Tricksters

A Tale of Conscience

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Byam Shaw’s illustration for Poe’s William Wilson in “Selected Tales of Mystery” (London : Sidgwick & Jackson, 1909) on the frontispiece with caption “A masquerade in the palazzo of the Neapolitan Duke Di Broglio.” (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Edgar Allan Poe’s haunting story of “William Wilson” (published in 1839 in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine) is a semi-autobiographical tale of conscience worth invoking in the midst of our present political struggles. It is a ghostly story of conquering one’s alter ego, of the demoralizing consequence of slaying the second, better self. It is told as a cautionary tale, the redemptive purport of which comes from reflecting on the consequences of one’s own avarice rather than projecting blame outward.

The bane of unacknowledged greed, lust, and ambition, which is at the heart of Poe’s tale, can be extended beyond the individual to implicate a nation. Indeed, William Wilson’s struggle with his doppelgänger might serve well as a parable for collective contemplation. Understanding his moral demise should prompt us to reclaim the spirit of the nation. (more…)

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The Low-Bar Trope

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Democratic Primary Debate Participants, 27 June 2019: Michael Bennet, Joseph Biden, Peter Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, John Hickenlooper, Bernard Sanders, Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang. (Credit: DonkeyHotey / Wikimedia Commons)

You have heard it said before. I’ve said it myself. As a colleague recently grumbled: “The bar is low. All I want is a return to the rule of law.”

Indeed, the bar is set low for the 2020 presidential election if it means Democrats should nominate the person most likely to defeat Trump, that candidates competing for the nomination should do no harm to one another in the primaries, and that they and their supporters should rally behind the Party’s eventual nominee on the assumption that winning the election will return the nation to the status quo ante.

Is a reset enough? Is restoring the state of affairs as it existed before Trump’s presidency the right goal and the likeliest way to win the election? (more…)

Playing Chicken

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ARABIAN SEA (March 6, 2012) The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) and the British Royal Navy Duke-class frigate HMS Westminster (F 237) transit the Arabian Sea. Abraham Lincoln is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility conducting maritime security operations, theater security cooperation efforts and support missions as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jerine Lee/Released) 120306-N-QN361-034

We’ve all seen video clips in recent news reports showing the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group (with a B52 bomber task force) dispatched to Iran for the purpose of sending a message.  It is an unsettling sight.  As a worried friend said to me last Tuesday morning, “I hope Trump doesn’t get us into a war with Iran.”

Yes, this is a worrisome development, not just because a war with Iran could happen on purpose (with war hawks John Bolton and Mike Pompeo wielding influence within an unstable administration), but also because it could happen accidentally.  The game the President is playing is commonly called Chicken. (more…)

Toxic Language Alert for Campaign 2020: Confounding Populism with Demagoguery

Note:  This essay first appeared in Public Seminar, April 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to supporters at a rally at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa, 7 March 2019. (Credit: Matt A. Johnson)

In early April, Washington Post’s adversarial columnist Dana Milibank dubbed Bernie Sanders “the Donald Trump of the left,”  noting perfunctorily at the end of his column that his wife, Anna Greenberg, “works for John Hickenlooper, a Democratic presidential candidate.”  One can assume that Milibank is entering the fray over whom to select to run on the Democratic Party ticket.

As the Democratic Party struggles to work through internal differences, including how far left is too far to defeat Donald Trump, a robust debate can be productive and even contribute to coalition building. Yet the chance of a constructive outcome decreases to the degree that caricature substitutes for characterization and, in the present case, populism is mistaken for demagoguery. (more…)

Ghostly Metaphor: War at a Bargain

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Creditor’s Ledger Payments Book detailing creditor payments between 1958 and 1977 by companies commissioning work from Holmes McDougall. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Like a ghost, the metaphors embedded in war talk go largely unnoticed. They are a specter haunting our speech and thought, just below the threshold of awareness. Calling attention to them can reveal an unexamined pretext for continuing to fight an interminable war.

Ghostly metaphors do not call attention to themselves as figures of speech. They operate furtively as though they are just ordinary words conveying literal meaning. With guard down, we allow them to shape the message and form our thoughts. When we draw on the literalized language of accounting to think about military matters, for example, we reason figuratively, drawing a tacit analogy between conducting business and fighting wars. (more…)

Our Political Whirlwind

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Photo credit: Daphne Zaras.

The whirlwind of today’s politics is exhausting and demoralizing.  I am emotionally drained by the relentless storm of acrimony and dismayed by its destructive force.  What is there left to say in the face of all of this?  Many of us share a sense of anomie.  Political talk is unmoored to democratic values.

The swirl of political communication is frenetic.  We read distractedly in this digital age, observes Joe Moran.  We skim; we don’t read anything that’s too long.  We ingest information rapidly; we write and read urgently; we harvest quick bursts of words and images.  “Perhaps,” Moran suggests, “we should slow down.”  (more…)

Last of the Cold War Warriors

Senator John McCain, 1936-2018. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Even the tempests of Caliban’s island must pause at the passing of John McCain.

Writing about the three great Liberators of the Americas—Bolívar from Venezuela, San Martín from Río de La Plata, Hidalgo from México—José Martí once taught us:

Men cannot be more perfect than the sun. The sun burns with the same light with which it heats. The sun has spots. Ingrates talk only about its spots; grateful ones talk about the light.[1]

As a resident of Arizona, I have had occasion to witness John McCain’s services to his constituency with punctilious efficiency and graciousness. The tag of “maverick”—an unfortunate banality that often diminished the complexity of the man—has led commentators in the last few days to praise his memory as follows: “I disagreed with him on many issues, but …,” usually followed by a lengthy encomium. I will add my voice to this chorus of praise and condemnation. I will write, reducing “a person’s entire life to two or three scenes,” not only about my disagreements with John McCain, but also about the good that should not be interred with his bones.[2]

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Democratic Counterpoint

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Detail from “Government.” Mural by Elihu Vedder. 1896. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Democracy is a tricky word, as noted at the end of Hunt the Devil. Whether we’ve too little of it or too much depends on what we mean by it.

To Walt Whitman, democracy meant not accepting anything except what everyone else can have their “counterpart of on the same terms” (Leaves of Grass). He could never get his fill of this kind of democracy, which resonated with overtones of equality among differences and resistance to privilege.

The standard definition of democracy refers to rule of the people primarily through their representatives, free and fair elections, and decisions by majority vote. Fair enough, so far as it goes, but lifeless.  (more…)

A Cloud of Imperial Hubris

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Illustration for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,“ engraving by Gustave Doré, 1866. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Tirelessly, Tom Englehardt works to raise our consciousness and tweak our conscience as citizens of an imperial war state. At TomDispatch.com, he offers a regular antidotal drip of posts by thoughtful and insightful critics of militarism. His newest book, A Nation Unmade by War, was released on May 22, warning that an empire made by war is also unmade by it.

A mere gesture to Englehardt’s observation is enough to underscore the country’s ominous trajectory.

We Americans do not like to think of ourselves as an empire. Nevertheless, Englehardt observes, America’s empire of chaos exists in a “cloud of hubris.” Hubris, you say? Yes, hubris—that condition of extreme pride and self-confidence, of outsized ambition that offends the gods, of overreach that leads to downfall.  (more…)

Bogart and the Sierra Madre

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Treasure of Sierra Madre (film) – 1948 Movie still. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

(Excerpt from The Gospel of Scarface, Chapter 1, “Shakespearean Villains”)

In The Big Sleep (1946) we see in Bogart’s face, in Bogart’s actions, the performer always thinking, which translates into the detective thinking all the time, insistent on dissipating the shroud of mystery that confronts him. Bogart’s best performances reveal an abstraction, a state of mind and feeling made manifest by a created, if limited pattern of movement and sound.

The destruction of this thinking mind, the loss of control of this detective, the descent into the emotional and psychological chaos of the gangster and the outlaw—who now becomes a full-fledged monster—is what Bogart achieves in John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948). (more…)