The thing about people crazy the way Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are crazy is that their own exquisite craziness, as many-faceted as they imagine it to be, is never enough for them. They’re rapists by nature, not onanists.
I learned 56 years ago, sitting in my underwear on a bench in the Armed Forces Induction Center in Los Angeles, how to avoid being cast as a bit player in someone else’s psychodrama. I don’t believe that what I learned there is something that social media can teach you, but bullies certainly can.
Today in the Guardian, a number of Bob Dylan’s fellow musicians contributed to a celebration of his 80th birthday by naming their favorite Dylan songs, and commenting on their choices.
In her comments, Gillian Welch said this:
I bought my first Dylan record – The Times They Are a-Changing  – when I was 17, but to experience those early records in real time as he was releasing them must have been like being around when Shakespeare was creating new plays.
Yes. It was like that. Exactly like that. Unexpected. Miraculous.
It was October, 1955, a week or so before my twelfth birthday. My mother and I, my three year-old sister, and my grandmother — who’d been living with us at that point for several years — found ourselves on final approach to a late-night landing in Paris.
We weren’t supposed to be landing in Paris. We were supposed to be landing in Frankfurt am Main en route to a reunion with my father at his new army posting in southwestern Germany. That, at least, was what was printed in our official travel orders. Now there was to be at least another day added to our schedule. The captain of the government chartered Seaboard and Western Constellation we’d first boarded early that morning in New York had just announced over the cabin intercom that since Rhein Main airport in Frankfurt was completely socked in, he was diverting our flight to Orly, the nearest international airport still clear of fog. So, like it or not and ready or not, we were now headed not to Frankfurt but to Paris, the magical Cité de la Lumiere that so much had been written about. My grandmother had taken me to see an American in Paris when I was eight, but no one had ever so much as hinted to me that Paris was a place that I might one day set foot in myself.
It was nearly midnight when we finally touched down on the runway at Orly. After the ceremony of deplaning, the guided trudge through the terminal, and half an hour or so of rummaging in purses, fumbling for passports and travel documents, and whispered negotiations incomprehensible to my not quite twelve year old self, we were bundled onto a dilapidated bus and ferried to our hotel through a mist-shrouded, and by this late hour largely extinguished City of Light.
Our hotel turned out to be the Hôtel le Littré, a modest establishment situated on the Rue Littré, less than a mile from the heart of Montparnasse, not that any of us had a clue at the time exactly where we were, or how improbable it was that any of us should have fetched up there at all, let alone by accident, let alone in the middle of the night. Standing in the lobby, with my ears still throbbing from the noise and vibration of the engines during our long flight, my first impression was of a somewhat muffled, somewhat claustrophobic lounge, with brocaded furnishings reminiscent of pictures from one of my grandmother’s old photograph albums.
While my mother was simultaneously engaged in juggling my sister and signing the register, a tiny, ancient-looking woman at the equally tiny front desk handed my grandmother a pair of the largest keys I’d ever seen. They were formidable, these keys, as though originally tasked with unlocking some ancient fortress, an impression enhanced by the fact that each was attached to a half-pound oval of brass with a number engraved on it. Looks more like a cell number than a room number, I remember thinking.
Mais non, my grandmother explained to me as we were being led upstairs to our rooms, such keys were not at all weird. Because it was customary in France to leave your key at the front desk when you were away from your room, and to pick it up when you returned, there was no need for it to fit into a pocket or purse. Besides, she said, the bigger and heavier a key was, the less likely it would be to wander off by itself. How she came up with this, I had no idea, but it sounded plausible, and my grandmother, who had been a world traveler with her father as a young girl, had never been the sort of person to make stuff up.
Okay, then. Maybe French keys weren’t actually so weird after all, but they weren’t the only things French that seemed weird to me that evening, and I was far from done pestering people for explanations. Why was it so warm in our room, I demanded, why were there half a dozen pillows and almost that many rolled-up (rolled up?) quilts piled on the beds when it was already so warm, and what was that thing in the closet off the bathroom that looked like a toilet, but wasn’t? (My utterly exhausted grandmother sighed and rolled her eyes at that last question, and then, with a perfunctory nod to her daughter, got up and padded silently, shoes and overnight bag in hand, to her own adjacent room.)
The next morning — very early the next morning — we boarded the same dilapidated bus that had delivered us the night before, and set off again, still somewhat bleary-eyed, for the airport and the final leg of our journey to Frankfurt. As we crept through the slowly awakening city, there was still little to see, but I marked the cobblestones, the improbably broad streets, and the middle-aged men with rolled-up sleeves and calf-length white aprons cranking out awnings and arranging chairs and tables on the sidewalks. Sidewalk cafés, I suddenly realized, sidewalk cafés just like in the movies.
Then, as we turned a corner, there it was in the middle distance, floating above the rooftops and autumn foliage of the city, the upper two-thirds of la tour Eiffel. This, somehow, was not just like in the movies, this was more like the word made flesh of religious hyperbole, and I was motoring away from it like a soul being banished from paradise.
The moment didn’t last. I was a little more romantic, a little more literary at twelve than the average American kid, I suppose, but I was still a kid, and I liked airplanes and adventures too. I was really looking forward to trying out my ten words of German when we finally got where we were, after all, supposed to be going.
I’ve never returned to the City of Light, not once in the 65 years since I saw it for the first and only time just as the first rays of dawn were beginning to filter through the autumnal branches of the trees lining its famous boulevards. Even so, I suspect that I’m as glad as any Parisian is that it’s still there, and that it’s still Paris. Some places, Grâce à Dieu, are eternal. Paris is one of them.
Either you trust the people or you don’t. There isn’t any middle ground.
History has some bad news for the well-meaning: regulating Facebook and Twitter isn’t going to restore our so-called democracy to us. Freedom of expression means what it says. Any political system which calls itself a democracy while at the same time trying to ensure that genuine freedom of expression is granted only to those whose opinions manage to avoid offending conventional wisdom is engaging in a very dangerous form of sophistry.
Watching half the country succumb to the mass delusions of the past four years has admittedly been excruciating, but like it or not, the truth is that anyone can be fooled, and with the right technology, virtually the entire public can be fooled at scale. Is that really Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey’s fault? Should we now demand that the senile ratfuckers of the U.S. Senate bully them into pretending to fix with yet more algorithms what their existing algorithms have already been responsible for breaking? Does anyone really think that this is a good idea?
The truth is, these two accidentally evil geniuses, and others among their Silicon Valley peers, are singularly ill-equipped to do the dirty work of policing the world’s speech for us. Threatening to ruin their business model if they don’t seems a far too ham-fisted way to avoid confronting the real reasons why the Internet has become a sewer, armed mobs are assaulting our legislatures, and half the country believes Hillary Clinton is a satanic pedophile.
All of which is not to say the current fear among liberal Americans that a significant minority of their neighbors have fallen under the malign influence of weaponized troll factories or unhinged demagogues is irrational, nor attempts to do something about it entirely without merit. The danger I see is that any attempt to restrict the future of political discourse to the limits of a narrowly conceived civility will inevitably lead to the adoption of public policies just as dangerous to democratic governance as the chaos it seeks to suppress.
Even if the government persuades a majority that it should be the guardian of right thinking, there’s no way to accomplish such a goal without relying on a labor intensive internal security apparatus like the STASI once had, or a universal surveillance-based social credit ranking system like the one already under construction in China.
What liberals need to understand is that no matter how ignorant, how parochial, or how viciously expressed the grievances are which have split the United States in half, and incinerated the soi disant conservatism of the Republican Party, they aren’t imaginary. The people who share them aren’t going to stop probing the gaps in our political hypocrisies until they get answers they feel they can trust.
We leftists—not the commedia dell’arte caricatures of Fox News and the GOP, but the genuine kind—understand this, but so far we’ve lacked the courage to act accordingly. We need to make it clear that we support the efforts of all people to get what is legitimately theirs, even those whose political ideologies we disagree with, but not at the price of colluding with racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, or religious fanaticism. We can never accept the legitimacy of second amendment fetishism, or the idea that what freedom means is refusing to wear a mask or a motorcycle helmet, or to pay your taxes.
If we’re serious about our politics, we should be able to live with getting laughed at or sneered at in the short run, if in the long run we can make it clear to all and sundry that we have a case to make, and that no matter what happens, we aren’t going anywhere. If we want to recover any semblance of political legitimacy, we can’t avoid a face-to-face contest with the right, now matter how unpleasant or personally dangerous we believe it to be. It’s the only honest way to invest in ourselves, and in the future of our country.
None of this is rocket science. The key is a recovery not of bipartisanship, but of a genuine political dialectic. If the MAGA faithful really want to make America great again, they’re going to have to accept the fact that engagement with people like us, and with the rest of the world, is the only realistic way forward. If we want to help make that possible, we can’t farm it out to someone who promises, for a price of course, to protect us from any unpleasantness. We’re going to have to do it ourselves, and risk something of ourselves in the process of doing it. The principle of equal justice for all demands it.
P.S., the tl;dr edition:
The philosophical difference between the Fairness Doctrine and Orwell’s Ministry of Truth is a matter of degree rather than kind, no matter how much the sophistries of liberal convenience would have it otherwise. The only way out of our present political meltdown is to take one another seriously, and to stop indulging in the administrative fantasies of liberal dirigistes.
*The Yanks have colonized our subconscious (A quote from Wim Wenders’ film Im Lauf der Zeit)
Well, you may be old now, I told myself at sixty, but at least you haven’t started reading obituaries. Now that I’m past seventy, I know damned well that it doesn’t matter whether we read them or not. We have Twitter, we have Facebook. Unwelcome news will get to us.
When the unwelcome news of Harry Dean Stanton’s passing arrived on my iPhone a few mornings ago, just ahead of the overnight summary of White House twitter atrocities, I did what we do — I winced and scrolled up to breathless estimates of impending nuclear war. That evening, though, I poured a second beer, dimmed the lights in my living room, dug Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas out of my essential films library, and watched it again after who knows how many years.
The Sam Shepard screenplay was as laconic, as precise as ever, Ry Cooder’s guitar licks were as haunting as ever, and there, at the center, the Old Man was as magnificently himself as ever, even though he wasn’t nearly as old as I’d remembered. When he died, I said to myself, something about what it means to be an American died with him.
But what is it about these Germans? Wim Wenders, Percy Adlon — who gave them permission to put Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinsky together in the lonesome American Southwest, or Jack Palance and Marianne Sägebrecht, for that matter? What kind of muse, what kind of genius is this?
Yeah, well…. It’s a long story. If you live in Arizona, as I do, it’s impossible to miss the German cousins in our midst. Go anywhere around here in the summer months and there they are, seemingly impervious to sunstroke, peering into their guidebooks for directions to the local Sehenswürdigkeiten, more familiar with our landmarks — even the ones they haven’t seen yet — than we are ourselves. I used to wonder, now and then, if there could possibly be as many Germans in all the other deserts of the world — the Sahara, the Gobi, the Kalahari, the Atacama, the Negev — as there were in the Sonora and Mojave.
With all due respect to the insatiable German curiosity about the world we share, I doubt it. For all sorts of historical reasons — never mind the two world wars — our national mythologies harbor semi-disclosed affinities that appeal to both our populations more or less equally. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we’re constantly in and out of each others’ pockets, sometimes with a pessimism bordering on the morbid, but more often than not with the kind of cross-cultural fertility that levels empires, confuses dialects, and assists in the birth of things no single individual could ever have dreamed of.
Case in point: Wim Wenders. The French famously lead the rest of Europe in complaining about us, but Wenders, who knows us far better, gives us the benefit of a doubt that admittedly we don’t always deserve. It’s not exactly a get-out-of-jail-free card, though, this Paris, Texas of his. It’s an admonishment, if a gentle and sympathetic one, of our chimerical American dreams. Fair play to him. Having colonized the German subconscious, as Wenders himself so elegantly put it, we can hardly complain when a German artist of his stature returns the favor.
Someone should arrange to show Paris, Texas to the pig* vile creature currently posing as our president, not that it would do any good. He’s as American as I am, but he’ll never have any idea what that actually means, let alone honor it in his actions. How much better off would we be, do you think, if the qualities that Harry Dean Stanton embodied in his best performances informed the day-to-day actions of our politicians? In the meantime, all I can say is that I’ll miss that grand old man, and so will a lot of other people, Wim Wenders fans or not.
*It’s long after the fact, but I just can’t let this stand as originally written. Pigs have good reasons for being how they are. Trump doesn’t. I’m not sure he deserves all the blame for what he’s become, but at this point how he got to be what he is matters less than putting him in a place where he can’t do any more harm to anyone who hasn’t volunteered for his abuse.
Today Paul Krugman has discoveredthat, gasp, technological unemployment is really real! And it’s really, finally here! And it really, really will result in a permanent transfer of wealth from labor to capital, no matter how many college degrees laborers go into debt to acquire! (and, coincidentally, of course, this also seems to imply that Marx might actually have been a bit smarter than we thought.)
I’m being unfair, or at least uncharitable, to the penitent Dr. Krugman, who’s a nice guy, and would be a nice guy even if he weren’t an economist. Still, this is an amazingly belated observation on his part. I thought that these economist guys all knew this stuff, but were afraid to mention it for fear of devaluing their Keynesian cheerleading. Horrifying to think that they didn’t actually know it at all.