It also makes for some brave writing, as Lethem voices Phoebe’s sexual longings and encounters with Charles. One would love to know what female readers feel about his level of success, but to me it rang true, if perhaps a bit enhanced by what a man hopes a woman is seeing. Lethem also finds something new in the L A area by choosing for his locations the little-known towns of Upland and Clarement; the resort hermitage of Mt. Baldy (a personal touchstone, having driven, hiked and skied there) and the Mohave Desert just over the mountains from the big city. The tenuous economics of these locales, and the multitudinous opportunity for misfits to isolate themselves resemble the same raw ingredients which Southern writers have long mined from their home turf, but being still part of LA makes for a freshness and perhaps a more accessible connection to readers not of the sub-Mason Dixon world. Interesting and engaging, but I’m not hungry to read another installment, if indeed this is the start of a series (a possibility suggested by the ending, but inconsistent with Lethem’s intellectual adventurousness, nor his career path and to date).

Two Guys Walked Into a Movie Theater

One day in the spring of 2020, two men paid their money and stepped into a darkened movie theater, just as the trailers were rolling. TC sat in right-about the same spot where he always sat when he went to the movies, because it was familiar, and easy, and comforting to always know where he was going to sit without having to think too much about it. SB, after looking around carefully to see which seats were available, picked the one where he thought he’d get the best view of the screen, and the best-balanced sound…

That scene came to mind as I thought back on two recent reads. Ship of Fools, is by Tucker Carlson, who worked for CNN and MSNBC before joining the Fox network in 2009, where he is now far more opinion-entertainer than newsman, and is said to be one of the three or four most listened-to Trump whisperers. Tailspin – the People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-year Fall, is by Stephen Brill, whom Wikipedia describes as a lawyer, journalist and entrepreneur, founder of The American Lawyer magazine and cable channel Court TV. Seeing the two volumes on the local library’s New Arrivals shelf I was struck by how similar their pitches were, both claiming to illuminate the reasons behind the present economic stagnation of middle and lower-middle class incomes, the persistence of poverty, decline of manufacturing, slow death of rural communities, tragic rates of incarceration (particularly among minorities) and frighteningly-high unemployment among high-school-educated men of all races, etc., etc. Despite the superficial similarity of focus, the books could hardly be more different, thanks to their authors’ individual approaches.

Where Brill’s writing is thoughtful, Carlson’s shouts. Where Brill cites data and quotes specific articles and documents, Carlson cites anecdotes. Where Brill criticizes both sides of the political aisle, Carlson exclusively blames ‘liberals,’ on the basis that they are no longer ‘liberal enough’ to counteract unnamed other forces (he cannot bring himself to admit those forces may claim to be ‘conservatives’) against whom they should be more effective. Nor is Carlson willing or wise enough to point out the role of corporations’ single-minded pursuit of short term profits in all this.

Both authors do note the role of ‘elites’ in all this decline, but again with differing critiques. Carlson wags the scolidng finger and derides the lack of success which so-called experts and academics have had in making things better, without offering any credible alternative.  Brill drills deeper and highlights how well-intentioned efforts to end discrimination and hereditary advantage have allowed – even driven – the brightest and most self-centered among us to work the systems and levers of commerce and government to their own advantage, thus empowering the 1% (or thereabouts, the blame is not nearly so centralized) to entrench their own wealth and power to the detriment of all other forces and factions.

Most tellingly, after each section addressing one of these maladies, and after thoroughly analyzing the problem and its origins, Brill cites at least one specific example of individuals or programs who are working with at least some degree of effectiveness, to address the issue. None of these efforts are big enough to make a ton of difference, but each of them is a signpost, suggesting what might work if applied at a larger scale. As an entrepreneur, he is well aware of the power of markets, when they are properly motivated (when there is profit to be had, that is). As an observer though, he is also wise enough to recognize that some problems (availability of health care to the poor or elderly, for example, or useful job-training for inner city and deeply-rural residents) will never motivate a pure free-market. Some issues will not be improved without communal action driven by other motives, which historically has only been mobilized at large scale through government action, or at least leadership.

Carlson makes little or no effort to suggest solutions except to demonize liberals, experts, academics and, it seems, just about everyone but bloviators, reality TV figures, radio talk show hosts and avid fans of the above.

As the current period of self-isolation tapers down, Americans (and those in other countries too) need to decide how to address its impacts. In so doing, we can treat the immediate symptoms and in the process perpetuate the problems that predate Covid 19, or we can see solutions that address both the short and the long term. It is that challenge which sent me back to thinking about these two very different ways to illuminate the same issues.

Halfway through the movie, TC and SB both smelled smoke, and watched in horror as a thick dark cloud quickly rose up to block out the screen image. Before they could react, the film stopped running and the house lights came up for just a moment, then immediately went black, revealing that, for some reason, the exit signs were not working either. In the darkness the audience started to panic.

Sitting in his familiar spot, TC began talking excitedly to those around him, reminding them that back in the good old days theaters used to have ushers who carried flashlights with lovely little red shields over the lenses. “If this theater still had ushers like that,” he emphasized, voice rising with indignation, “we could follow them out.” Standing full height in the choking darkness, he shouted to the entire theater, presumably out there listening for his leadership. “I want to talk to the manger,” he screamed several times, before falling into a fit of coughing and wheezing.

Meanwhile, SB, seeing the darkness around him, had whipped out his cell phone and powered up its flashlight app.  Crawling to stay below the worst of the smoke, he used his light to find others and encourage them to follow his example as he made his way to one of the exits. Others who had lit up their own phones made paths to the other exits, and out through the lobby to daylight and safety.

“Where the hell is the manager?” TC screamed, between coughing fits loud enough to be heard throughout the unseen, and now nearly empty, theater.  “I’m gonna rip him a new one,” cough, cough, “to make sure he brings back those ushers. If… “ cough, cough, “we ever,” cough, cough, “get out of here, that is,” cough, cough, cough.

And the rest, as they paraphrase, is silence.

The Death of Politics, Peter Wehner

Subtitled ‘How to Heal our Frayed Republic After Trump,’ this comes from a former speechwriter to Ronald Reagan, protégé of Wm. Bennet and official in both Bush administrations.  Credentials which would have made him a credible conservative and Republican in earlier years, but not today, as he would likely be labeled a RINO for calling out the willfully-ignorant behavior of the current administration and its enablers. Call it out he does though, beginning with a brief history of the term ‘politics’ (the affairs of the City, to the ancient Greeks) and progressing to analyze what has led to such contempt for the actual hard work of governing and for those persons who commit themselves to an honest effort to get it right. The ‘death’ to which the title refers is more an assassination, by those who’ve given up hope of getting anything right through diligence and have turned instead to destruction, or who’ve seized on past dysfunction as an opportunity to advance for their own agendas/celebrity through claiming to hold the magic wand that will make it all better, effortlessly.

Wehner presents himself also as a Christian, and includes a chapter on Politics and Faith, which will probably prevent the loudest current voices in that realm from hearing his arguments either, as he has no truck with their support for Trump. Religion is, in the author’s view, a necessary component of a decent life and an integral basis for ‘Politics’ with a capital ‘P.’ Agree or disagree with that (I disagree…) but it is refreshing to hear one of such beliefs who is not fooled by Trump’s charade of piety for the sake of votes.

All that goes down very well with this reader; Wehner seems knowledgeable and reasonable (except his defense of the invasion of Iraq, but that is more of an afterthought, something he seems to feel needs defense for sake of his overall credibility).  Unfortunately though, his prescription for ‘healing’ the situation is minimal; basically an exhortation for us all to be more rational, more committed and to work harder. There is precious little specific advice on how to get the nearly-half of the populace that voted for and still supports Trump to change their behavior. Except perhaps to wait out the generational shift which is in progress, until enough of us old white males have died off to allow the rest of you to return the nation to some level of reason and endeavor – if it survives the wait.