Tricksters

Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: Practical Business Men

Schottische Scharfschützen auf Lauer (April 1918).

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. [1]

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…)

Escape

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The Pentagon, 12 January 2008. (Credit: David B. Gleason)

George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and now Donald Trump—all of whom grew up on Hollywood’s spectacle of America winning wars ad infinitum and none of whom fought in an actual war—“managed to remain quite deeply embedded in centuries of triumphalist frontier mythology.”

We’re still stuck in the fantasy of “an American world of forever war.”

Tom Engelhardt, “Rebecca Gordon, War Without End,” March 7, 2017

 

I was struck, while reading one of Peter Zhang’s exploratory essays and thinking about US war culture, by the metaphor of escape.[i] Escape is just one figure in Zhang’s extended comparison of Deleuze to Zen. The spirit of the essay’s multiple analogies is heuristic, especially for escaping debilitating conventions of political culture. (more…)

Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: God Save Ireland! (Part Two)

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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.[1]

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…)

Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: God Save Ireland!

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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…)

The Distraction of Trump

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“The Conjurer,” oil on canvas, by Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1496-1520. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

There is a lot not to like about the new president. His boorish persona and proclivity to wreak havoc are a major source of stress, unless you are one of his joyful supporters. Trump the President is a polarizing figure, but his political clownery is also a distraction from the deeper challenges facing the nation and the world at large.

Trump’s circus act gets all the attention. Rome built the colosseum to distract plebeians from the empire’s economic and political problems by entertaining them with bloody displays of gladiator combat. The famous Tivoli amusement park was built in mid-19th century Copenhagen to divert the people’s attention from politics. Billion dollar football stadiums in the US are venues for mixing blood sport with patriotic display. Entertainment, often fused with military ritual (Roger Stahl calls it “militainment”), sidetracks the deliberation of public policy. (more…)

Western Worldview: A Latent War Myth

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“St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre,” oil on panel, by François Dubois, circa 1572-84. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I recently came across a striking depiction of the dominant Western worldview, which underlies our conventional way of thinking about violence, especially our assumption that war is natural and inevitable. It is our present-day mythos—our deeply embedded conception of humanity—rendered so starkly that it startles one momentarily into a state of recognition.

I found this remarkable depiction in a book about the history and vitality of peace movements, specifically a chapter on psychology and peace. The authors, Marc Pilisuk and Mitch Hall, observe that we live in a world we have created, both a physical world we have significantly changed and “a symbolic world of mental images that define what we assume to be true.” Our prevailing myths are our most comprehensive symbols for identifying our place and purpose in life. They constitute social and political entities, such as nation-states, that “exist only because we believe they are real,” that is, “because we invest them with sovereign powers and sacred attachments” and “willingly kill or die for them.”[i] (more…)

Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: Napoleon the Pig

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Credit: Joanbanjo / Wikimedia Commons

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.”[1]

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…)

The Good War

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Historian Howard Zinn speaking in 2009. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Howard Zinn was a bombardier in World War II. He flew B-17 missions over Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. He didn’t like war, but he joined in the fight against Fascism because he believed this war was “a people’s war, a war against the unspeakable brutality of Fascism.” Unlike other wars, this war “was not for profit or empire”:

What could be more justifiable than a war against Fascism, which was ruthlessly crushing dissent at home, and taking over other countries, while proclaiming theories of racial supremacy and promoting a spirit of nationalist arrogance. When Japan, which was committing atrocities in China, allied itself to Italy and Germany, and then attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, it seemed to be clear—it was the democratic countries against the Fascist countries.[i]

Indeed, World War II is the national archetype of the good war, the just war, the war for democracy and liberty. US wars have been infused ever since with the heroic spirit of its just cause.

Based on his experience and then on his research as a professional historian, Zinn changed his mind about World War II and war in general. His reassessment is worth reflecting upon since, as he put the matter, World War II is the supreme test of whether there is such a thing as a just war.[ii] (more…)

Failed Empire

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(Credit: Veterans for Peace)

Is the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency the sign of a failed empire?

“Make America Great Again” is a campaign slogan that seems to acknowledge the country’s fall from grace. Tom Engelhardt certainly thinks that’s the case, as we noted in a previous Hunt the Devil post. In Engelhardt’s words, Trump is “our first declinist candidate for president.”

Trump’s victory is a convoluted concession that world dominion has been a ruinous pursuit. Of course, he promises to recover the country’s greatness by reinvesting in its military might, as if the US military is not already rich and mighty. But, for now, the premise stands: The US is no longer great.

What happened to bring down the empire, or at least the country’s collective faith in it? (more…)

A Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: Ibsen’s Peer Gynt

for Manuel Giner

 

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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…)