The Collapse

The power of people

The sudden collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 followed shortly thereafter by the entire Iron Curtain came as no real surprise to me, and I was not alone. This is not some idle boast with 20/20 hindsight. For a couple of years prior already, the pressure had been mounting on this monolithic razor blade cutting the world in two. It was overly ripe for the fall.

No comment needed

I had been to East Germany several times, birthplace of my now ex-wife, and home to her huge tribe of relatives (her grandmother had married a widower with three children and had then had three of her own with him, who all, amazingly, survived World War Two, if I remember correctly). I had had long conversations with people there, read the local papers, which pretended that everything was fine and all bad things came from the West. Every encounter with an East German involved a liturgy of complaints about the absence of goods … not money. Things. One of my wife’s cousins couldn’t find a replacement car door, for example, because the Five-Year plan that had been agreed to around then didn’t include passenger doors for the Trabants that year. Another cried after seeing all the East-German wares like those blue polka-dotted Bürgl earthenware cups and the famous “smoke” figures from the Vogtland region  being sold at a Christmas market in Frankfurt on the Main in the west. Those goods were not available drüben, over there, at home, in East Germany

Checkpoint Charlie: a neural point in the world

Fulfilling shopping was not the only problem. A friend had been in the NVA (the National People’s Army) and reported driving around drunken officers all day in decrepit equipment. And you could see the degraded barracks, the quiet rejection of Russia and things Russian ­— most people dislike occupiers, regardless, so don’t think this was just “Communism.” People who grew up learning Russian in school hardly speak a word anymore or refuse to. At any rate, all of what I saw contradicted the apocalyptic vision of ultra-powerful Eastern Hordes often referenced in western media with glee and with proof by grainy black and white photos.

Most revealing, perhaps, was a simple conversation, during which I and my interlocutor compared east and west, a very frequent and prolific topic. I casually referred to where I lived as “back in Germany” (bei uns in Deutschland). She interrupted me: “This is also Germany.” In that instant, I realized that Bismarck’s claim that Germany would need a civil war once a century to stay united was no longer applicable. This was a unified country with an impenetrable and cruelly ridiculous border running through it. Impenetrable, but not permanent.

One just had to hope that a war would not be necessary to break down that wall…

A bubble was growing in East Germany, that was for sure, a quiet, unspectacular one. A bigger one was beginning to bulge elsewhere, however, namely Hungary, and thanks to my first book contract with APA Guides, I was able to drive there often as a Mr. Nice Guy writing about travel and culture, essentially harmless stuff for the over-political Communists…

The Hungarians had been chomping at the bit for a while already. Crippling foreign debt and palpable weariness at the leaden straitjacket imposed by a stuffy, unimaginative squad of corrupt apparatchiks was creating a kind of mental rebellion. Judging from the many essentially freedom-fighting idols who appeared  as statues, or on the bills, it would appear to anyone with a bit of a sense of observation, that Hungarians like their freedom, and they don’t like to be told what to do, and if that is the case, they tend to become ornery and uncooperative. Let me mention Kossuth, Deàk, Ràkoczi, the many poets  (Petöfi, Ady, Jozsef…), who are naturally inclined to free thinking, and of course Dozsa György, who led a massive peasant revolt against a corrupt aristocracy and died horribly, in 1514, along with many of his followers. A friend of mine, a simple seamstress out east, could recite the national poet Sàndor Petöfi’s famous “Talpra, Magyar” (On your feet, Magyars) that roused the Hungarians against the Austrians on March 15, 1848. From her mouth, it always sounded suspiciously contemporaneous, and very passionate.

Another snapshot: In August ’88, in a crowded csàrda near Tiszafüred on the Great Puszta, I had jokingly called the waitress “elvtàrs,” which means comrade. She yelled back at me for all to hear:  “The only thing red with me is my dress,” which was indeed red.

The Tisza between Hungary and Ukraine

My contacts in the country were all turning west. I crossed the border five times in ’88 without ever being searched. Unlike my crossings into East Germany, which never took less than three hours. I even wrote to editors in the USA (the big magazines, hoping to get The Scoop) that Hungary was almost out of the East Bloc and the Iron Curtain was now a flimsy, rusting reminder of past failures. I explained why I thought it would happen…. “Dear Mr. Radkai, that is all too speculative” was the standard response. The US media simply loved its cloak-and-daggery East Bloc, with its run-down buildings, barbed wire as a metaphor, the sinister cement posts, so dramatic when displayed in grainy black and white on the broadsheets.

It was not all lucubration. There was some action as well. For example, in late June ’88, a massive demonstration was held in Budapest against the systematization (modernization) project initiated by Ceaușescu in neighboring Romania, which would have seriously affected the majority Hungarians in Transylvania (the USA still considered Ceaușescu  one of the better guys in Eastern Europe).  After much sending out, the Berkshire Eagle picked up my report on it, bless their soul. A year later, June 16, 1989, with the Hungarian Democratic Forum as a kind of opposition pool, the country re-buried the “hero” of the 1956 rebellion, Imre Nagy, along with Pal Maléter, Miklos Gimes, Geza Losonczy and Jozsef Szilagyi. An empty coffin was added to represent the thousands of Hungarians who had also perished fighting off the Soviet army. It was a huge demo.


But lots more was happening. In May, guards were removed from the border, an open invitation to use Hungary as an escape route. Also, on June 27, Gyula Horn was at the western border to ceremoniously cut open the Iron Curtain (I have a piece of it). In August and September, East German refugees started entering the country, allegedly to go on vacation: Hungary had always been known as “the country for encounters”…. my ex-wife’s family would come to the Balaton in summers to meet their East German relatives. These vacationers now spawned a refugee crisis that ultimately forced the Hungarian government to do the right thing and let them emigrate westward. The trickle became a flood.

A friend of mine, Ingrid Heller, kept a diary of her escape with her two teenagers:

Budapest, August 23

We went straight to the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany. We hoped to get some assistance there. But the embassy was closed. All I could see was the locked gates, the bell, and the guard house and Hungarian sentinel. Four youths came up from behind and stormed the bell. As if it were a life saver, I thought. A member of the embassy staff came out and handed us some flyers through the gate. They pointed the way to the Church of the Holy Family in Zugliget district.

We headed to the church. The embassy had set up a kind of emergency space in a garage in back of the church. They were taking the applications for passports. We had hidden passport in the pages of books to avoid being noticed by the East German customs officers.

Then the East German “tourists” started collecting like the birds on Hitchcock’s jungle Jim at the West German embassy in Prag. And soon the Czechs had to relent and let them go.  The East Germans at home, meanwhile, were not totally passive. I remember hearing that people wanting to move from Dresden in ’86 were giving the reason as “lack of access to western television,” though I suspect that was apocryphal. But it referred to the fact that western TV signals did not reach the great city on the Elbe, which became known as the “Valley of the Know-Nothings” (Tal der Ahnungslosen).  In September ’89, they began to demonstrate, culminating in a huge march in Leipzig. The SED government had no cogent response, and repression was not an option, most probably because the USSR under Gorbachev was no longer prepared to back violence. So, whether leaving the country or marching in the streets, people were “voting with their feet,” was a popular saying.

The Wall falls

But in October ’89, I still had to order a visa to enter East Germany. I was planning an one of those cultural-lifestyle articles for a magazine, this time on Frederic the Great, who had palaces in what was now West Berlin and Potsdam in the East. My visa for multiple crossings was for November 12. So I reserved a train ticket from Munich to Berlin for Nov. 10, giving myself a few days to do research and visit friends in West Berlin – yes, my young readers, there were days when you could work at a human pace, read books, dig deeply into your subjects, and have a real social life with flesh and blood people… I then went back to my daily routines, writing scripts for the Deutsche Welle, reporting, preparing more guide books, and, of course, listening intently to short-wave radio, as was my wont.

On Thursday, November 9, 1989, I was packing and listening to the news in the evening. There came a really strange report from Dresden. Under pressure, Günther Schabowski, a party secretary, had just suggested that private citizens in East Germany could travel freely to West Germany. It was a somewhat confusing message, which directed people to get emigration visas as usual, and then stating, but permitting private travel abroad with short-term permissions (Die Genehmigungen warden kurzfristig erteilt). History has shown us how precarious the situation really was, even the NVA (the army) was mobilized later on, which could have produced an unbelievable bloodbath, but the East Germans heard it as permission to cross the border. And after some hesitation, they rushed it, notably in Berlin, while millions of West Germans sat riveted to their TV sets, glued to their radios and newspapers (the good ole days).

By the 10 p.m. news, it was clear that something apocalyptic was under way. East Germans were coming across the border without restrictions. And I stood in my living room listening, packing, mouth open, and  suddenly realized there were tears streaming down my face.

On November 10, I took the night train to Berlin. It slinked and slithered through East Germany, slowing down as it was supposed to, when passing stations on the way, but never stopping, giving us an almost eerie sight of dusky platforms crowded with East Germans wanting to just go, go, go. Because the second night was the real one. Until then, there was fear that the border would slam shut behind those taking tentative steps west. Or worse, the regime would suddenly crack down on the people who had exposed themselves in an explosion of euphoria.

Berlin in the morning. It was ice cold. But the sidewalks were bustling, the traffic dense notably with those strange East German cars, the Trabants and the Wartburgs, and the occasional Lada or Dacia (franchises of Fiat and Renault). I deposited by bags at the friends’ place where I was staying and soon joined the thousands of West Berliners and tourists gathered at the Wall. I found a spot not far from the Brandenburg Gate. Climbing onto it was forbidden. It was dangerous, because the other side was essentially a minefield. Many were trying to chip away at it, the so-called Mauerspechte, wall woodpeckers. That, too, was prohibited. In front of me, a Japanese fellow had showed up with a stonemason’s hammer, a huge chisel, gloves, and began whacking away. Bits of painted concrete flew in all directions, the wall shook. I picked up a few pieces. A mounty showed up, confiscated the man’s tool…

East Germans wandered through the city. You could hear them from their dialect. Many wanted bananas, even the KaDeWe had run out, that grandiose department store that was built just to thumb a consumerist nose at the goods-challenged East. I heard that an employee of the KaDeWe had gone into a cheap discounter’s to purchase more bananas … Lines in front of a sex shop… That, too, of course. The East was quite puritanical…

But was this real? It did not feel real at all. It felt more like some magical moment, and soon the Big Brothers would come and say: “OK, folks, party’s over.”…. That did not happen. The next day, a Sunday, I  headed to the Interior Ministry in East Berlin to get my visa. Two hours at Checkpoint Charlie. The Iron Curtain was open one-way only. I changed the statutory 25 deutschmarks for 25 ostmarks.

The ministry was in chaos. Journos running about, officials pale and wide-eyed, travelers wondering where to go, what to do …. I found the office I needed, got my visa and asked casually: Should I cross the city again, or can I circle the city and go to Potsdam directly…. I had reserved at the Cecilienhof, the famous hotel where Churchill, Truman and Stalin had met in July ’45… “Uh, no you have to go to Gleiwitz.” I didn’t look at my visa. Trudged back to the Checkpoint, bought some chocolate cake on the way for my friends in the west. Waited another two hours. By the time I got through, the cake was mostly eaten.

The rest of the story is available here on my blog (www.journos-blotter.com), and is quite strange, since I actually ended up in the eastern zone without a visa. In a nutshell: As it turned out, Gleiwitz was the autobahn crossing, and I had requested a train crossing because I was on foot. Secondly, my visa was not a multiple visa, as applied for, but a single crossing.

Let me just add this: When I reached Potsdam thanks to a kindly pensioner who picked me up on the breakdown lane of the autobahn —after changing another 25 deutschmarks into ostmarks — I asked a young woman for directions to the Cecilienhof. She told me, and then asked where I was from. “The USA,” I replied. She spontaneously hugged me and gave me a friendly kiss. It was quite a surprise. So I trudged, exhausted, towards my hotel. On the way I tried to get rid of all those eastern bills. I found an open book shop, and bought several classic novels, books of poetry, some philosophy. When that historically famous palace hotel appeared before me, a thought crossed my mind: The war is finally over, let the peace begin.

Epilog:

The Kohl government rushed to consolidate the openings and bridge the country’s division. The effort was boosted no doubt by the enormous good-will of people in Germany and abroad, the sheer sense of “Yes!” of optimism, of welcome for this new age of international understanding. The People had ultimately won. The bizarre Communist governments fell one after another, some in blood, like Romania, others just crumbled. In 1990, I covered the first elections in Hungary. The Communist Party was running. I spoke to their reps, and they smiled and said: “If we pass the 5% mark, we’ll be happy.” That would have meant at least representation in the parliament. They reached about 3% if I recall…

Yet, as the curtain fell, new walls went up in people’s minds. In Germany, the westerners got suspicious and snarky about the East Germans, especially the Saxons, whose dialect grated on their countrymen’s ears. The easterners created the “Besserwessi,” the western know-it-all ( a play on the word Besserwisser), a kind of carpetbagger, who came and seduced the womenfolk with charm and money (this strange hallucination is not confined to Germany, by the way, it’s something visceral that one finds in xenophobes and racists of all stamp). Then the westerners started speaking of the nebulae, the NEuen BUndesndern, the new Länder of unified Germany and their bizarre customs. There were also the “Wendehälse,” the European wrynecks, able to turn its head 180 degrees, like the now suddenly former Communist. A cousin of my wife’s, for instance, had been an army officer and had always expressed his anger at “that American” whom he was not allowed to meet, because he was a “holder of secrets.” Suddenly, he wanted to have a beer with me. Then came Ostalgia, nostalgia for the East (Ost). Today, some of those old problems still plague the eastern Länder,

Bit by bit, though, the country did grow back together again. It meant huge investments. There still are differences, and they are always dangerous, because they are visceral. Maybe the jokes were needed to create a bit of excitement and take away some of the raw emotion. But every now and then I will pick up the bit of Wall, or look at my six inches of barbed wire that cut the world in two. And inevitably a tear or two will form as I think of all those people who suffered and continue suffering from the hubris of small-minded men who still use the age-old divide-and-conquer method to maintain their power.

Vacation Interlude in Turkey

Leaving Fethiye bay…

Freelancers and the self-employed seldom go on real vacations. Especially since the advent of instant and frenetic communication, which keeps us in line better than one of Calvin’s egregious ordonnances.  But….

… when I do choose to step out of the daily grind, it’s usually to go someplace where the electronic cookie monster is less active, or at least where the barriers to get online are higher or impossible to surmount. It’s a bit of a risk, of course, clients are impatient, but it’s only for short periods … This year, 2019, thanks to some friends and neighbors, we went on a seven-day boat trip exploring the Gulf of Fethiye on the southern corner of the country’s western coast, near to where the Mediterranean meets the Aegean.

 

Fethiye, a bustling town of about 80,000, is in fact a vacation destination in Turkey, which explains why the plane from Istanbul, a massive 777, was packed to the gills. It landed in Dalaman, after which we took a bus to Fethiye to spend one night in a pleasant hotel by the sea. The next day, we met up with our friends from Geneva, a Turco-Swiss family, and headed to the pier, where the Seahorse awaited, fueled and stocked up with food and water, of course.  The boat is a gulet, a traditional two-master, whose sails, I later found out, are not really used anymore, unless there is an emergency. The boats were used for carrying freight and are therefore quite large and tend to roll easily.

The Seahorse, 100-foot “gulet”

By midday on the 3rd ,  the seven expected families were now all on board, the bags were stashed in the cabins (each with a small bathroom), which were fairly hot and musty. No surprise, since the temperature outside was about 37 °C. They would be air-conditioned twice or three times a day to avoid wasting generator fuel, I guess. As it turned out, hardly anyone slept in the cabins anyway, since the weather was dry throughout…. The teenagers on board rapidly occupied the sea of mattresses over the wheelhouse, which gave a spectacular view of the night skies. Others found space over the cabin section under a canvas an acre in size that kept all protected from the imperious sun. I staked a claim on the generous divan aft, which gave a glimpse of the sky and left enough space for my legs…

In addition to the twenty-one passengers, there were six crew members. The captain and owner of the ship is Mehmet Avcu, a wiry fellow with a deep knowledge and love of the sea and the local history.  A 20-plus year stint with the Turkish Navy left him with a slightly commandeering tone, but whenever we had a question about strange creatures or local lore, we could just pick his brain. He was the boss on board, as tradition has it, and his word was gospel. He not only steered the ship to the right places and kept operations running smoothly, but also turned into a veritable encyclopedia of information about marine life and local history. Spotting that some of us were also interested in the region, he didn’t hesitate to take us on tours onto the land. One day it was an island with a few Byzantine ruins and a few of goats, another time it was to visit a farming settlement on a spit of land sparsely covered with olive trees, Turkish pines, carob trees… .

Kizil Island in the Gulf
Sea and sky in the early morning

We set off. The sea was slightly choppy for the first hour or so, giving all a chance to test their seaworthiness. We soon found a quiet space at the foot of a craggy mountain – all mountains are craggy here – in a pleasant cove, where lunch was served on the deck aft: plates of different salads and vegetables, broccoli in a lemony sauce, a dish of charred eggplant, rice pilaf, a mixed salad, and purslane simply dressed with yogurt (a ubiquitous sauce in Turkish cuisine, it is a little richer than many yogurts available in Europe). The salt and pepper on the table was augmented by a jar of pul biber, crushed red peppers, and a bottle of nar ekşisi, a sticky, sour, fruity balsamico made of pomegranates.

As for activities, well…. swimming, snorkeling, and, for a surcharge, diving with aqualungs. The younger ones quickly discovered the thrill of flying off the taffrail, while the adults usually used the starboard ladder to get down to the sea, which was, as usual, blue and clear, and very warm. Two of the teenagers opted for genuine diving. I chose to snorkel with my 15-year-old daughter, who received her real salt-water baptism in these glorious waters.

A few hours after lunch, we raised the anchor and moved off to another cove for dinner (always around 8 pm) and to spend the night. A few more dives into the dark and inviting waters closed off that first day. Quickly, almost surreptitiously, all made their respective beds and went to sleep. The sea was mirror calm, but with a gentle swell that rocked boat from side to side. It was like being in a cradle again. Other boats could be seen (as every night thereafter) in the night, their position lights vying for attention with the stars, those points of safety that have shepherded mariners across the Seven Seas for eons. At some point in the night, the cicadas went to sleep, apparently all at once.

This established the pattern of the next six days. Three opulent meals shared at the large table punctuated the flow of time. Breakfast with cheeses, jams, fruit, and eggs sometimes hard-boiled, sometimes scrambled or fried; lunch with an array of cold dishes, rice, stews; dinner which sometimes included charcoal-broiled fish or meat done on a curious grill hanging off the starboard rail near the bow. And always accompanied by the delicious Turkish breads also made freshly onboard. One night, after a few glasses of raki loosened the limbs and spirits, there was some singing (Turkish love songs, an old Viking song in Swedish, …) followed by dancing on the forever gently swaying deck.

Time on the Seahorse flowed quietly along, with endless hours chatting, staring out to sea, reading, playing cards or backgammon, and naturally swimming.  The use of goggles to swim made the activity far more interesting than the usual lengths in a pool. The rocky seabed made for particularly clear water, through which one could see small colonies of long-spine sea urchins and strange sea cucumbers resembling bits of rubber hose. We spotted a few small rays, otherwise  there were just schools of minnow-like  fish, who would scamper away when we came near them, glittering in the sun — though one passenger did try angling, without success — but did bring back garbage that others had decided to dump into the sea, plastic bags, empty cans, metal caps, and bits of rope.

The view from Gelimer Island

 

Karacaroen Island….

Every now and then we’d leave our floating home to rejoin the community of landlubbers. One time it was to the diminutive Karacaoren island to stagger through Byzantine ruins and untamed brush in 40-degree heat. The next expedition was to Gemiler Island to explore more Byzantine church ruins and watch the sun go down in a spectacular canvas of warm colors.  One fellow who allegedly walked these rocky, dusty, rugged slopes was none other than St. Nicholas of Myra, the gentleman who later became Santa Claus. While that does sound a little stretched, one does wonder how in earth people back in the 6th or 7th centuries built these fairly large structures, or the spectacular covered staircase that leads up to the highest church?

It was not all Byzantine. Göbün, on the northwestern entrance of the gulf, features some Lycian graves that were up on a cliff side (unreachable in the burning sun) and the remains of a Roman bath now half submerged. The narrow  strip of land is inhabited by farmers in jerry-rigged dwellings. According to Mehmet, they are more or less squatting the land and arguing with the government for official rights to it.

On a more contemporary note: We also stopped at the port of Göcek, a favorite hub of yachtsmen apparently, whose presence spawned numerous chic shops and restaurants mostly with inflated prices. At the entrance of the bay, a long, stern-grey, ship-sized yacht, the 126-meter Flying Fox, allegedly belonging to Jeff Bezos. No one was quite sure. There was some buzz on board about that.

Göcek port

 

Tree-hugging, crafty style…

All in all, it was a beautiful trip. In retrospect, the coves and inlets, bays and beaches flow into one another in memory. The conversations were fun, sometimes rich. I scanned some of the books fellow passengers were reading and found one crew member reading a work by Tolstoy, the title was a question, so it may have been the essay “What Is Art?”. On the crew’s kitchen table lay a book on Latin America. Another was reading Bulgakov’s Master and Margerita.  In fact, I was told that Russian literature is popular in Turkey… By the time we returned to Fethiye on Friday, we had all made friends, created a WhatsApp group, and sworn contact with one another.  Stepping onto the hard pier was not all that easy. The sun, now untampered by the sea breeze, hammered down, and the speed of the small town For days, our blood had been rocked by the sea, and, as if by dint of resonance, our bodies continued to feel the motion for days.

Snapshot: my mother at work

My mother, Karen Radkai, was a remarkable photographer and an edgy personality.

In late 2017, I received an email from the “Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí” in Figueres with a special request: They needed biographical information on my mother, Karen Radkai, for a pending photography exhibition called “The Women who photographed Dalí” based on their collection. They also needed some photographic material.

The request serendipitously dovetailed with my slow, but painstaking work on a biography of my mother and father, both photographers of some note, especially around the mid-20th century. And so, I ultimately wrote the entry to the exhibition’s catalogue. It is not a “private view.” My copious notes and memories are for another time and a fuller publication.

“What doesn’t kill us, makes us harder…” The famous quote from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Gods, appropriately taglined “How to philosophize with a hammer,” rings in my ears when I think of my mother, Karen Radkai. She was not the easiest person to be around or to grow up with. She was, however, someone who left a mark, and lots of photographic material.

Karen Radkai photographed by Paul Radkai
Karen Radkai, 1949, with her trusty Rolleiflex (she also used Hasselblads), photographed by her husband, Paul Radkai.

Brash, brilliant, outspoken and highly opinionated, she could make enemies out of friends within minutes, but could also attract the loyalty of those who were willing to give her space, who recognized the person behind the lens, who saw and appreciated the very fine – and extremely myopic – eye she had. She was also ambitious, had endless energy resources, and a kind of resilience that could drive any normal person to distraction. A large part of the energy came from her passion for her work, as such. She had the great good fortune of living at a time when photography had reached a kind of creative apotheosis and was firmly in the hands and fingers of a small, busy, gifted elite of perceptive editors, publishers, and photographers, of course.

She was born in 1919, in Munich. She once told me that she had already started photographing as a child. It was a hobby she enjoyed, and somewhere amongst her papers, I do hope someday to find some of those old shots. Otherwise, among her earliest memories, was sleeping in a bathtub, because the inflation in the early 1920s in Germany had wiped out the family fortunes. Abandoned by her parents, who separated soon after her birth, she was sent to a convent, where, by her own account, she acquired the discipline that she maintained her entire life.

As a teenager, she left Nazi Germany for the USA, where her mother had moved to about eight years prior. She was working as a stylist in New York in the mid-1940s when she met a dashing Hungarian émigré, who was already a fairly well-established photographer, my father, Paul Radkai. He let her have his studio to work in and experiment – according to him. Her boundless energy and ambition bore fruit. Soon she became a protégé of the notorious Alexey Brodovich at Harper’s Bazaar.

Reared in a convent during the Weimar and early Nazi years made my mother a passionate liberal. She remembered teasing the guards at the Feldherrnhalle in Munich when on breaks in her native Munich.

She was twenty-nine when the magazine sent her on assignment to post-civil-war Greece to photograph Queen Frederica (herself a German granddaughter of Emperor Wilhelm II). While the pictures of that job are unavailable, I do own a stunning vignette from that journey that tells the entire story of my mother’s photographs and perhaps reveals the artistry of photography itself: She found the subject somewhere in the war-ravaged country. A man stands. He is looking down at an elderly woman shining one of his shoes. She is almost prostrate. The man towers over her. My mother, I realize looking at the image, did not actually seize that image. She saw it coming and caught the millisecond of the man’s contemptuous look. It also summed up a deep-seated feeling she had about how men treated women.

Her career was a steep upward curb for many years, despite personal setbacks and a marriage that went south for too many complicated reasons to enumerate. She had in all four children, but her true companion was her work, and that made her a favorite of many VIPs, particularly from the world of film and music. The childhood of my sisters and me was populated by some remarkable people and filled with special memories.

Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in a shot for Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, by Karen Radkai in our apartment in Paris.

Because she rubbed elbows with so many big names in the creative world – may I confess that I played chess with Man Ray some time around 1969? – my mother was rarely in awe of prominent personalities. Her approach to work was quite Germanic: You come, you do it, and when it’s finished, you pack up and left. I would say, this kept her quite objective when photographing, an important point, since she would not let her personal taste get in the way.

At some time in the 1960s, she and Paul, my father, bought a house in Cadaqués, the one behind the church up on the hill. It was a funny idea, a bit spontaneous, as I recall (she was like that: after selling that house, she bought an apartment in a small Austrian village from the billboard announcing the house was being built). The village was full of jet-setters and wannabes, rich people living a life akin to that of the rois faineants, odd-balls, social drop-outs, artists real and fraudulent, and Dali, of course, who used to stride into the Bar Meliton twiddling his mustache – I remember him, because, as a boy, I would play chess there. He’d arrive a little like an archbishop expecting his rig to be kissed by the faithful. I’ll be honest: My mother though him a little pretentious, and being a classic liberal, disagreed seriously with his approval of Franco. 

Meliton, a Dali haunt in Cadaquès


Salvador Dalì at the Bal de Bestegui, Venice 1951, photographed by Karen Radkai

But when she was sent to photograph him, she packed her equipment, took her trusty assistant, Vaughn Murmurian, and did the job, and did it well. Her first encounter with Dalì, however, was in 1951 at the famous Bal de Bestegui in Venice, which she and my father, Paul Radkai, attended as photo-reporters. She told me once that Dalí made a few coarse remarks about some of the activities he performed in one of his rooms. On that end, nothing could shock my mother. Especially coming from a man. I asked what she replied…. it was a comment about his age.

My mother also did a lot of advertising, but the photo-reportage was her favorite kind of work. And she was not only an assignment person. She had an unerring eye for what was photogenic, what would fit in a good magazine and so, over the years, she collaborated with many outstanding magazines, notably World of Interiors, a British Vogue publication, which at the time was brilliantly edited by Min Hogg.

As a son, as a freelancer like her, but with not nearly the talent, I find it difficult to separate the private and the professional. For years now, I have been working on gathering information for a kind of biography, not a list of jobs, not a curriculum vitae, but a personal one.  So I’d like to close with a small anecdote.


My mother and I did one job together. It was for House & Garden. The subject was the 18th-century Schloss Fasanerie near the archbishopric of Fulda in Hessen, Germany. She landed in Munich and, in spite of a generous expense account, picked up a small car. We drove the 400 kilometers to Fulda and set up shop in a B&B. No fancy hotels. We spent one day essentially walking around the palace, which was owned by Prince Moritz von Hessen, whom she admired for his ability to work and run businesses rather than jetset away the family fortune.

The Imperial Staircase at the Fasanerie (Fulda, Germany)

The next day, she photographed systematically, while I took note of the furnishings in each room, worried details, picked up the history of the castle and the family (with a long pedigree and some tragic events, especially in the 20th century).

A third day’s work was needed. Everything went very smoothly. But there was one little incident that, again, was typical: Throughout the three days, the house- and groundskeeper had stuck with us like fly-paper, opening doors and moving objects around. I tried to keep him out of my mother’s way, because I sensed he was getting on her nerves (as an amateur photographer, he’d keep making comments about photography, which she hated because, as the Germans would say, Dienst ist Dienst, Schnapps ist Schnapps). At one point, my mother asked if we could put some flowers in a vase, because otherwise everything looked too museum-like. The man said casually that vases in the 18th century then were not for flowers, but rather for decoration. And maybe she could photograph it another way… I did my best to distract, to change the subject, to interfere, because I could see my mother’s lips tightening, a slight pallor form along her nose. I knew that behind those sunglasses she always wore, her eyes were sending out 88mm flak shells. She hated anyone interfering with her work. And the gentleman was then subjected to a tongue-lashing that I can only sum up with “You do your work, and I’ll do mine.”



Mueller and managing expectations

The Mueller Report is in… but is the real crime collusion, or has the president been using it as a rhetorical decoy to hide other crimes? There is a case to be made that the Trump administration, with GOP collusion, has been preying on the wishful thinking of those who loudly despise the president.

From the jargondatabase: To a large extent, people declare that a project has either succeeded or failed based on whether it met their expectations. Few projects fail in an absolute sense — they simply fail to meet individual expectations.

A scenario: Johnny comes back from an exam and says: “I think I really failed that one….” For days, the kid goes on and on about the failure, … Mom and Dad console him”, his jealous little sister expects, with some glee, and F minus… The result arrives. It’s a D…. Parents scold the sister for being so negative. Johnny, who had revised for 10 minutes, escaped a real scolding for being such a lazy bone. Johnny is an expectations manager.

So: Has anyone wondered why Donald Trump keeps drawing attention to the collusion issue? He repeats the word over and over again, tweets it, rambles on about the “Russia thing” and the fake news business… Anyone with the most basic communication skills would try to change the subject, or just let the matter go… if it really was a thing. So, is he really that furious? Or is it merely grandstanding and throwing red meat for his base to mitigate an eventual bad report card from the Mueller team?

One of the rules of communication is not to call attention to flaws, deficiencies and other warts, and especially to do that vociferously. There are a thousand reasons to oppose this president. But there is not one reason to underestimate the effectiveness of his strange communication, which keeps his base riled up, the GOP terrified, and above all, the media enthralled by so much cheap and flashy raw material, which delivers great product margins.

I’ve had a theory since the beginning of the Mueller probe, and it is this: Trump and his handlers, like Conway, have been engaged in expectations management. In its simplest form, it is like a person going to play a game of chess and mentioning repeatedly that he hasn’t played in 20 years. It may or may not be true, but it either justifies and mitigates the eventuality of a loss, or exalts a win, especially against a strong opponent.The slogan is: promise less, deliver more. This can hide the warts and weaknesses, or downright deficiencies, once the results are in. Anyone who followed the USA-Iraq wars carefully will have noticed how during the run-up to the wars, Saddam’s army was always described in apocalyptic terms, even though in the first war(1991) it had just come off an eight-year battle with Iran and was quite degraded. In  2003, it had hardly been able to rebuild, but the media scoured Roget’s to find the most terrifying words to describe this Incredible Military Force.  When the “coalition of the willing went in,” it cut through the the Iraqi army like a hot wire through butter. That victory was followed by a barely suppressed gloat fest … which then  hit the real wall of guerilla resistance and the totally predictable, bloody quasi-civil war that then broke out. But it, the victory, was enough to satisfy a critical mass of Americans and the media, for a while at least, while the Bush clowns rejigged their rhetoric and fumbled around in the country they had just invaded until things sort of arranged themselves.

So Trump’s yelling about the Mueller report could be a deflection in that vein, negative expectations. The Resistance expects treason, even the base does (they know their Leader is a criminal, they like him for it). But the report may more or less exonerate Trump of the “collusion thing,” which he’s been drawing so much attention to. This will effectively dash the expectations of all those who have been wishfully and blissfully thinking that Trump is deeply involved in some evil traitorous plot — that his base wouldn’t even care about anyway, because Trump is their weapon against their feeling of inferiority so carefully crafted by Fox News and others. Whit collar stuff is almost trite next to treason, isn’t it?

The GOP, for their part, with the support of said base, will commence howling about Trump having been right all along… about the collusion thing, so obviously he must be totally innocent… Even if he is not entirely exonerated….  That’s the general scenario: On the one side, Congressional committees trying to parse all the white collar stuff dug up by Mueller & Co. that are part and parcel of the Trump repertoire anyway and will be added to the porn payoffs, but that don’t really count for his base, like his moral bankruptcy. On the other side, the base drunk on a kind of false schadenfreude trying to out-holler the  Resistance, which will still be pointing out myriad Trump crimes in 280-character bursts. And Trump heating them up, as usual, keeping the country deeply divided.

It’s a little complicated, perhaps, but being simplistic is not a solution, even with this immature and transparent president. A well-conducted campaign of expectations management would explain why Trump has been hollering about collusion, when it would/should have been the last thing to do if he were really guilty.

You see how it works?  I may be wrong, but I’ll risk it. Just remember one thing with Trump and his punditocracy: Criminal behavior is unimportant; being in the spotlight at all times is.

This article was updated with material I had gathered two weeks ago.

Trump and salami tactics again

US news on this 4th of September, 2018, has all to do about justice. And how the current president of the USA apparently refuses to accept the plain fact that  the judiciary must be independent.

“He was consistent about this throughout the campaign,” says political commentator Carrie Cordero (Georgetown U.), “and here we are two years later and he is still saying the same thing. If he could he would use the DOJ and prosecutorial powers and engage in political retribution and pervert the system of justice.”

Re. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) was clearer: “We are not a banana republic.” A lonely voice coming from the former law-and-order party known as the GOP. Paul Ryan had his usual “what-me-worry?” blinders on.

While most of Trump’s gesticulations are the circus component of the panem et circenses to hide some emolument agenda, I suspect, this business with the justice department does appear more sinister in its consistency. It is literally anti-American and a serious threat to democracy as we know it. Why? Because he seems to think that a president should have unrestricted power to go after the opposition, and we now know that Trump can suffer no contradiction without going ballistic.

I’ve written about it before. It closely resembles how the Moscow Communists took over Hungary between 1945 and 1949, a process known by historians as the salami tactics. I am sure his former advisers Steve Bannon (a self-proclaimed Leninist, though that may just be to shock the sycophants) and Sebastian Gorka would know about this.

Here again the Wikipaedia definition:

“Salami tactics, also known as the salami-slice strategy or salami attacks[1] , is a divide and conquer process of threats and alliances used to overcome opposition. With it, an aggressor can influence and eventually dominate a landscape, typically political, piece by piece. In this fashion, the opposition is eliminated “slice by slice” until one realizes (too late) that it is gone in its entirety.”

Yes, it’s not quite the same, because the USA has institutions, etc…. but the Trump administration has been stuffing courts with partisan judges, and that is simply not healthy.

The real problem is deeper, of course. Democracy is a difficult system. All must participate, all must be well informed, all must be ready to compromise. It is not a winner-takes-all system. It is winner is gracious and shares the spoils, remembering that a large part of the electorate is not of the winner’s opinion. More at some other time.

Note number 2 on this 4th of September 2018: The beginning of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings  to the Supreme Court, which will most probably put a partisan judge onto the highest bench in the land, where he can support decisions for some of the more extremist views of US conservatives.

An Adventure for the wrist

Watches can be a major investment. So naturally, many collectors, especially of more recent vintage (and notably in emerging watch markets) prefer to play it safe and buy a big-name timepiece.  These are more often than not excellent, solid, well-conceived watches … but they tend to overshadow some eyebrow-raising watxches with less PR power, ones that are rare, exciting, and will not break the bank, either.

duManège comes out with a new watch

Here’s the short version of this story: You can get a well-designed, technically classy watch run on one of those brawny, automatic ETA movements: 42mm carbon case, stainless steel bezel, classy black dial and an elegant rubber/fiber strap for under $1000…. But only until July 29 on kickstarter. Here’s the link (Adventure), and here’s the rest of this story.

A week before Baselworld 2014, a friend called me to ask if I could quickly skim over a press release announcing a new brand. I can no longer count the number of times I get these calls , but I’m happily not blasé yet, and my curiosity and inner do-gooder inevitably get the better of me. So I corrected a shabbily translated press release that did, however, describe quite a sexy timepiece called Exploration, I couldn’t help notice.  It also landed in the Masters & Mavericks section of  Wristwatch Annual 2015, described thus:

“…a 44.5 mm steel case made up of several components and black ceramic inserts, definitely sporty, but not on steroids. The coolness is in the details—the satin-brushed surfaces, contrasting polished beveling, open-worked hands, markers that shorten on the left to make way for the subdials. For complications, he chose a power reserve indicator—the two spring barrels of the customized Technotime automatic movement can drive the watch for up to 120 hours—and a retrograde date hand that takes up about one-third of the dial.”

Julien Fleury, entrepreneur, jeweler, marathon runner.

The “he” in the piece turned out to be Julien Fleury. When I met him a few weeks later in the ground-floor bar  at the Ramada (today XXX), I did a double take. Fleury looked like he’d just hatched from an egg, short slightly spiky hair, thin as a rail. He could have been a school kid.  But there was something compelling about the intensity of his stare and his very serious demeanor.  I was not surprised to discover that he regularly participates in cross-country marathons, a sport that requires focus and self-control.

He is not a watchmaker, he told me off the bat.  He started his career in the jewelry trade but had studied graphic design. This did explain the very clear visual impact of the watches.

Businesslike, he explained his concept: He basically designed the watches and has them made by local artisans and friends from his native La Chaux-de-Fonds. They had helped him made the Exploration, and would continue doing so, he said confidently.

La Chaux-de-Fonds, UNESCO-protected watch cradle

Having visited the upper reaches of Neuchâtel canton and the neighboring Franches-Montagnes (Free Mountains) a few times, I realized he was not kidding around. People have loyalties there, and Fleury’s family had, he told me as well, a pedigree reaching into the industry. He’s also a dyed-in-the-wool chaudefonnier  with a special love for his native town. “Watches that say Swiss made are readily available,” he said, “but none say ‘made in La-Chaux-de-Fonds.” This odd city is indeed one of the cradles of watchmaking in Switzerland. After a fire destroyed the old town in 1794, a new town was designed along the best lines for natural lighting, a boon to the watchmaking industry. This particularly impressive combination of form and function earned La Chaux-de-Fonds and neighboring Le Locle a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

And so, Fleury aimed to render unto Caesar, as it were, and thus rightfully put that trundling, hyphenated name on his watch dials between 1 and 3 o’clock.  His second tribute to “La-Chaux” was the brand name, duManège. The “Manège” is the town’s old riding school built in 1855. It was later used as low-cost housing for poorer families and became an architectural ideal of community living.

The start of a dynasty
Once all the technical, financial and biographical issues have been taken care of at my first meeting with Julien Fleury,  there remained my key question for any new brand:  What are the plans for 2.0, 3.0, etc.. Because an idea in watchmaking is only as good as its subsequent generations. He assured me he had a concept, but he needed first to get his first crop into the market.

At any rate, I left the interview with an old quote from Le Cid  by the 17th-century French playwright Pierre Corneille: “Aux âmes bien nées, la valeur n’attend point le nombre des années.” The young Rodrigue, who goes on to duel a gifted swordsman, who had an insulted his aged dad, say s “To the soul well-born, the worth need not wait for years…”

Three years later, armed with better funding, Fleury got back to me with the Heritage line where he could use his jeweler’s talents, or tap into local crafts for a grand-feu dial or other decorative arts. He was even offering customized miniature painting.  It was a clear sign that his brand was here to stay. I made space for his watches in Wristwatch Annual 2018, including one of my favorites whose dial is covered in stylized fir trees in champlevé enamel. This  special chaudefonnier  art-nouveau motif reflects the local trees in that cold and snowy region. They are also a legacy of the city’s famous son, Le Corbusier.

More surprises

A few weeks ago, Fleury wrote me with a new duManège product, a sleek, sober, technical watch again (the 42-millimeter case is made of carbon composite), with a definitively sportive feel and story. It is called Adventure, and is dedicated to those who, like Fleury himself, practice elite sports. This means: a three-hander, lightweight and robust, screw-in crown, water-resistant to 30 ATM, a big superluminova-drenched 6 and applique markers for the other hours that stand out sharply on a black dial with a dynamic ribbing pattern. The rubber strap also contributes to the active look, and comes with a coat of technical fibers and color stitching according to the model. Time here is driven by a robust automatic ETA  2824-2..

A watch for all reasons: duManège’s new Adventure is funding sports and athletes

The watch comes in six different models, each dedicated to a separate activity, which is identified by a color code appearing on the second hand and stitching on the strap. Ball is yellow and stands for football (soccer); Slide (blue) for tobogganing;  Fight (white) is for martial arts, while Military is khaki obviously;  Motor is red for motor sports, and, finally, Mountain is green.

Twenty percent of the sale of each watch will go to a designated sportsman to help him on his way to success. These include Swiss bobsleigh driver Yann Moulinier (from La Chaux-de-Fonds) , who’s making a bid for the Olympic Games (Slide); soccer player  Neftali Manzambi, training to make it to the national team (Ball);  Ludovic Soltermann, Prestige Class motorcycle driver (Motor); Zakaria Khelil, a kickboxing and Muay-Thai specialist (Fight).

Getting it
These watches will be available online for chf 1390 (for dollar price, check the daily exchange rates), but Fleury  has started a kickstarter campaign to get them produced by the end of the year. His deal: Buy one through the crowdfunder, and get a 40% discount….

 

 

 

Nutty like Fox ( or Trump wurst, salami revisited)

Laura Ingraham invoked Stalin to attack David Hogg for launching a boycott of her show. It was truly a Goliath versus David moment, i.e. Laura with the power of Fox News and the entire right-wing noise machine, including the president and his surrogates, versus a very real, Internet-savvy, articulate high schooler named … David. Hollywood’s making plans for this one.

 

Ingraham’s hyperbole was boosted by some repulsive comments from the likes of the NRA’s own Ted Nugent and Sinclair’s Jamie “Red-Hot Poker” Allman (resigned). And a few days later, in reference to the FBI, which had quite legally and courteously raided Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s premises, Newt Gingrich unmothballed the GESTAPO and Stalin in one breath, a claim that did generate some pushback even in conservative quarters (and in Israel, BTW, see here).

So. Here we go again…. I’ve covered this issue before, but it’s redux time, because the irony of the pundits’ projections is just too much.

Point 1) Hitler and Stalin are old-time favorite to describe very bad people, especially people who do things you don’t like or you may feel have somehow restricted you in your freedom to do and say what you please.  In American politics – and to a certain extent in other democratic countries, one could argue – the time it takes to pull the Hitler car is referred to as “Godwin’s Law.” Definition here. No, it doesn’t mention Stalin, but by rights, it should.

Point 2) H&S are favorites for a simple reason: People generally don’t know any others. Why not say: Mao, who was equally monstrous? Or Pol Pot? Or Idi Amin? Or even Suharto? Marcos, Pinochet… Because people would look them up, perhaps, and realize how staggeringly ridiculous it is to refer to that kid as Stalin? Or because Hitler and Stalin have become common adjectives? This demeans the suffering of untold millions at the hands of these two egregious figures.

Carlo Cattaneo.

Get the bugaboos right: Boycotting tobacco and casinos in Milano is more like boycotting advertisers who sell heir products on a show whose main point is to be nasty.

 

Imagine Ingraham tweeting “The boycott of my ads was positively Cattaneist…” Her devout viewers would have to search high and low and then read all about the Five Days of Milan, 1848, when Carlo Cattaneo led a tobacco and casino boycott against the Austrian overlords in the city and set off the Risorgimento… (Please look up the details elsewhere).

Point 3) Ingraham and her ilk are not interested in knowledge, of course, maintaining ignorance is the source of their mediatic power. So the irony of the Stalin reference is lost on the nodding Fox audience:

Because there could well be a sinister side to it. In my Trump, wurst, salami post, I noted how the Trump and his administration actually seem to be implementing what are known as Salami Tactics, a term coined by the Hungarian Communist Màtyàs Ràkosi  to subvert the embryonic democracy in Hungary after World War Two. Here’s how that went:

Having won only 17% in the 1945 elections, the Communists requested and got leadership of the Ministry of the Interior, while Ràkosi himself became the Vice Premier. Over the next four years, the Communists created a secret police, subverted the justice system, engaged in sustained attacks against any opposition, accusing them of having collaborated with the Nazis, creating fake evidence if necessary, and generally kept the nation divided and frantic.  That might sound familiar. The difference was in the state of the economy and the country in general after a devastating war. Massive inflation helped the destabilization process. At any rate, in 1949, the Communists won an overwhelming majority. This was followed some mopping up operations, including a show trial of fellow traveler Laszlo Rajk and a few others to, essentially terrorize any dissenters inside and outside the Party. Note “show trial.”

Stuffing the courts with far right-wing judges is one parallel. Constant attacks on the intelligence community another.  But it took a greater organization to maintain the accusations of disloyalty and treason against anyone dissenting, and creating that toxic “Us versus Them” atmo, which is the hallmark of the Trump system in cahoots with the GOP. Imagine: The RNC went out of its way to demonize and calumniate James Comey by means of a dedicated website.

Trump has never stopped campaigning for that reason, and he has a right-wing media apparatus behind him feeding into him and feeding off of him, making money in the process and expanding its base. That is dangerous. Many knowledgeable people are sounding the alarms about the damage being done to democratic institutions and democracy itself.  Madeleine Albright being the most recent.

Full Stalinist
Now the real punchline. Ingraham conjuring Stalinism, and a few days later Fox actually engaged in what one could only describe as a public show trial in the best Stalinist tradition…. Do they actually understand what they are doing?

I rest my case.

Oh, afterthought: Anyone who thinks David Hogg is Hitlerian or Stalinist needs to go back to the history books, or, if those seem too dry, some novels, like The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers, or The partially autobiographical Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Try Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, too, while you are at it… Windrip… sounds almost like a metaphor for the current occupant of the White House.

 

 

Trump, wurst and salami

Not all iniquitous systems are the same. Those who equate Trump with Hitler are failing to see the real problem: H’s administration is following a playbook that resembles the Hungarian Communists’ take-over of Hungary 1945-1949

Pulling the Hitler card has become so standard in what passes for debates or discourse, it is even the subject of a kind of law: Godwin’s Law. It dates back to 1990, apparently, but while somewhat reductionist, it does itself, somewhat facetiously, highlight a reductionist habit: Using Adolf Hitler and the Nazis as a synonym for “you’re a really, really, really awful human being,” or “you’re ideas and argumentation are really, really, awful and I don’t agree with them.” However: The political spectrum of dictatorship and evil doings is wide and quite well-stocked in bad guys and processes aimed at violating individual liberty. And as usual, there are degrees to watch. Is it time to look elsewhere and enrich the conversation?

Anyone goes, but Hitler is a high-flyer

Godwin’s Law is equal opportunity, it affects everyone across the political spectrum, and it seems mostly to spring from, as mentioned, a tendency towards extreme reductionism, or, simply, ignorance: either not knowing, or the inability to go look for, some better historical analogies. Smearing with Hitler and the Nazis was popular among George W. Bush opponents, who felt that the war on Iraq and the agitprop promoting it were Hitlerian, like, maybe the 1939 attack on Poland, or the earlier invasion of Czechoslovakia. Later, almost as revenge for the so-called anti-Bush crowd’s brandishing of Bush-Hitler posters, the newfangled Tea Party decided to let out its trademark anger against Barack (Hussein, always) Obama by giving the new black president a little square mustache for bailing out the banks and trying to prevent the US and the world from falling into economic depression.

Showmen

The amazing Adolf Hitler fits onto anyone you don’t like.

With the Trump administration, the Hitler card is almost brandishing itself, however. Trump revels in autocratic/dictatorial imagery. He loves to sign executive orders (decrees, government by fiat). And I barely need to mention the rallies, the self-adulation (more à la Mussolini), now replete with longings for military parades. Then there is the equivocal reaction to the Tiki-torch march, the constant ad hominem attacks on people of any color or non-evangelical religion, in addition to women, Democrats and generally anyone who doesn’t agree with him or who corrects his lies, errors, obfuscations, notably the free press.

But is it the real thing? No, say quite a few commentators: Tim Molloy of The Wrap – to name one of many – has written cogently about this reductionist problem in other contexts, namely Glenn Beck brandishing Hitler to smear anyone and everyone he didn’t agree with. He also noted Trump’s own antics, like having people pledge to vote for him by raising their right hand, which looks suspiciously like a crowd sieg-heiling. Molloy, in turn, is extensively referred to by Michael Lind, of Politico, who exhorted people to stop comparing Trump and Hitler. In his March 2016 piece, Lind pointed out that the likes of Goldwater were painted with the brown brush, whereby he was in fact a libertarian and would never abide by the state controls applied by the Nazis. He puts some of the blame on the “émigré Marxist intellectuals of the so-called Frankfurt School” and on lazy journalists, or, later, on social scientists, for intentionally or accidentally confusing populism with fascism. There is a lot of truth to it – and to be fair he mentions the absurd right-wing use of the Nazi smear against the left.

Goldwater, libertarian, but also a Hitler in some eyes.

Lind puts Trump in line with many populists in US history, from Andrew Jackson, to Huey Long, and passing by William Jennings Bryan (I’ll be exploring this in a new piece in the coming months). Indeed, for Trump, who is essentially a showman, and a con man in some ways, waving his arms about is the key to success. He does this for his followers as much as for those who oppose him (cf. my post The revolution is permanent noise). Trump is an improviser, he has no real plan, he extemporizes, albeit with certain repetitive riffs. In a New York Magazine article published before the election, former New York Times op-ed writer Frank Rich pointed out correctly that Hitler had a particular personality that Trump does not have: “He has neither the attention span, organizational discipline, nor ideological zeal it takes to be a genocidal dictator. He doesn’t even have the skill set to avoid serial bankruptcies.”

Reality

Fundamentally, one should avoid confusing a historical model with present realities. Humans do not repeat history one-on-one even if some actions may look the same. Yet, while the content may be different, the processes that led up to the model may be similar enough and can serve as a warning sign that something nefarious is afoot. The best example is the Big Lie repeated over and over again, which has worked for Trump, as it worked for Josef Goebbels and, throughout history, for a variegated horde of demagogues, blowsy four-flushers , and even advertising agencies, have employed the Big Lie to get their product sold.

the Big Lie and scapegoating joined forces in condemning “witches” to a terrible death. Witches were blamed for illness and natural disaster.

And this, just to be clear: The Nazis did not invent scapegoating either, a facile technique to hide one’s game. The insane witch hunts of the Middle Ages (and earlier), which cost the lives of tens of thousands of mostly women, are a case in point. Women, mostly poor, and some men, were blamed for all sorts of things, from sick children to hail storms. Personal grudges could be handled by a denunciation. Or, there are the artificially generated “Terreurs” of the French Revolution. History is full of scapegoats, as it is full of self-victimizers who use their synthetic victim status to justify their victimization of others. Here, too, Trump is definitely guilty as charged, as Rich pointed out in his article: “Trump has made himself the supreme leader of an enraged swath of Americans, perhaps some 40 percent of the electorate, as eager to blow up our republic as the Nazis were Weimar. A subset of that Trumpentariat adheres to neo-Nazi values (and in some cases neo-Nazi organizations) defined by a hatred of immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and most other racial and ethnic minorities.”

Democracy: Use it or lose it.

Neither Lind, nor Molloy, nor Rich mention that the reason Hitler is drawn so quickly is the plain fact that many either ignore history’s many villains and iniquitous systems, or they are addressing an audience whose awareness of those villains and systems is extremely limited, at best, or non-existent. The fact that Trump is evidently not a Hitler does not mean that people and lawmakers should just sit back and relax, especially with a fellow who fits into the populist mold.

Because Democracy does not “die in darkness,” but rather in ignorance and complacency, as two Harvard professors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, have shown. Their main thesis in How Democracies Die is that the threat of an old-fashioned quick-and-dirty attack on democratic institutions à la Hitler, or Pinochet, has receded. This quote comes from a  Guardian excerpt:

“Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box. (…)The electoral road to breakdown is dangerously deceptive. (…) There are no tanks in the streets. Constitutions and other nominally democratic institutions remain in place. People still vote. Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance. Many government efforts to subvert democracy are “legal”, in the sense that they are approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts. Because there is no single moment – no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution – in which the regime obviously ‘crosses the line’ into dictatorship, nothing may set off society’s alarm bells. Those who denounce government abuse may be dismissed as exaggerating or crying wolf. Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.”

Indeed, during the Trump campaign, while many liberals were yelling Hitler, my alarm bell went off with those hysterical “Lock-her-ups” chants, and calls to attack the press. Katy Tur has written about the surreal feeling of being exposed, personally, by name, while in a cage in the midst of rabidly angry Trump fans. This rhetoric was neither justified, nor becoming to a democratic process. And then Trump pushed further, by suggesting that he would get the FBI to arrest Hillary Clinton pronto after reaching the Oval Office I started thinking “Salami!”

Salami?

Salami tactics were a specialty of the Communists in postwar Europe, notably in Hungary. The term was actually coined by the Hungarian Communist leader Màtyàs Ràkosi, who perfected its application. Here’s the Wikipedia definition:

“Salami tactics, also known as the salami-slice strategy or salami attacks[1] , is a divide and conquer process of threats and alliances used to overcome opposition. With it, an aggressor can influence and eventually dominate a landscape, typically political, piece by piece. In this fashion, the opposition is eliminated “slice by slice” until one realizes (too late) that it is gone in its entirety.”

Hitler used brute force, essentially. The Communists in postwar Europe had to be a little more subtle. Few people probably realize that the Soviet Union didn’t just take over Eastern Europe and impose its system after ridding the area of the Wehrmacht in World War Two. There was a process aimed at terminating democratic rule, and in Hungary (and to an extent Poland) the method used was the salami slicing mentioned above.

In brief: The November 1945 elections in the country gave an overwhelming majority (56%) to a center-right party, the Smallholders, some 18% to the Socialists, and 17% to the Communists. When it came to sharing the government, Ràkosi became deputy prime minister and asked for the Ministry of the Interior (like the DOJ), where he created a kind of FBI or KGB, if you will, the AVO, later known as the AHV. This police force coupled with the power of the Ministry was used to attack any opposition to the communists, mostly by linking them to the defunct fascists, or Nazis, or Horthy government. It was all about innuendo, trumped up charges, arbitrary arrests, the construction of outlandish conspiracy theories. It was in many ways quite unlike Hitler’s take-over of Germany.

Màtyàs Rákosi, the boring, brutal dictator in Hungary, 1949-1956

The technique worked well. Within four years, the Communists had sliced up the opposition and become the single party ruling Hungary. Ràkosi then proceeded to purge the Communist ranks of potential rivals, notably the very popular Rajk, and consolidate his power with faithful, obedient Moscow Communists. From 1950 to 1953, anyone complaining or suspected of not liking the government, intellectuals, etc., could be arrested. Hungary even had its own little Gulag, a place called Recsk in the up in the Màtra Mountains.

At any rate, throughout the campaign, I could not help but think of the parallels between Trump and the communist dictators, often noisy populists like Trump, who created their own set of enemies of the people among the peasant classes, the financiers, the industrialists, the intelligentsia. Bannon, former adviser to the president, was quite open about his admiration for Lenin. And Sebastian Gorka, another former White House adviser, is actually Hungarian and would no doubt be familiar with salami tactics.

Looks Hitlerian, smells autocratic, feels like Jacobin rabblerousing.

So every time Trump attacks the judiciary, or muses out loud that he controls the DOJ, or the White House sends down new judges for approval, whose only qualifications seem to be their ultra-conservative convictions, I think salami. The fact is, in a democracy, the judiciary must remain as impartial as possible. There are very few absolutes in law. Time has published several articles on this dangerous court stuffing, for example this one . Indeed, ideology in a judge – which is not the same as political bent, please, no false equivalencies here, the degrees are important – is dangerous, since these people are appointed for life.

Furthermore, Trump and now the entire GOP led by bloviators like Lord HawHaw Hannity of Fox and his new sidekick, Ms Lahren, are promulgating all sorts of bizarre conspiracy theories about the FBI, aimed at discrediting or subverting the agency. They seem to be greasing the rails for the expulsion of the current crop of “Republican” brass. It can be replaced by yes-saying apparatchik, people who will attack democratic institutions with impunity, since the GOP is apparently quite happy with their president… In Communist countries, this was called a purge.

SCOTUS denizen stay for a long time after their appointer has gone. Meanwhile, the press (not the right-wing “press”) is being demonized as “fake” mainly for reporting things that are unpleasant to the president and, often, the GOP itself. And I think again: salami.

No panic, but…

This Communist reference, for lack of a better word, was noticed, not surprisingly, by a Republican first: Jeff Flake of Arizona, member of Trump’s GOP. He pointed out that the attacks on the free press were reminiscent of Stalin. There was some nodding, but not much else. The GOP remains steadfastly behind Trump.

The Democrats, on the other hand, are on to Trump, but are, as usual, fairly tame about it. One who has started punching back hard, by treating Trump like an unruly teenager, is Californian Congressman Adam Schiff. In a recent interview with Bill Maher (a comedy show… amazing) , he referred, probably unknowingly, to salami tactics:

“We do need to be mindful of the much bigger challenge facing the country right now. There is a systematic undermining of our checks and balances. Brick by brick, the walls are being taken down, the wall between the White House and the Justice department, the way we are demeaning the press, and as you say, the way there seems to be no such thing as objective fact anymore, the way the administration says that a judge that rules against us is illegitimate.”

This observation cannot be refuted easily, yet no media has really taken it up. And it should be worrisome, even to the GOP, which likes to see itself as Ur-American, patriotic, flag-waving…. But for what?

Whether this means that our democracy is in danger is another issue. But one thing is certain: Democracy demands a lot of vigilance, and a well-educated electorate. Even Plato knew this nearly 2500 years ago. And in the era of fake news, the 24-hour noise-news cycle, Breitbart and Fox, and bots, being well informed is becoming tough if you don’t have some background in reading serious stuff, in figuring out what is near enough to the truth, and what is simply rubbish.

Of course, when one of the two parties in the USA starts vying for unimpeded power by using the smoke screen of a noisemaking pseudo-autocratic president, it should worry us. Trump may be “refreshingly honest ” for some, but that does not mean that he is genuinely honest or any good at what he does. Speaking your mind does not make you a good leader.

Back to Levitsky and Ziblatt. They offer a recipe to preserve democratic institutions:

“An essential test for democracies is not whether such figures emerge but whether political leaders, and especially political parties, work to prevent them from gaining power in the first place – by keeping them off mainstream party tickets, refusing to endorse or align with them and, when necessary, making common cause with rivals in support of democratic candidates.
Isolating popular extremists requires political courage. But when fear, opportunism or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream, democracy is imperiled.
Once a would-be authoritarian makes it to power, democracies face a second critical test: will the autocratic leader subvert democratic institutions or be constrained by them?”

Watch out for that wild Hitler card, it’s not a joker for “I don’t like your ideas….”

The final question by the two authors still remains unanswered, for the moment. Indeed, the courts are still functioning, apparently, and Trump has not yet succeeded in beating democratic institutions into submission, though he does seem to be trying hard. The fourth pillar, the press, is alas, reacting to every nonsensical tweet and thereby failing to pay attention to the important processes taking place that will change the face of the USA and perhaps undermine democracy as we knew it.

To conclude: The Hitler card is pulled all too often as a way to punctuate a debate that is off the rails. And besides diminishing and concealing the crimes of the Nazis, it also tends to be inaccurate. While not denying that the Trump administration is a serious risk to US democracy, the methods employed are closer to infiltration methods of the Hungarian Communists post World War Two. In a country trying to model itself on parliamentary democracy, they were able bit by bit to subvert the existing institutions

I have written to a number of editors about this phenomenon, especially when their publications drew the Hitler card (notably the HuffPo), but none seems ready to shift their focus away from the far more attractive fireworks Trump lights up every Friday afternoon for weekend entertainment. Besides, they’d have to explain who Ràkosi was and, to be honest, his low-octane evil is a lot less attractive than the absolute evil of a Hitler.

Of course, the USA is not war-ravaged Hungary. But the population has been primed, alas, by some very poor news media, including those Trump likes to refer to as “fake news.” For decades, CBS, ABC, NBC and the rest have engaged in some ridiculous whataboutism, which confers the same importance to truth and patent bilge. This has greased the rails for trainloads of nonsense that become the object of long and vituperous “debates” amongst pundits.

This is one of the most worrisome aspects of the Trump presidency, and it has been addressed by Rich and many others. The fact that conspiracy theories once relegated to the mossiest, mustiest areas of the country, are now bandied about by elected officials is shocking. One can only hope that reason once again sweeps the nation, as it did in the 18th century, and that this is the last hurrah for those who exploit the nation’s darkest feelings for their profit and are willing to jeopardize democracy to get their money. And one can definitely hope that Americans get off their haunches, register to vote, and demand that things like gerrymandering be made illegal in the country. One person, one vote, and the electoral college be damned, too.

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The revolution is permanent noise

Noisy, noisier, noisiest:…. Trumpism is not new and not about content.

To call Donald Trump a racist, or a bigot, a misogynist, is not an insult. It’s a ticket to the maelstrom of drama he likes to create. My notes on this aspect of Trumpism go back to spring ’16. The noise since has been constant and deafening. When I started the actual writing of this chapter, the US president was still reveling in the ruckus generated by his alleged use of a barnyard expression to describe countries in Africa, or was it just Haiti? Or was it the Russian scandal? The planet joined in the chorus of outrage, legitimately criticizing this crude and undiplomatic generalization, and so the USA took another step into the isolation chamber, which has been ready and waiting since November 2016.

Did he say it? Did he not say it? Did he say something similar? Was there some nefarious goings-on with Russia? Who cares: Writing about Trump is an inevitability. Alas, because he is actually the elephant (well, pun intended) in the room, the bull in the china shop, he is that 12-year-old troublemaker in the classroom who refuses to obey any rules, but whose parents think that he is just great and needs no disciplining whatsoever, because, well, he’s their kid. Nevertheless, he is the president of the USA and the leader of what is supposed to be the most powerful nation on Earth. That image has been seriously tarnished, though for Trump, there is no bad image, apparently.

Summing up

Snapshot: After “shithole” came more honking horns, porn-star pay-offs, with sordid details to excite the plebs and keep the so-called “left” or the #Resistance outraged and very occupied on the Tweet-channel. And then the really exciting theater of the Government Shutdown, with clanging bells and shrieking whistles… All this putting paid to the previous high: Wolfe’s Fast and Furious, the kind-of kiss-and-tell report from behind the scenes that could have used some audio tape to prove itself accurate. I’m a little skeptical. But, as attention waned and fresh salvos of outrage covered up new salvos of bull,  Wolfe came back with some saucier stuff yet, rumors of whoopee in the White House, which these days exudes a sort of pressure-cooker, lugubrious aura, a little like Sara Huckabee Sanders’s delivery.

Messenger without a conscience: Sanders is a key loudspeaker broadcasting for the outrage symphony.

Less there than meets the eye
The huge community of observers and spectators would rather not discuss such sordid stuff, but it’s ubiquitous and inevitable. It gets thrown at us and sticks, at least with a critical mass of audience. The tough job of content  verification eludes us all, because of the sheer mass of  material, its information flimsiness, and because as soon as one scandal or absurdity or outrageous comment/tweet breaks and becomes amplified through social and news media, the next one is already in the making. Parsing and dissecting the content of the first no longer makes any sense. In-boxes are full, there are hundreds of post-its stuck on your wall with refuting arguments and esoteric notes, you are exhausted by the need to earn a living in addition to dealing with the tsunami of nonsense. Thankfully, the Internet also provides some relief in clips of cats giving massages, silly accidents people suffer, fake moments of great humanity. It’s real and unreal, it just seems to be real, and that’s enough.

The Big Media, for their part, forced to fill twenty-four hours year-round with content, go the path of least resistance, of course, outrage makes it to the forefront, be it a some blatant lie about voter fraud, or a Kansan candidate insulting working women by calling them “banshees,” or some outrageous statement about alternative facts, the un-word of the year 2017 in my books. Trump, by hook or by crook, manages to elbow his way into the top rank of the news cycle, they feel compelled to fill the airwaves with infantile tweets and the fawning and braying of his surrogates.

What appears on TV (I’ve watched many clips, meanwhile) and on social media are not debates. They are futile and uninspiring hollering matches. On one side are the talking heads, who are preaching to one choir. On the other side there are the individuals who are quite willing to boost the president’s anti-everything agenda, to defend what appear to be random, spontaneous, incoherent thoughts.

There are rumors out there. Some say he is mad. Some say he is a narcissist. A psychopath. Egocentric and dishonest, yes, there can be no doubt about it, but his cult-like followers don’t care. He is also a liar, but not – crucial distinction – pathological. Because providing content is not the point of Donald Trump’s utterances, be they tweets or strange statements, from the Birther nonsense, to the hallucination about five million fraudulent voters (that created a Lieutenant Kije-like  situation of people chasing after  them, knowing they did not exist…). He is indifferent to the truth, because it’s not the point of his utterances.

Trump right or wrong: For the base, he’s The Man who expresses their deepest, darkest thoughts. For the oppo, he’s a vicious, dumb, ignorant con man, a train wreck in the making you can’t get your eyes off of.

Making spectacle: Trump keeps up a drumfire of sheer bilge with a je ne sais quoi of paranoia..

A look back
At some point in the first half of 2016, while Trump was racing from outrageous statement to outrageous statement and tearing through his rivals for the GOP nomination, I noted that if the eye of the camera or the ear of a microphone would veer away from him, as it should have, Donald Trump would pull down his trousers and defecate on the stage, just to regain the upper ground in the attention-grabbing game. It was only a partially flippant comment, logged anonymously on some forum or other, I believe, but Trump did prove it correct by stating he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, probably a subliminal thought of his, and not lose any support. And he was right.

Trump has picked up on something fundamental about communication in the USA, and the world of today, something that is not entirely new, but has been boosted by the information rockets. First, there is no negative feedback in media matters. To misquote Marshal McLuhan, the media themselves are the massage. No typos there. Or, as the Germans would say about a great event: Dabei sein ist alles. The main thing is to be there. This is key to understanding how mass communication works. This pattern was set by the likes of Coughlin in the 30s, already, Billy Sunday before that, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin (a pre-Trump Trump in female), and the unspeakable publicity chihuahua Milo, whose defense of pedophilia checked his rising alt-right star, but paved the way to many Alabaman Evangelicals accepting Roy Moore, I would argue.

The Tin Drum, one of many possible literary references for this administration….

Secondly, people almost expect big and loud stuff, in fact, a diet of Hollywood films and overacted series have literally trained them for it. Loud candidates are a necessity to avoid boredom setting in.  There are many things that lost the 2016 election for the Democrats, but one of them was the lack of real, gut-wrenching fanfares from the Hillary campaign. There was some push-back, but it remained fairly mild, and for good reason. But that is another story (with a stack of notes to work through).

The irresistible vortex
The Trump camp understood and understands its base well. It’s made up in great part of people with little inclination to engage in long and convoluted discussions about policy. “Build the wall,” “Maga,”  “Lock her up.” Fantasies about the old American can-do spirit and the Wild West, hang’em high, and constitutional rights be damned. Except for 2A. It’s understandably  refreshing for many, and probably would be for a majority if Trump had made a genuine effort to bring the country together after such a sordid, acrimonious campaign of conspiracy theories and divisiveness, and having clearly lost the popular vote.  The nation was screaming for healing. But instead, Trump continued campaigning, cutting the nation in two, re-heating the civil war, essentially. He dragged the most abominable anti-administration together, placing total ignoramuses or deep-swamp creatures at the head of government agencies (DeVos? Perry?  Pruitt? Mnuchin? Is he kidding?) and filled the White House with weird ideologues like Miller and Bannon, or bloviating frauds like Dr. Sebastian Gorka.

Forget 1984, the resemblance to Animal Farm, however,  is quite remarkable….

Trump may be a racist, but that is not really important. He doesn’t care enough about others to be a raving KKK member. He does use what I’d call crypto-racism, however, as a tool to needle and divide, and therefore keep everyone on tenterhooks. The immediate impact of this tactic has been devastating and physical. People are screaming and hollering at each other across the information highways more than ever. There is very little space for compromise or reasoned discourse. The exchanges are exhausting, and yet, people are driven over and over again to fora, to Twitter, to Facebook,  Instagram for more of the same. There seems to be some deep-seated pleasure in going to those places, where one can freely talk, shout, snark, retaliate…. The name of the game (and the Trump Team is not the only player): brain-hacking. Anger, pleasure, raw emotion, sentimentality have become an addiction in a cold and lonely digital world, in which 99.999% of people are not heard or really seen. If we do not find our inner self when we’re off line, it’s like being in solitary confinement in the middle of a bustling market.

PART II

The prophets
“People don’t find what they desire, they desire what they find.” This brief quote by French social critic, philosopher and filmmaker, founder of the Situationist movement, Guy Debord, pithily describes the technological alienation combined with the dopamine-driven addiction to the social noise-media.

Guy Debord — the man who opened the curtain on the spectacle.

To call Debord (1931-1994) a prophet is not entirely fair to the densely populated line of thinkers upon whose shoulders he stands, or who were contemporaries in their criticism of society. Let us note Theodor W. Adorno, whose Minima Moralia is structured almost in the same manner as Debord’s seminal work; La société du spectacle (The Society Of Spectacle) is a collection of 221 statements/theses.  The title alone, though, begs for our attention, for everything is spectacle… But it gets worse: The definition of spectacle is not just the visible excitement of the media. According to one commentator, Yann Kerninon, it combines information (propaganda) to maintain the illusion of capitalism as the best and only form of  society (some admit, is the best we know); advertising that not only makes us consume, but aims to convince people that buying a product or service will make them better than the next (hence, for example, the proliferation of ridiculously aggressive cars in all vehicle classes), and finally entertainment, so that we can forget that this spectacular society is boring. (Cf. either Debord’s original book, or any number of documents or documentaries like this one in French  on the You Tube).

In an Op-Ed in the New York Times in February 2017, Robert Zaretsky, professor of French History at the University of Huston tried to narrow down Debord’s idea of spectacle as being “… everything that men and women once experienced directly — our ties to the natural and social worlds — was being mulched, masticated and made over into images. And the pixels had become the stuff of our very lives, in which we had relegated ourselves to the role of walk-ons.”  Imagine being in a theater as a spectator and actor at the same time. “The spectacle is the uninterrupted discourse that the current order is delivering on itself, its own  monologue of praise,” wrote Debord in his 24th little thesis. “It is the self-portrait of power-that-is at the moment of its totalitarian management of the conditions of existence.”

Tragic or funny, it’s still spectacle…

The real issue, already in Debord’s time, is that the omnipresence of spectacle means that the willing players no longer find refuge in the private sphere. “The spectacle is the nightmare of a fettered modern society, which ultimately is only expressing its longing for sleep,” wrote Debord, nailing one of the core problems of our society, which has gotten far worse: the frenetic pace, the ubiquity of work, with technology that is sold as a way for individuals to be free of the office, for example, by recreating the office on a tropical beach thanks to mobile devices. The technology has literally become a drug. People used to walk and smoke a cigarette, chat with friends, meditate a bit. Today, they walk, cycle, drive while staring at a small rectangular screen, and communication with some distant entity, human or digital, has become the shot, the cocktail, the line of virtual coke keeping us excited whether in anger or joy, in the unsatisfying delight of revenge and schadenfreude. So “debating” has become a cheap, unreal bullfight of sorts, with everyone participating has an “Olé!” to say, even, ironically, when they say nothing, which can be felt as a digital version of passive aggression.

Noise is noise is noise…. There is no longer a left or a right, the Spectacle is all-engulfing.

Donald Trump barged into that field with skillful cloddishness. He plays the part of the boor, because he is one in essence, an uncouth, lazy, lowbrow predator, a TV windbag, who has adopted some rhetorical techniques from televangelists. The more he pretends to be a victim of the MSM that fights back, echoing the plight of hundreds of film heroes winning against absurd odds, the more his base identifies with him, even if they know they are being tricked.  But the #Resistance has also been caught up in the game: love or hate, you’re still connected. (It’s a  topic related to religious yearnings in the USA and needs to be treated at another time, as it would go well beyond the framework of this article).

The Trump Train chugging down the track of history, spreading an unbelievable amount of strange fumes, has become an inevitable element in everyone’s lives. It is like a TV series with very short, absurd episodes (sex issues, racist explosions, conspiracies, even typos!) that fascinate and obfuscate.

Getting back to Debord, though, let me quote a paragraph by Zaretsky in the op-ed mentioned above:
In Debord’s notions of “unanswerable lies,” when “truth has almost everywhere ceased to exist or, at best, has been reduced to pure hypothesis,” and the “outlawing of history,” when knowledge of the past has been submerged under “the ceaseless circulation of information, always returning to the same list of trivialities,” we find keys to the rise of trutherism as well as Trumpism.

Even the fake Trump is in some ways real (hyper-real, even) and contributes to the noise.

This spectacle is made all the more exciting and exhausting by the Internet. Thanks to the reactivity of its denizen and the web’s gift of easy and cheap access to a large audience, the spectacle has gone  into overdrive.  Trump keeps his foot on the pedal, safe in the knowledge that he’ll be tracked by devotees and detractors alike, and that this noise will cover up whatever America’s current powers-that-be have in mind for the country. For the moment, it looks like turning the clock back to pre-FDR days, an old GOP dream.

As for Trump’s own expressed outrage, it is about as real as the rants and raves of an Alex Jones or a Rush Limbaugh, in other words, fake. It must be fake, because either these carnival barkers are imbeciles or they are propagandists who knowingly invent, lie, or reconnect dots in a silly manner that defies logic. It’s always good to remember, though, that they are essentially in a business that sells outrage-causing babble to the public in return for fame and hence advertising dollars. This spectacle earns and earns, and will continue earning as long as people do not switch off and advertisers, who according to Debord and others are liars, who replace a lie with a lie, thus proving the first lie,  keep the funds coming.  The problem is that it only takes a fairly low critical mass of people to legitimize even the most abstruse stuff…

The wrap
So “shithole” is just an episode, and like the entire immigration spectacle, the shutdown, even now as I write, Davos, and maybe even the Mueller probe (a case that could be an extreme form of expectations management), are part of the soundtrack that has accompanied Trump during and after his election. For him, the technique to keep the hollering on full volume is simple: Always deny what was said or “pivot,” to use a new word. Throw ’em a bone of contention. Whether the issue will be solved is irrelevant. The alleged statement – whether it be shithole, shithouse, or simply a heap of unsavory, vulgar prattle, whether he wanted to fire Mueller or not, whether there were five million fraudulent voters, whether Obama tapped Trump Tower, or not,  is irrelevant – drew myriad pens, cameras and keyboards in its wake, including mine, Trump and his administration simply continue implementing an agenda that seems  geared towards the economic wishes of the very few to the long-term detriment of the many, even if that includes isolating the country, ripping into the environment, poisoning rivers with mine slag. Whatever. It’s carpetbaggin’ time.

Zaretsky is an optimist, he sees a solution in the marches, in the “return to local politics and community organizing” as a successful redux of 1968, a time of turmoil that the Situationists were in fact involved in in France.I tend to agree on good days. In the 60s and 70s, there was a return to simpler lives, communal living out in the country, where one could find cheaper and maybe healthier living conditions. The sharing society could go in this direction (without the exodus) and make for a stable society without any upheavals. (There is a very strong cooperative movement in many European towns spawned by excessive rents and greedy, ineffective housing administrators who usually try to extract maximum profits by minimum investments, This coop movement is branching out into many areas of society and could become a powerful “Third Way”).

Another possibility is simply withdrawal and political apathy due to exhaustion. But there is one path with its own dark logic open to this frenetic society that is increasingly in need of dopamine-driven recognition, and it is the kind of spiritual apotheosis one finds in the ultimate spectacle, the spectacular destruction of war, in some ways, the only path to resetting the clocks, to rediscovering the ancient feeling of social cohesion for survival, the way back to the lizard brain, if you will. It is also the reason why we, as audience, tend to be stuck in the exhausting one-way relationship with the Trump’s of today: If the tweets don’t draw the ire or love, war becomes the ultimate attention-getter. Thanks to the Internet and the addiction to the spectacle, we are in a perniciously fusional relationship with power.

Separation and contemplation is lonely …. But it may be the only way out of the spectacle. Just don’t tell anyone.

For the moment, extricating oneself from the spectacle is simply hard. The news media are part of the problem, but by force: Their business and job is to report stuff, so they can hardly avoid talking about the most immediate stuff, even it be a glittering turd. They can’t really pretend Donald Trump is not tweeting nonsense, so they cover and comment, and then get attacked for doing so, which generates more spectacle. Curiously, a few anchors (Jake Tapper, notably, with that bizarre White House creature Stephen Miller) recently had the courage to tell fawning Trump surrogates to stop wasting the viewers’ time with their zero-information rambling and fawning. While it caused a stir, due to more Tweeting episodes, one could almost feel the relief of Tapper (and Don Lemon) for having shut the noise out for a bit. To achieve some form of inner peace and contentment, though, we may have to shut everything down and improve our closest proximity. For after all, that is the only area  in which we, as individuals, can have an impact. And that may come with a return to ancient wisdoms. Voltaire’s Candide saying … Blaise Pascal’s “pensée”: “All of humans’ unhappiness comes from a single thing, namely not being able to stay at rest in a room.”

Thank you for reading this far.

 

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Katzenjammer

According to an article on Salon.com, Roy Moore still hasn’t conceded the race and is angrily pumping his base for contributions. He has now raised another bogus issue: voter fraud, and is insisting on a recount. If this truly infantile behavior is worth noting, it’s because what’s happening in Alabama is similar to what is happening in the USA: Lies, distortions and conspiracy rhetoric are wasting people’s time and energy, and the tax payer’s money, casting a shadow on serious and real issues, and generally degrading democracy and its processes.

Roy Moore: Grieving and grifting go hand in hand.

 

There is nothing surprising here. Moore was sure he could win, even with the strong allegations (from nine different women) of impropriety towards young girls: Deep red Alabama was willing to overlook this “minor” stuff – no pun intended – and go with their evangelical blusterer. And business being business, Moore is now trying to make the best of it. The number of absentee ballots can never make up for the missing votes, so the least he can do is see that the dollars and cents stack up in his favor. What caught my eye in this story is the following paragraph:

“The Confederate-sympathizing Republican claimed that he was “in a struggle to preserve our republic, our civilization and our religion.”
“Today, we no longer recognize the universal truth that God is the author of our life and liberty,” Moore said. “Abortion, sodomy and materialism have taken the place of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

There’s a great deal to deconstruct in these Moorish quotes, trite as they may sound, notably all those lofty words like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

First and foremost, as a run-of-the-mill conspiracist, Moore reframes what is a simple case of losing an election in ever greater contexts. It used to be about Moore and his bizarre and graphic concerns about gay sex (why he thinks about it so much is a mystery, but it would square with his leaning towards the young and inexperienced). Then it was Alabama. Now it’s about civilization itself. Soon, I guess, the galaxy will be somehow threatened.

That people still fall for this stuff is remarkable. I’m all for the simple life, but that does not mean one has to give up thinking altogether. Doesn’t the USA have a very good system of public libraries? Even the Internet, if searched properly, can reveal a few good nuggets of information buried in the alluvium of tripe and nonsense.

Second: There appears to be a glaring contradiction between Moore’s blustery talk of “liberty” and his storming against materialism and sodomy. Abortion is essentially a health issue, any moral aspects are simply too complex to debate here, but they, too, are personal, like the other two targets of Moore-ish ire. All of these issues are essentially personal and require benevolent protection.

Finally, there is this: The one Moore bugaboo that really stands out is materialism. We have to assume that for him, materialism simply means the adoration of material things, like money and consumer goods, instead of some unilateral focus on divine revelations and the collected wisdoms of Roy Moore. But is the acquisition of worldly goods not an integral part of the American experience? Do US citizens strive to live under a bridge, sleep on cardboard, and heal their raspberries with rancid bacon fat from the McDonald’s dumpster? What is Merry Christmas without a rush to spend, or Thanksgiving  without a Black Friday and Cyber-Monday? Buying stuff is part and parcel of the American experience, it is the ultimate proof of some manifest destiny. I buy, therefore God smiled upon me. The entire tax bill, which Roy Moore supports, no doubt, is based on the idea of putting money in people’s pockets, allegedly.

Going a little farther down this road, let us remember that materialism is in reality a philosophy with ancient roots. Basically, it states that life and all existence we perceive is material, which, to simplify, could mean three dimensional. This simplistic reduction becomes far more complex if we account for quantum mechanics, perhaps. But for the purpose of Mr. Moore and his base, it probably suffices. And according to him, focus on the material is sinful. Because it is not “spiritual,” one can only guess.

Here’s the problem. Moore is a fundamentalist, in that he demands that his flock take every word of the Bible to be true as written, no interpretation allowed, no doubt either. You believe it, because it’s there. The word of God needs no salt and pepper, just a lot of rhetorical tabasco, needs no unpacking and preparation. This means two things. First, he and his flock have to seriously cherry-pick the holy book in order to explain his visceral (or profit-oriented) antagonism to anyone and anything that fails to pass the bar of his many prejudices. Secondly, in rejecting any interpretation of the Bible, he and his apostles are in fact performing a highly materialistic act. They are treating words and concepts as reality. And they do this, I suspect, because any form of interpretation or questioning of the Good Book would, in fact, bring their latent doubt about their faith to boiling point and collapse their belief system. So they tend to double down and stay in a small, musty bubble.

Not that this matters much to the true believers.