The attitude of the great poets is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots
To comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable
-Traditional adage of journalistic purpose
These days, adjusting to Donald J. Trump as “leader of the free world,” I find myself defending The New York Times almost on a daily basis. I tend to do this online on left-leaning lists I wade into and respond to. I just turned 70 and am becoming a rather dialogic-oriented person in my golden years. I’ve worked as a dirty-fingernail reporter on several newspapers. I’ve written non-fiction and fiction, a distinction that more and more blurs in my mind, as it is blurred in places like Eastern Europe; in Bosnia, for example, the terms simply do not exist. I’ve worked as a self-taught photographer. For over three years, from Philadelphia, I’ve co-hosted a chat radio show out of northeastern Kansas. My dialogic role on the show, called Radio Free Kansas, is to talk about the stories in that day’s liberal northeastern rag, The New York Times.
The incredible explosion (there is no other word for it) of computer technology and social media has left me in the dust, willfully. I carry a flip cellphone with a cracked face; I don’t use EZ-Pass (I’m afraid they may be tracking me!) or GPS devices (I really love maps!), and I rarely use Facebook or any other social media. I know I’m a human derelict of the past hanging on until the light goes out. I’m too often told I’m wrong by a bureaucratic computer that says something other than what I know is true. Sometimes, I feel like a white haired, stringy-bearded ancient left by the trail wrapped in a blanket as my tribe moves on to the next happy hunting ground. Nowadays, when they leave you alone by the trail to die they leave you with an i-phone: “Here. Keep in touch on Twitter.”
For years, I’ve read The New York Times every morning over a couple of cups of coffee and a croissant or a banana. My cat Charlie often joins me on the back porch table; he’s my untrained, unlicensed “service animal” who helps me understand the stories in The Times. The paper is reliably flung onto my driveway in the pre-dawn hours by a hard-working delivery person. I read lots of other things as well. I watch too much cable news, flipping back and forth between MSNBC and Fox. I have what can only be called a book fetish. Over the past 40 years, in my spare time, I’ve enjoyed haunting local thrift shops and used book stores. I like to browse through the shelves for that special book that some person chose to jettison from his or her life; or as is the case with lots of thrift shop stuff, someone’s life slipped away and the survivors jettisoned a library. I buy books at a rate I can’t read them, so I’ve gotten into the habit of only reading sections of books. I like to hold a book as I realize the author devoted years to researching and writing the thing. I learn something from every book I dip into. I stopped flogging myself for not finishing books when I read the Nobel Prize winning short story writer Alice Munro confidently say she rarely finished a book; she didn’t have the time.
My rarest find is a 1910 paperback pamphlet on very fine paper I got for 10 cents at the Salvation Army thrift shop; it’s a collection of essays by Teddy Roosevelt called American Problems. It includes essays like “The Management of Small States Which are Unable to Manage Themselves.” That’s certainly been one of America’s biggest problems, especially afterwards when our “management” tends to come around and bite us in the ass. (Think George W. Bush’s “management” of Iraq and ISIS.) One could argue America’s current terrorism “problem” is a case of Rooseveltian imperial management over the decades coming around to bite us in the ass. On the cover of American Problems, there’s a beautifully drawn fasces, the battle-axe surrounded by sticks carried at the head of a Roman magistrate’s entourage. A decade or so after Teddy’s pamphlet, Benito Mussolini took the Latin term and coined the word fascism.
Over the years I’ve bought most of my wardrobe at thrift shops, where one can find amazing clothes. (I have a beautiful Donald J. Trump Signature Collection white dress shirt I got for three bucks. It was made in Bangladesh.) Thrift shop clothes (and books) tend to be out of fashion, which means I find lots of books on radical themes popular in the Sixties before everything went south with Ronald Reagan. I see committed thrift shop shopping as a “conservative” trait. Newness is overrated. Plus, it’s politically and socially good to re-use and re-purpose what already exists. I try to live by the old adage, Think Globally, Act Locally. I hate exercise, so I dedicate myself to making and tending raised gardens of vegetables and to maintaining the house and quarter acre my wife and I live on. Good physical work is the best exercise.
The New York Times fits into all this as an anchor of sorts. Many of my fellow radical, leftist friends like to trash The Times for its many failures. Times reporter Judith Miller is always cited, as she should be. She was flagrantly in bed with the Bush Gang during the Iraq invasion and wrote front-page articles sourced by Bush insiders with misleading information; the next day, these articles would be cited by people like VP Dick Cheney on TV news shows to support their war. It was an insidious and extremely unethical circle. There have been other examples of equally corrupt reportage. Coverage of places like Venezuela tends to be consistently bad, though the disastrous legacy of leftist Hugo Chavez doesn’t help. So, yes, there is what might be called a nationalistic leaning to The New York Times; it’s known as the leading American “newspaper of record” for a good reason. But one does not read The Times for the gospel truth; one reads it to gain some idea what’s happening around the world. In an age of dwindling newspaper resources, The Times has one of the largest stables of news bureaus and roving reporters of any publication in the world. There’s no question that leftist intellectual icons like Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn read The New York Times religiously — as they also regularly criticized it. Read Chomsky and Ed Herman’s seminal book Manufacturing Consent, where they reveal the smoking-gun goods on institutions like The Times. Too many people who damn The Times and the more general devil known as the Mainstream Media (or MSM) tend to be locked into marginal websites dedicated to purely ideological strains of thought. I read some of these venues as well, but I get very leery very quickly.
In these strange days of Donald Trump in the White House, The Times and the MSM are often linked in insidious, conspiratorial union with what has become known as “The Deep State.” Since elements of both the US government and the mainstream media are investigating President Trump, frustrated elements on the political extremes seem to gravitate to mental constructs like The Deep State and The MSM as demonic conspiracies. For instance, nightly Sean Hannity hammers over-and-over at The Deep State and The Mainstream Media for unfairly persecuting President Trump; in these rants, Hannity refers to “the media” as something that does not include himself and Fox News. Friends on the left use these same constructs all the time. As both the conservative Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset and the 1950s stevedore essayist Eric Hoffer have written, a person’s ideological beliefs can become so intense they can flip over into their opposite. Ortega y Gasset schematized this as a circle, where one side of the circle represented moderation and the other side extremism, where a person could flip from left to right or the other way around. In this odd place (think Alex Jones at its most intense) one runs into apparent leftists with sympathy for Donald Trump and his affinity with Putin and Russia. My enemy’s enemy is my friend. Because Trump is against The Deep State that’s trying to undermine him, and we in the leftist and antiwar movement have been struggling against The Deep State (think Pentagon, CIA, FBI etc) since the days of the Vietnam War — well, then, Trump must to some degree be our friend. His disdain and hatred for this so-called Deep State seems to blind some to the fact Mr. Trump is a narcissistic oligarch pushing social Darwinist policies. Sometimes it makes my head spin.
At this late date, I must confess I’m not a very good team player. I understand what Groucho Marx meant when he said, “I wouldn’t join a group that would have me.” I have a masters degree in journalism and I’ve been fired from three newspapers for conflicts with editors or for wanting to write the wrong stories. So I get it about the MSM, which I feel effectively marginalized me. More important to my education was the creative writing workshops I took as an undergraduate after a four-year hitch in the Army and a year in Vietnam. I wrote some fiction (several short stories on Vietnam in Penthouse magazine in the 1970s, for example) then got into journalism and, finally, taught myself photography. My adult life has been bouncing around among these three enterprises. These days, I find myself wanting to write in the no-man’s-land between fiction and non-fiction, a place where those designations don’t matter any more or even exist. Bosnian writer Aleksander Hemon, author of the hybrid “novel” The Lazarus Project, told The Guardian that, in Bosnia, “there are no words for fiction and non-fiction, or the distinction thereof. . . . This is not to say that there is no truth or untruth. It’s just that a literary text is not defined by its relation to truth or imagination.” The same tends to rule in African languages and in Arabic, where the idea of “story” is emphasized, as is the purpose of the writing and whether it’s literature or has a more practical purpose. Kurt Vonnegut did this kind of hybrid writing in Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children’s Crusade, where at one moment he’s the author Kurt Vonnegut writing about real events and, then, it’s Billy Pilgrim, whose war-rattled mind is loose in time and space. As for Trump as artist, I’m reminded of a character at the bar in Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”: Paul, “a real estate novelist.”
Trump is provoking like never before the question whether the rise of authoritarianism is a real possibility in America — the “uncharted waters” we hear referenced a lot. Might this push literature into the literary no-man’s-land? In places that have experienced authoritarian abuse, this may be old-hat. This kind of literary and cultural evolution recalls for me the semantic thesis developed by Harvard philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt in his short little gem called On Bullshit, a book I love to cite. It opens with this line: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” Frankfurt writes, “The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instance of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.” Bullshit arises when “circumstance require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.” Frankfurt is a philosopher, so he ends his little book on the philosophical idea that “objective” reality is unknowable. If it exists at all, it certainly can’t exist in our minds. As this becomes evident, there’s a natural reaction that focuses on at least “being true to [one’s] own nature.” That is, there’s an impulse toward sincerity. Here’s where the genial Harvard philosophy professor becomes relentless. If one is truly honest, one soon realizes human beings are no more “determinate” than life itself. “As conscious beings,” the good professor says, “we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them.” So what we like to call “identity” is a fluid, ever-changing thing. Identity is never frozen or permanent. It’s like mercury loose on the kitchen floor. “Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial – notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity is itself bullshit.”
This may be elitist mumbo-jumbo for a lot of people — too “way out” — especially among the religious right where The Soul is a concrete thing with values to evangelize and defend or the military where if you question or threaten our exceptionalism it’s Our Way or Bombs Away! But elements on the left are equally as rigid in their beliefs that ideological identity is determinate and permanent.
Since objectivity is out of the question in these post-modern times, the only way to read something like The New York Times is skeptically. My conservative, militarist father loved to say, “Don’t trust the printed word.” And that goes for every other medium invented by mankind. One should also be skeptical of people; I certainly became that way with dear ol’ dad. It especially applies to blogs that grow in the internet like mushrooms and sometimes explain the world in the easy, hyperventilating terms of conspiracy against the good people reading the blog in question. The fact is The Deep State is a metaphor, a formation of the human mind created to simplify and explain things that are either dauntingly complicated and therefore beyond our everyday understanding or things that are essentially unexplainable — part of The Great Mystery. Metaphor faces down chaos and gives us a handle to grab. Actually, much of language is metaphor. Once a metaphor becomes used enough it loses its metaphoric quality and simply becomes an assumption of reality itself. Metaphor, of course, is instrumental in the creation and maintenance of conspiracies.
For several years, I’ve co-hosted an online radio show every Tuesday afternoon in which we fling jokes and metaphors around like Frisbees. I live in a Philadelphia suburb and Mike Caddell, my co-host and creator of the show, lives in rural Jefferson County, Kansas. He calls the show Radio Free Kansas and Kansas sometimes comes out as “Brownbackistan” — for its right-wing governor, Sam Brownback. Kansas has a rich back-story of radicalness going back to John Brown, who with his sons terrorized violent pro-slavers in the 1850s. I like to call the show a dialogue between the liberal, decadent northeastern and red-state, rural, fly-over Kansas. To borrow Trump attack dog Stephen Miller’s latest assault on the press, for many Kansans on the right I clearly have a “cosmopolitan bias.” That is, anti-rural and urbane, in the sense of able to cope with diversity and densely-packed humanity. Jeff Greenfield has done the research on the idea of cosmopolitanism and found out it was employed by Stalin to tag journalists and other threats in his day. On Radio Free Kansas, I contribute information from The New York Times, which for many conservative people in Kansas might as well be called The Hell Times. Kansas is an interesting place. I’ve begun to wonder: Is it possible far-far-far-right Kansas, now facing bankruptcy issues, might be one of the first red states to crack? Is it possible rays of purple light might escape out of those cracks?
Polls have shown that elements of Donald Trump’s base are more interested in bashing liberals and leftists than they are in any kind of effective, constructive policies for a “great” nation in decline. If these polls are true, is it possible liberals and leftists have become the new “niggers” in the Trump world? Consider this from southern Texas politician Lyndon Johnson:
“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
Hell, as long as the man on the stump whips up on limp-dick liberals, a white rural fellow might even vote for an oligarchic Manhattan real estate pirate who talks about a secret plan to fix his stressful working-class life. If he hollers at people escorting hecklers out of the auditorium to “punch him in the face!” or if he speaks before a roomful of cops and encourages them to bang the heads of those they arrest against the roofs of their patrol cars. “Don’t be nice!” In dog whistle language, Kick the shit out of ’em!
If LBJ was right, these working class people are ripe to have their pockets picked.
Have we lost the thread of The New York Times in all this? Not if one accepts today’s right-wing politics as a return of the days of the nineteenth century Know Nothing Party, a political party opposed to immigrants and advocating other bigotries that proudly (like a thumb in your eye) refers to itself as knowing nothing. It’s a manifestation of the saying “ignorance is bliss” — what the great preacher in Ecclesiastes spoke to when he said, “All is vanity” and “He who increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow.” No need to be sad; just be stupid: There’s comfort and power there. Well-staffed, deeply-resourced and “liberal” journalistic institutions like The New York Times are the antidote to this kind of demagoguery, the garlic hanging on the door to keep the vampires at bay. (I should add the word liberal is, here, meant in the original sense of the word that comes out of the Enlightenment, which brought light to the Dark Ages through the free and open pursuit of secular and scientific knowledge.)
For me, “President Trump” is making it clearer than ever that Professor Frankfurt is onto something when he suggests we live in a world built on bullshit, a world where the distinction between fiction and non-fiction may be a hindrance to the search for truth. In addition to bullshit, there’s all the secrecy; the fact is we have no idea what our military is doing thanks to the walled off secret world they work in. One thing that can leap these walls — or go right through them — is human imagination. Again, this may be why there is no distinction between fiction and non-fiction in places like Eastern Europe, Africa and the Arab world. We make ourselves secure in the chaos of life by constructing meaning and creating metaphors out of familiar things that allow us to get a grip on unfamiliar things. Some of us, then, enforce our certainties on others via the standard vehicles of power, laws and violence.
On the other hand, knowing these things provides the healthy, compassionate person fertile soil for humility and an openness to new things and to people different from oneself. It emphasizes the need to respect nature in its raw state. No one understood this more than Walt Whitman. Consider the opening lines of his great poem “Song Of Myself,” which is less about himself than it is about taking joy and making sense out of the rich, essential chaos of life in America:
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
. . .
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.