‘The main problem in any democracy is that crowd-pleasers are generally brainless swine who can go out on a stage & whup their supporters into an orgiastic frenzy—then go back to the office & sell every one of the poor bastards down the tube for a nickel apiece.’
– Hunter S Thompson.
‘ The essay form is a tricky one to handle. It is not as though you have a story to tell. Anyone will listen to a story. What you are doing is just grabbing the reader by the slack of his coat and babbling to him, and all the time his probably dying to get away and go about his business.’
That’s from the introduction to a collection of Wodehouse’s more obscure articles initially written for magazines. Picked up the collection ‘Louder and Funnier’ a few months back and dipping into it late at night the past couple of weeks.
It’s good to have a chuckle at Wodehouse’s essentially good-natured but still quite acute wit before pulling the shades down and attempting eight hours of the restorative.
Someone else pointed out once – oh, go and have a look on the Googe for it, it’s bound to be online somewhere – that Woodhouse’s writings inhabit a prelapsarian world.
That exaggerates things a little bit, but not much. If there is a snake in this garden of Eden, it is either an aunt or an income tax inspector.
If there is a snake in this garden of Eden, it is either an aunt or an income tax inspector.
To the more fallen, real world: the election of Donald Trump.
Is he a Hitler on the rise? that analogy has been used so often, since the 1940s, about every political leader the speaker or writer does not like, it is now meaningless.
Actually, that is not quite true: it usually means the person making the claim is intellectually bereft of argument.
Back in the days, pre-internet, pre-Godwin’s Rule, there was an informal rule amongst adjudicators in Auckland University’s Debating Society that any debater who compared opponents’ case to Nazi Germany/Hitler automatically lsot 10 points.
Is he a Berlusconi with nukes? Maybe.
There is a clatter and a howl, a maelstrom of reaction to Trump’s election, and much of it seems to insist on only one overriding reason for his win.
It’s the sexism!
No, it’s the smug liberaliness!
It’s the poverty!
It’s the bloody media!
It’s that if Trump was a bad candidate, Hillary was worse!
It’s the FBI director!
It’s the Brexit!
The thing is, this US election trashes so many previous presumptions about what is supposed to work in politics, and is driven by many many factors – probably almost all of the above (and I might even be willing to considering chemtrails before dismissing them completely out of hand) that any instant wisdom doesn’t seem particularly wise.
Any one of the dozen or so scandals, gaffes, call them what you will, involving Donald Trump would have sunk any previous candidate, let alone all of those events together.
But they made him stronger. Working out why is going to take some time. Because it seems a candidate whose lack of almost any characteristic of human decency gathered momentum the more people saw of that side.
And really, we don’t really know what this guy is going to do because it doesn’t seem as though he believed a lot of what he was saying himself.
I think we can only conclude two things for certain right now: one is his election upends so many previous presumptions about how politics works that a major re-think is needed.
The second, about Trump himself, is that he represents primarily an exaltation of power and celebrity that is highly unhealthy and dangerous in any democracy, let alone the world’s largest one.
This isn’t even about ‘left’ or ‘right’ – well, its not for me, anyway. I distrust untrammeled power, and even more, I distrust the worship of power, irrespective of who is wielding it.
I keep thinking of Ulysses’ great speech in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida
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.
Finally, the death of Leonard Cohen. Not a huge fan, but so many folk whose insight and taste I respect are fans I have to pause and note the event.
A particularly good piece comes from my good friend David Cohen, who has a lovely appreciation on Radio New Zealand site here.
I was struck, when reading Aussie singer-songwriter Paul Kelly’s autobiography a few years back (reviewed here, btw) how much Kelly revered Cohen.
Kelly toured with Cohen, opening for the older singer, and although himself far too old for hero-worship sounds almost awestruck by Cohen’s approach. and Kelly’s observations of the older singer, when opening for him on a tour.
Kelly marveled at Cohen’s attention to detail – attention paid not just for its own sake, but because it was an essential means for paying respect to the people who came to see and hear him.
‘At the age of 74, at an age when some performers are merely phoning it in, he attended every sound check, which lasted usually between an hour in 90 minutes, and then backed it up each night with an intense three hour show.
Leonard’s performance was studied, gestural. …The devotion coming at him from the audience, the release of the pent-up hunger created by the years of absence, were matched, and more, by his devotion in turn to them. He served his audience sacramentally, given proper weight to his words and actions as he offered up his song prayers, everything in due order like stations of the cross. You know he meant it when he says, “Thank-you for keeping my songs alive”. He was paying everyone battle for, and respect.
I watched him and thought, that’s a way to be, that’s a way to act, there is a road to travel.
To walk in gravity and lightness, to be serious but not take yourself seriously, to pay attention, to know that you shall reap what you sow.’
I have added emphasis on that last sentence. It applies to us all, in any walk of life. It is precisely the opposite of a worship of power, or of any of the lazy and damaging abstractions which lead to abuse of our own strengths in our own daily lives.
It is an observation is founded in respect, mutual and deep, and an essential generosity of spirit.
‘My microphone is broken. She broke it. Her and Obama. They took it to Kenya and they broke it.’
I hope there is some mute village Mencken finding his or her journalistic voice in the United States this horrendous election year. It calls for some Menckenesque scorn, although I suspect he would see, in Donald Trump, all his reservations about providing the vote to people he would regard as a sub normal intelligence – i.e. about half the human race – made flesh.
Mencken – H L Mencken, to use the byline he wrote under, from his Baltimore office, for much of the first half of the 20th century – had a fine line in scorn and invective and for the follies of political life.
His scorn wasn’t just for the polticians themselves – it was more for the people who voted for them, for all the wrong reasons. There was often more than a tinge of contempt, unfortunately, in his attitudes to those less intelligent than himself – a rather large group.
He was though, ahead of his time in some matters. It’s interesting to ponder what he would make of Donald Trump’s progress to head the party of Abraham Lincoln.
‘A national political campaign is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in’, he once wrote.
And Mencken was quite sympathetic to women’s fight for equality, writing that ‘women always excel men in that sort of wisdom which comes from experience. To be a woman is in itself a terrible experience.’
His scepticism – and his message that scepticism was a right and good thing, especially when applied to both those who hold formal political power and those who adopt the less accountable,but often more intrusive, power of moral certitude.
‘A Socialist who goes to jail for his opinions seems to me a much finer man than the judge who sends him there, though I disagree with all the ideas of the Socialist and agree with some of those of the judge. But though he is fine, the Socialist is nevertheless foolish, for he suffers for what is untrue. If I knew what was true, I’d probably be willing to sweat and strive for it, and maybe even to die for it to the tune of bugle-blasts. But so far I have not found it.’
..is a sentiment I find myself endorsing, with a small dose of scepticism (there are some things I feel are true, but in the main they belong to the private sphere).
‘The kind of man who wants the government to adopt and enforce his ideas is always the kind of man whose ideas are idiotic,’ is another of Mencken’s aphorisms.
‘The worst government is the most moral. One composed of cynics is often very tolerant and humane. But when fanatics are on top there is no limit to oppression.’
I suspect Mencken would add a rider to that today. Trump is a cynic – but a cynic without any tempering influence of empathy.
The effective cynic in fact has bags of empathy for other human beings – cynicism requires insight, a knowledge of, and instinct for, other humans, and that requires empathy. Trump seems to lack any of this.
Add to that the legions of religious fanatics who have, out of a combination of opportunism, convenience, venality and sheer stupidity, hitched their wagon to the Trump circus wagon, and you have potentially the worst of all governments in the making.