Scottish snipers in World War I, April 1918. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
“Heartbreak House is not merely the name of a play,” wrote George Barnard Shaw in the preface to his masterpiece. “It is cultured, leisured Europe before the war.” The play was neither published nor performed until after the cessation of hostilities in World War I. Shaw’s given reasons are clear:
War cannot bear the terrible castigation of comedy, the ruthless light of laughter that glares on the stage. When men are heroically dying for their country, it is not the time to shew [sic] their lovers and wives and fathers and mothers how they are being sacrificed to the blunders of boobies, the cupidity of capitalists, the ambition of conquerors, the electioneering of demagogues, the Pharisaism of patriots, the lusts and lies and rancors and bloodthirsts that love war because it opens their prison doors, and sets them in the thrones of power and popularity. 
Soon after WWI, while “the earth [was] still bursting with the dead bodies of the victors,” Shaw recounted the history of the war “not in the field, but at home,” in one of his most scornful sallies against war: “Thus were the firstborn of Heartbreak House smitten; and the young, the innocent, the hopeful expiated the folly and worthlessness of their elders.”
Re-reading the preface to Heartbreak House today (“Heartbreak House and Horseback Hall”) one is besieged by the eerie sensation produced by prophecy, by the startling notion that history may repeat itself once again, but in reverse order. (more…)
Bundoran Strand Co. Donegal, with surfers, on the Atlantic west coast of Ireland, June 2010. (Credit: Osioni / Wikimedia Commons)
(Bundoran, January 2017) George Bernard Shaw first led us to the National Gallery of Ireland, where a statue of the Irish sage (the very semblance of the ghost that haunted me) welcomes visitors. In his last will, Shaw donated a third of the royalties from his plays to the Gallery, “to which I owe much of the only real education I ever got as a boy In Eire.” I had always expected that if one were to meet the ghost of Shaw it would be in London, where he spent so many years, rather than in Dublin, which he left behind in his twenties and about which he would write:
To this day my sentimental regard for Ireland does not include the capital. I am not enamored of failure, of poverty, of obscurity, and of the ostracism and contempt which these imply; and these were all that Dublin offered to the enormity of my unconscious ambition.
When we boarded a bus to the seafront town of Bundoran in the eastern coast of Ireland, I thought we had left the ghost of Shaw behind. (more…)
General Post Office, Dublin, Ireland. (Credit: Kaihsu Tai)
(Dublin, January 2017) Weathering under the foul winds of the Trump Apocalypse, I have been improving my soul by a visit to the Land of the Saints. One never comes to Ireland for the first time; one merely returns to a place as familiar as the fading memories of your grandfather’s or grandmother’s house.
At the airport the cabdriver greets you with a welcome and a broad smile. You have been told to mistrust the joviality of the Irish; it is a caricature—you have been told—used to control foreigners. But you cannot help to respond agreeably: when was the last time you were greeted by a cabdriver in the States with anything but a surly expression?
After pleasantries the talk inevitably turns to the recent US election. In gentle terms, the cabdriver expresses his unbelief at the fact that we spurned a candidate as intelligent and prepared as Hillary Clinton and elected a “crazy man” as president. I heard the underlying tenor of his words: it was the same one yelled indignantly by W.B. Yeats at the rioting crowds in the Abbey Theatre upon the premiere of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars: “You have disgraced yourselves—again!”
I couldn’t agree more, and therefore hung my head in shame. (more…)
White House lawn, 30 May 2008. (Credit: Daniel Schwen / Wikimedia Commons)
Three impressive political lies came out of the White House during the first weeks of the Trump administration: 1) there was the summary affirmation, against all photographic and professional evidence to the contrary, that Trump’s inauguration was visited by “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe”; 2) there was the illusory claim that 3-5 million illegal votes were cast for Hillary Clinton in the past election, making Trump a loser in the popular vote, even though he won the presidency; 3) there was an Executive Order imposing a Muslim ban (which the White House denied was a Muslim ban), accompanied by an affirmation that we were in peril of terrorist attacks from seven Muslim countries, the citizens of which have never committed acts of terrorism against the United States.
To this we must add the coining of a new political concept by presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway (one missed by George Orwell in 1984): “alternative facts.” If this avalanche of fabrications continues unabated, Donald Trump will make Richard Nixon look like a paragon of virtue. One is tempted to shout, along with Big Daddy at the end of Act Two in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, “CHRIST—DAMN—ALL—LYING SONS OF—LYING BITCHES!”(more…)
Why should I be civil to them or to you? In this Palace of Lies a truth or two will not hurt you. Your friends are the dullest dogs I know.
Don Juan speaking to the Devil, in George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell
To face the Apocalypse we must fix squarely in the mind what Donald Trump is and what he’s not. These days I have frequently revisited George Orwell’s dark fable Animal Farm as an emblematic text from which much can be learned. “Animal Farm,” said Orwell, “was the first book in which I tried … to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.”
Among the animals of Orwell’s dark fable—the heroic cart-horse Boxer and the “motherly mare” Clover, Muriel the goat, Benjamin the donkey and Moses the Raven—none stands out for me more than Napoleon the Pig. (more…)
Circus poster showing battle between Buffalo Bill’s congress of rough riders and Cuban insurgents. (Library of Congress)
Sic semper tyrannis! I will not celebrate the death of Fidel Castro. Dictators abound in the world; their deaths should be met with a silent shrug. What joy is there in the tragedy of a people still shattered, a country lost in childhood, and another failure in the centuries-old struggle of Cubans for liberty and equality? Let those who will dance on graves wave flags, honk horns and jump in the streets as a rite of passage.
Rather than spit on a corpse, I choose to recall memories of another Old Man—what he did, and what he meant to us. (more…)
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Revelation 6:1-8, by Matthias Gerung, circa 1530-32. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The humiliation of the US democracy is now complete. The candidate who won the most votes in the recent presidential election lost to the candidate who will win the most votes in the Electoral College. The woman who dedicated her life to public service lost to the man who dedicated himself to becoming rich. The Secretary of State who mishandled her e-mails lost to the TV celebrity who stiffed his contractors and defrauded the students of his fake University. The candidate endorsed by Planned Parenthood lost to the candidate supported by the Ku Klux Klan.
The primary system produced two candidates for the two major parties (Democratic and Republican), neither of which was desirable to a majority of the American people. Two candidates from minor parties (Libertarian and Green) were never allowed a platform for their views in the national debates. 45% of eligible American voters did not vote.
The candidate who received most of the attention of the electronic media won; the candidate endorsed by an overwhelming majority of the print media lost. Truth was indistinguishable from lies during the presidential campaign, confirming the Orwellian dictum: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind” (“Politics and the English Language,” 1946). (more…)
American Bison in North Dakota, 29 December 2013. (Credit: HalfGig / Wikimedia Commons)
Standing Rock is the reservation where Sitting Bull was killed by Tribal Police. At Standing Rock in the Dakotas, after the visit by the holy prophet Kicking Bear, Ghost Dancers prayed and danced for the regeneration of the earth and the return of the buffalo during the Ghost Dance movement of the 1890s.
In the aftermath of the Fetterman Massacre in 1866 (the Sioux called it the Battle of the Hundred Slain), General William Tecumseh Sherman argued an Indian policy of “peace within the reservation and war without.” The simplest way of bringing Plains Indians to confinement, Sherman wrote to Philip Sheridan, was “to invite all the sportsmen of England and America … for a Great Buffalo Hunt and make a grand sweep of them all.” The buffalo herds vanished from the Northern Plains between 1876 and 1882.
When Sitting Bull returned from Canada and surrendered in 1881, he addressed US military officers: “I wish it to be remembered that I was the last of my tribe to surrender my rifle. This boy [Sitting Bull’s son] has given it to you, and he now wants to know how he is going to make a living.” [i](more…)
United States Republican presidential ticket, 1864. Print shows a campaign banner for 1864 Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln and running mate Andrew Johnson. (Credit: Currier and Ives)
I don’t understand the modern Republican Party. Why conjure the ghost of Ronald Reagan rather than the living presence of Abraham Lincoln? Unless you have moved so far away from the spirit of Lincoln that his biblical language is no longer an inspiration, but rather an embarrassment.
In the mid-1850s, the appearance of the Know-Nothings in the US political scene threatened the integrity of the two-party electoral system. The Know-Nothings, according to James McPherson, “generally favored temperance and always opposed tax support for parochial schools. Their main goal was to reduce the power of foreign-born voters in politics.” In a letter to his friend Joshua Speed, Lincoln countered the threat of the Know-Nothings:
Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.[i]
Hillary Clinton on 9 February 2016. (Credit: Ted Eytan)
Then cried they all again, saying, Not this man, but Barabbas. Now Barabbas was a robber.
KJ, John 18:40
The Mozart of baseball journalists, an exquisite writer whom I have admired for decades, has shamed me into revealing—for whatever little it’s worth—my vote in the next presidential election. To read Roger Angell’s distinctive, lucid prose is like listening to the song of a water spirit in a fresh mountain stream. At the age of a youthful 96 years, Angell has taken to the pages of the New Yorker (his long-time home) to declare his vote for Hillary Clinton.
I once heard Ruben Berríos, leader of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, say that a US presidential election was always a choice between “Mr. Hamburger and Mr. Hot Dog.” The customary spectacle in our time of two unfortunate male clowns lunging for the presidential chair has been—to say the very least—disheartening. But there is a never-before-seen wrinkle in this year’s election: it is a choice between Mr. Hot Dog and a Woman. Hillary Clinton may yet turn out to be another fool in our endless parade of presidential clowns, but there is no doubt that Donald Trump will be a vulgar buffoon.
I have taken my responsibilities as a democratic voter seriously in this election. At the risk of my sanity, I have heard most of the primary debates, followed the news assiduously in print and social media, and have taken the time—seeking surcease of sorrow—to review the history, speeches and debates of the greatest of presidents, Abraham Lincoln. At the end of this self-imposed Way of the Cross, through which I sought revelation in penance, I make mine Roger Angell’s words: “I will cast my own vote for Hillary Clinton with alacrity and confidence.” And let me clarify: I am not voting for Clinton because I think Trump is a punk (although I do). Trump, to my mind, was the very best of the stable of presidential candidates Republicans offered US voters in the primaries; I will vote for Clinton because I trust (I do) that as president she will walk on paths that I think best for this great country. (more…)