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Le Seize Septembre

Sometimes it seems that surrealism’s most enduring influence on popular culture is the non sequiturial distance between image and identifying text. When it comes to this art of disjuncture, the Belgian painter René Magritte was a master (see his 1930 work The Key of Dreams).

In college I was seduced by Magritte’s paintings of trees and nighttime illumination, and in Le Seize Septembre I found the best of both worlds. The painting shows a tree at the last moments of dusk, only the crescent moon shines not from above but from the heart of the tree, casting a strange light onto the surrounding ground. People have commented that the moon of September 16, 1956, did not look like this from where Magritte was painting: it was actually four days shy of full and much larger.

But it’s true that nature abhors a vacuum. The void of rationality behind Magritte’s choice of title for this picture I eventually filled in for myself. Read more

We Are Unblessed

Ikeep hearing and reading two phrases in regard to the twin conflagrations consuming ever more real estate on the home pages of the New York Times and Washington Post: “It will get ugly” and “We are fucked.”

The first fire is the coordinate effects of Bob Woodward’s new book and the anonymous Times op-ed by a senior White House official; the second, the Senate’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Though we longed for the implosion of Donald Trump, we didn’t want the implosion of our republic to go with it. “It will get ugly” owing to the unhinged chief executive but more so to the void of democracy known as Republicans—this lockstep conglomerate of testosterone who will devastate the country with their minority rule until either January 2, 2019, or forever.

“We are fucked” because for the past 40 years, right-wing dollars have greased a conservative legal movement to wrest control of the nation’s courts. This calculated takeover of the people’s government relied on Republicans’ sinister gerrymandering to control both the House and state governments and their unearned advantage in the U.S. Senate (all those population-challenged Red States getting the same two votes as the 39.5 million residents of California). Republicans have used these exploitations to win the Electoral College and shape the Supreme Court. Read more

Speaking in Tongues

I often wonder if someone is tracking the number of times Donald Trump has uttered or tweeted the words “disgrace” and “disgraceful” since assuming the presidency.

The stuff that gushes from his mouth and/or Twitter feed has been pretty well categorized.

There’s the third-grade-vocabulary propaganda hammered home with endless repetition and occasional enhancements—as when “witch hunt” was upgraded to “rigged witch hunt,” slathering on a generous lapse of logic.

Then there’s the outright gutter talk and the “people are saying” innuendo that gets filed under “dog whistle.” (Calling Omarosa Manigault Newman a “dog” is a twofer in this regard.)

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The End of the End of July

There were parts of summer I hated growing up. From fourth through eighth grade, playing in the Cinderella Softball League meant practicing next to a sewage treatment plant. Every day I ran after grounders in a swampy valley that was buggy in addition to stinking to high heaven. I had all kinds of pollen allergies, but we were relatively poor and the relatively poor didn’t medicate these things. I endured by swatting away mosquitos with my mitt and rubbing my red eyes with my other hand. (I wasn’t the world’s greatest athlete.)

Though I grew up in a small city, I had plenty of access to what we called “the sticks.” I loved forests but had no overriding passion for rural America—probably because in Western New York rural meant poor. But thanks to novels, stories, and paintings, I had fallen in love with the summer landscapes of pre-industrial America by the time I got to college. Read more

About That Bat-Signal

Where Is Barack Obama?” New York Magazine wants us to know that we should want to know.

Apparently people are unhappy that the 44th president seems to have ghosted himself from public life right when we’re entering months of nail-biting over the midterm elections.

One thing the cover article showed me is that the baseline cliché of every superhero franchise has thoroughly colonized the American psyche. Commissioner Gordon is flashing the bat-signal to no avail. And he’s doing so just as DC restaurants (and their patrons) are confronting/harassing/shunning members of the Trump White House.

How quickly we forget Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high.” That got a lot of applause, but then Trump got a lot of electoral votes.

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Déjà vu

I was recently trying to condense the cache of papers I’ve saved through the years and came across an entire issue of Harper’s Magazine from November 1990.

I remembered why I saved that issue. I was young and visiting Paris on my own, during La Crise du golfe. I had brought books to read, and I bought the International Herald Tribune daily for news about the situation in the Gulf. But Harper’s was lighter to carry around, and besides that, it had become a sense of home—a manifestation of the America I wanted to believe was true, especially then. I had the magazine with me when I ate alone in restaurants and cafés.

I think the reason I kept that issue was less its value as travel memento than the impact of an essay by Lewis Lapham, the publisher at the time. Lapham could be an annoyance in his vitriolic monthly columns. Yes, yes, you’d say. But what are we going to do about it? I’d start a column but often had to stop when his too-clever-by-half putdowns got in the way of his message.

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Paper Chase

In a pithy irony within our golden age of irony, state election officials around the country are seizing on a voting strategy that a few years ago would have seemed unthinkable: paper ballots.

We know that Russia will try to influence the 2018 elections, whether through the primaries that begin this month or the November midterms. In their quest to undermine American democracy, they’ll use the tried-and-true method—spreading misinformation using social media platforms—and give hacking into electronic voting systems another crack. They may have other things up their sleeves, but unless Robert Mueller announces more indictments, such things will probably go under the radar.

This week, America’s fearless leader reiterated his refrain that Russia had “no impact on our votes” in the election that put him in office. He did, however, indicate that the nation should guard against meddling in the midterms. “One of the things we’re learning,” he said, “it’s always good to have a paper backup system of voting. Called paper.” Read more

Back to the Future

On this date in 1789, the new Congress under the new U.S. Constitution met for the first time. This is a rather sad anniversary to recount—sad because this was the point at which the history of our legislative government might’ve played out in different ways, many of them worse but maybe a few better than what we have now. It’s also sad because New York City had been selected as capital of the new republic—an honor deserved and yet retained for all of twenty-four months.

That America’s first session of Congress failed to achieve a quorum seems just what you’d expect. It took weeks for the House’s 65 members to get their tail feathers into town. George Washington was almost two months into his election and awaiting inauguration. That Congress finally made the quorum on April 1 is all too rich. On April Fool’s Day, it elected its first Speaker, Representative Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania, today affectionately known as The Gerrymander State. Read more

I Hear You

I remember when I realized that “I hear you” was big with the 360 Degree Feedback crowd. It was in 2008, and the proof came via a colleague in the university external relations office where I worked. She was one of those people who rise to the top in academic administration without displaying any degree of talent let alone basic competence (in HR speak: low ambiguity tolerance). To say she was a yes-woman put it mildly; she tended to nod into perpetuity like a bobble-head toy.

People thought of her as Miss Sunshine because she was always smiling and saying thank-you. She was Catholic and prim, with an aesthetic that suggested Karen Sue Pence by way of Lilly Pulitzer. With her strawberry blond hair and fair skin, the black splotch on her forehead every Ash Wednesday screamed down the hall to all sinners: Look what I’m enduring for you! At Christmas she sent fruit baskets from Harry & David. She had a lifetime supply of Monet waterlilies cards from the MFA. Read more

Ghost Stories

After a series of FBI raids in the summer of 2010, federal prosecutors accused eleven people of being part of a Russian spy ring, living under false names and deep cover in Manhattan and Yonkers; Montclair, New Jersey; Arlington, Virginia; and Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a slow-cooking scheme to penetrate America’s elite “policy-making circles.”

The event ricocheted around popular culture for quite a while, inspiring the FX series The Americans and catapulting to stardom the Sex and the City spy, Anna Chapman, back in the motherland.

The New York Times story breaking the news made an impression on me because of what a teenage neighbor had to say about two of the accused, a husband and wife in suburban Montclair: “They couldn’t have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas.” Read more