Words, Words, Words…and Jargon

Poets use them almost as a concentrate…a few here, a few there…liberally sprinkled down the page. Of course, I’m talking about words. We all use them, but they are the hammer and nails of a writers toolkit. Some use them masterfully, and I’m in awe of the great ones, particularly poets. They set a high bar by showing us how with economy and precision we can all become better communicators. Poets teach us to be miserly, to condense, and concentrate our thoughts in order to clarify and intensify our meaning.

David Foster Wallace, the novelist and essayist, is one of the best American writers in recent memory. The tragically flawed author of Infinite Jest loved words. In the back of his book of essays, Both Flesh and Not, are pages of vocabulary – listed but not defined. Whenever he ran across a word he didn’t know or whose meaning escaped him he wrote it down, to better absorb its meaning, imprint it in memory, and incorporate it into his prose.

Writers are obsessed with words. They matter. They are the building blocks of their craft. Journalists are are a subset of writers constrained by deadlines. Time is a luxury poets and fiction writers enjoy, but it’s not vouchsafed to journalists. Deadlines and on-your-feet responses dictate a different vocabulary. Time is of the essence. Political journalism, in the era of Trump, has become a blood sport. Fox News vs. CNN. It’s like speed dating. The sheer volume of Breaking News dictates it. As a consequence, journalists are digging deep for new words, phrases, metaphors, similes, and taglines to invest their stories with freshness. Today’s story is stale in 24 hours. As a consequence, I decided to write my own up to date news release using a political reporter’s vocabulary of the moment. Trust me; there will be something new in the next news cycle.

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With all the Breaking News I thought it would be important to know Attorney General Barr’s endgame,  so, trying not to put my thumb on the scale or get ahead of my skis, I asked a lawyer friend if we were confronting a constitutional crisis or if there was predication for the AG’s action. I told him that with all the memes and tropes flying around and the Russians trolling, the rest of us were breathlessly marinating in Fake News concerning white privilegewhite supremacy, and shithole countries full of non-binary individuals and Antifa provocateurs,  I was confused. He assured me I had nothing to worry about; there were adults in the room and guardrails definitely baked-in, so despite the culture wars and identity politics, AG Barr was convinced Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein could land the plane and deliver the goods safely if everyone stayed in their lane.

I hope he’s right. With subpoenas flying and Donald Trump living rent free in Hillary’s brain I began to worry that there were Trump avatars lurking behind every porn star and tabloid entrepreneur, that perhaps there actually had been a foiled coup d’état but we would never really know because the unredacted Mueller Report was reportedly a hoax and a witch hunt perpetrated by James Comey, Michael Cohen, and other rats, flippers, and snitches. I just wish someone could explain the difference between a conspiracy, collusion, obstruction, surveillance, spying and opposition research. If they could I’m sure everything would be perfectly clear.

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“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”   

Graham Greene

Yellowcake and Other Ruses

Dick Cheney and John Bolton

What is it that makes men who never served in the military so eager to go to war? This week it’s Donald “Bone Spurs” Trump and John “Shoot First, Aim Later” Bolton rushing the aircraft carrier, Abraham Lincoln, to the Persian Gulf, while sending the imperious, condescending, Mike “Fat Man” Pompeo, off to Brussels and points east where he was rebuffed by the EU, and warmly received by Vladimir Putin. All these moves designed to prepare the world for our military intervention “just in case” Iran “does something to undermine our interests.” It looks eerily like Wag the Dog. Start a war to deflect attention from the political chaos at home.

So far, Iran hasn’t done anything new or different, as far I can see. It’s Trump who provoked and precipitated the confrontation by pulling out of the Iran nuclear treaty last year. Iran has continued to abide by the treaty’s conditions as have its other signatories. It’s only America that has not. But, John Bolton has been itching for a war with Iran for 25 years, and Donald Trump is the perfect tool to get him there.

In 2003, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and the Neo-Cons, all draft evaders, dragged us into a war we couldn’t win based on contrived and faulty intelligence. Remember “yellowcake,” the African uranium Saddam Hussein allegedly obtained to create his nuclear bomb? 

Of course you don’t, it was a hoax like Donald Trump’s bone spurs and today’s crisis with Iran. Ambassador Joseph Wilson was sent to investigate the “yellowcake” claim and concluded it was unfounded, but his findings so upset the Neo-Cons they vengefully “outed” his wife, Valerie Plame, as a covert CIA agent. Wilson discredited their “intelligence,” intended to justify the US invasion of Iraq, but the Neo-Con Express had already left the station and another disruptive destabilizing war in the Middle East was underway.

It seems to me that these old hawks didn’t get enough Cowboys and Indians as kids. I suggest a little retraining – 12 weeks of boot camp under the “guidance” of a Marine drill instructor at Parris Island or MCRD San Diego. That might do wonders for these old “warriors.” They might get in shape, quit chasing their tails, and stop getting all frothy-mouthed about playing war games with other people’s children. This isn’t a drill. There are real lives at stake.

 Marilynn and I attended this Graduation Day at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego (October 2018),

Postscript (May 16, 2019): This morning Senator Lindsey Graham (Foreign Relations Committee) reported that no one in the Senate has been briefed on what’s going on in Iran even though a carrier group has been sent to the Gulf, 120,000 troops have been alerted, and the Embassy staff in Iraq has been ordered to leave the country. WTF are Bolton, Pompeo, and Trump up to?

The One-Way Street

If you listen carefully you’ll understand why it’s a one-way street…I’m sure it’s buried somewhere in the Mueller Report too… but if you follow these instructions you’ll find out exactly where we are today. See you when you arrive. 

Follow the traffic on Old Campaign Trail. It will lead directly to the high-speed Russian On-Ramp. From there, a hard-right at Coordination Avenue takes you to Collusion Boulevard. Continue with Collusion until it merges with Conspiracy Avenue. Eventually, you will have to slow for a blind corner at Obstruction Alley. There you’ll meet Attorney General Bill Barr who will point you in the direction of the temporary parking lot at the House on Impeachment Way.

Disappointment, Disrespect, and Frustration…

Like many my age, I grew up riding the American rocket ship to a better life. We were better educated than our parents, part of an ever-expanding, increasingly prosperous, white Protestant middle class, on our way to a life of easy comfort and opportunity. Land of the free. Home of the brave. 

But it wasn’t true for everyone… I’m so aware that it was my truth but not always a shared truth for my black, Asian, Jewish, and female classmates. I was self-involved and unaware obstacles in their way. I didn’t understand that so many of my generation were not finding a seat on the rocket ship.

Nevertheless, for those of us growing up in the middle of the last century, the American myth was alive and well. We believed that “all men (and women) were created equal” even though our eyes told us it wasn’t true. We believed that if we worked hard our effort would be recognized and rewarded. We believed America was a meritocracy, that those who worked hardest were the fittest and would survive and prosper. We paid lip-service to the myth that skin color, religion, and ethnicity didn’t matter if we worked hard and followed the rules. Of course, we were white and middle class, and we thought the American myth was the American truth.

So, when did it change? It wasn’t sudden. It was over time. I remember where I was when John F. Kennedy was murdered. I remember watching it happen. JFK… then, in over a decade it was Martin Luther King, Jr., RFK, and 58,000 Americans in Vietnam. The myth was losing its grip. Next came Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – a succession of dishonest, weak, corrupt, and gullible leaders with a Congress more interested in its own re-election than the welfare of the people it was elected to serve.

75 years ago, American’s watched their own Greatest Generation defeat German and Japanese fascism. 45 years later, a new generation helped bring down the Berlin Wall and defeat Soviet Communism. But by then there were fractures in the American façade, and in 2016 there was enough disappointment, disillusionment, and frustration in the heartland of America that Donald Trump was able to eke out an Electoral College victory to become president of the United States. In November of 2016 America fell to its nadir, and a greedy, corrupt, unfit, draft-evading narcissist took over as Commander in Chief. 

I was dejected and disappointed too, but my disappointment focused on the electorate and the degradation of the American system, and the failure of its promise and institutions. Voter participation in the 2016 election was 58%. We don’t deserve better if we don’t honor our responsibility as voters. 

Over the last 50 years, America has stood by as its educational system was gutted and its children cheated. Voters chose to cut school funding and failed to give teachers the respect and standard of living they deserve. Corporate executives were rewarded with obscene compensation packages and the government ignored the greedy criminal practices of pharmaceutical companies. Consumer finance protections were withdrawn, and banking regulations put in place following the 2008 financial collapse repealed or watered down.

Mr. Trump and his “advisors” have undermined the international trade and military alliances that supported the post WWII world order. As Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, says in his 2018 book, it is A World in Disarray. America has lost its way and needs new leadership. 

We are at a crossroads. Will new leadership emerge? There are currently 20 Democrats vying to replace Donald Trump in 2020. Cable news is breathless in its coverage and eager to find a viable challenger. The candidates are trying desperately to distinguish themselves. Health care, climate change, gun control, education, consumer finance. Which of these issues will carry weight with the voters? In the end, it will boil down to the nominee they think will be able to beat Trump. Nothing else matters.

Will it happen? Conventional wisdom tells us when the economy is good, unemployment is low, and there are no major military involvements the incumbent has a huge advantage. So, despite the corruption, fecklessness, and incompetence for the Trump administration it will be an uphill battle to Dump Trump.

After all, as he told us yesterday, “I just feel like a young man. I’m so young. I can’t believe it. I’m the youngest man. I am a young, vibrant man.”  What about the bone spurs, Donald? You can’t ride the rocket ship if you can’t get your shoes on, and it looks like Chairman Kim agrees that your “very big” rocket is fizzling.

Ride this, Mr. Trump

Important Perspective…

Monday’s catastrophic fire inside the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, terrible as it was, might just allow us to step back from the 24-hour news cycle and reflect on the longer horizon of human history. The fire damage to this iconic structure provides us an opportunity to look at a longer horizon and set other events in perspective. There is little doubt that the church will be rebuilt and restored. Even as the embers were still glowing, President Emmanuel Macron was promising to rebuild. This is not the first time its existence has been in peril. With luck, however, it may be the last.

This astonishing monument is much more than a religious edifice. Its construction began in 1160 and was, for the most part, completed in 1260. One hundred years to build, now almost 800 years old, and while it’s a Gothic masterpiece it is also a symbol of the French nation.

For centuries, Notre-Dame was the sight of royal coronations, weddings, and funerals, of Napoleon’s investiture, and anti-Catholic looting during the 18th century’s Reign of Terror. Books and plays were set there.

Having fallen into disrepair, it was impressively restored in the mid-19thcentury, and in spite of revolutions, changes in government, two world wars, occupation by the Nazi Reich, and other upheavals it has remained a formidable symbol of the French people and their Republic. It was 600 years old when Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin became America’s first ambassadors to France.

I took this picture from a boat on the Seine when we were living in Paris four years ago. There is nothing in America that corresponds to it–no religious or government building that symbolizes the endurance and spirit of its people the way the great cathedral does as it rises above the Seine to dominate Paris.

Yesterday, the great spire and most of the roof collapsed inward.

In contrast, this morning I woke up to another chorus of “No collusion. No obstruction” from the White House lawn. It was jarring in its banality, embarrassing to be reminded that Donald Trump is still the American president. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of the two events does offer us an opportunity for perspective.

Donald John Trump is an uninformed, un-curious, overweight, almost 73-year-old, narcissist who lives on a diet of KFC, Big Macs, and Fox News. In 10 years, it’s likely he and I will both be dead. He will be far from center stage – an asterisk, anomaly, and footnote on the greater American timeline – a tiny seeping pustule on its body politic. He’ll be gone, buried with his faux-gold trappings in some garish crypt where visitors can assess the mystery of his place in American history. Notre Dame will endure…damaged, but still standing guard over the French Republic. 

Will America endure? On the timeline of history there is good news and bad news for America. The good news is that we have been protected by two great oceans, one on each side. The bad news is that we have been protected by two great oceans, one on each side. 

For most of our 243 years, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, were natural barriers that kept us safe from foreign invasion. Until recently, they gave us time and space to react to foreign threats and keep us isolated from immediate physical harm. We were perfectly situated to protect ourselves while staying connected to the broader world. Jefferson and Franklin traveled to Europe in order to maintain the connection to our European roots and establish alliances for our mutual benefit. Donald Trump is trying for some undetermined reason to undermine those established alliances. In today’s world, it is not enough to have natural barriers. Missiles and cyber-invasion are threats that are not impeded by topography. Diplomacy and personal relationships are more important than ever. 

I ask myself repeatedly how Trump, an American child of wealth and privilege, could have passed up the opportunity to travel and learn about the world? How could he have chosen life inside the insular New York bubble when there was so much more outside? How could a man so lacking in curiosity, so embarrassingly ignorant of world politics and geography, become president of the United States? Why did American voters choose a president more interested in personal wealth than their own welfare.

I am reminded of a vignette in Graham Greene’s The Third Man where one of the characters riffs on history by saying that in 3000 years the Italians have seen the rise and fall of the Etruscan and Roman civilizations, Christianity, the Black Plague, the Renaissance and Reformation, endless regional battles, and two world wars while in the same 3000 years, without confronting a major problem, Switzerland’s singular achievement is the cuckoo clock. Donald Trump is our cuckoo clock—limited in almost every way – intelligence, emotional IQ, world experience, taste, empathy, and generosity despite his immense privilege.

The fire at Notre-Dame is a catastrophe of almost unimaginable proportions but thankfully only temporary. It will be rebuilt, restored and reclaim its stature as a secular pilgrimage site and religious monument. Donald Trump’s expiration date is fast approaching. It is probable that he will be a one-term president, cast aside in 2020 and in time, through the lens of history, be regarded as the most dangerous and incompetent person ever to hold that high office. 

The Paris fire allows us to gain historical perspective on the importance of people and events. Notre-Dame is immensely important. Donald Trump is a momentary aberration and singularly unimportant in the big picture.

As Parisians gathered to watch the conflagration yesterday, to sing hymns and kneel in prayer, I listened to an international correspondent describe the scene from the courtyard of Shakespeare and Company, one of the world’s great English-language bookstores. Four years ago, during an extended stay in Paris, Marilynn and I spent time rooting around in Sylvia Beach’s small rooms talking about books. Think what a different world we might have if Donald Trump, with all his wealth and privilege, had at an early age decided to learn about the world and root around in Shakespeare and Company.