SIHH 2018: a touch of madness

Disclaimer: Those who know me also know I do not have the gift of termination. Sure, I could “keep it short,” after all, in my day I did write compact one-minute reports, and could still do that, but my editor is often out these days working on other assignments, so I get away with writing as thoroughly as I would like to, even if that means losing the reader somewhere along the way. Besides… I write about big topics in vintage style, i.e.: as if it were for a big ole magazine, the kind people read when they had time for something more substantial than fast food, micro-waved dishes, and 300 words max.

Here goes:

Recently, I received a very kind letter from a gentleman named Art Donovan  commenting on  the Letter to the Reader I always publish in Wristwatch Annual, the book/magazine/catalogue I edit each year as an English-language partial version of Armbanduhren by the brilliant Peter Braun of Germany. Donovan, owner of Donovan Design, a company manufacturing rather fascinating illuminating devices, welcomed my mention of the small independent brands that drive innovation in this industry and, of course, in others: “… it is our small size that affords us the flexibility to experiment and create new styles that are not yet produced by the majors. Sometimes we get lucky and our designs become popular. We can then continue to make and sell them, sometimes for years depending on the style . The majors can then jump on the new styles and manufacture the high volumes necessary to carry them through the year. Everybody is happy.”

This plain fact can been found in many other industries as well, notably the automobile industry, which relies on the flexible creativity and genuinely innovative powers of smaller units, start-ups, and brilliant engineers, especially in a time of rapid and deep change. This is true even in the age of Information by the way. Comforting, too, is the thought that there exists a creature such as the “inventor,” who, we might conjecture romantically, slaves away in his or her workshop or lab, coming up with new ways to make our lives easier while earning a living at the same time…

The watch industry is a good example of this at times uneasy relationship between Goliaths and Davids. At issue are not the core competencies, to use a tired business term, but rather thunder stealing. Most majors in the industry can produce technically and esthetically outstanding products but after attending the presentations, you can’t help noticing the fact that they are hampered by a need to feed their market and fans. So straying far from the beaten path is not really an option. That leaves it to others to capture the eye of the buyer with something unusual, rare, if not unique, elegant, muscular, perhaps a little crazy or playful…   The 28th edition of the SIHH, held in January 2018, revealed this dialectic between the established brands and the independents.

An overview of the SIHH…

In its early days, the SIHH was basically a rave devoted to the brands of the Richemont Group. Collectors, buyers, sellers and journos/copy writers came together with brands to inform the world of the Group’s latest products and drive the market forward. It was also the first big horological meet of the industry year.

H.Moser & Cie: the cheese watch is serious business

Other brands soon responded and started setting up shop in the local hotels or exhibition rooms, drawing. So two years ago, the SIHH decided to “keep its friends close and its competitors closer.” And so appeared the Carrée des Horlogers, a delightful “square” where smaller, independent brands could come and show their wares. It’s here that visitors could discover what really makes the industry tick, and where inchoate trends were being tested.

So what seems to be happening to the brands? The longish introduction may explain my initial impressions… In brief: Following the colors and a return to soberer vintage-influenced pieces, comes what one can best describe as a touch of madness, expressed in various ways, either as a real dial animations, technical advances, or – here I am somewhat critical – a tagline that is supposed to “disrupt,” one can only guess, by expressing toil, excessive speed, pressure, madness.

Are you nuts?

MoonMachine, MB&F plus Sarpaneva

The “touch of madness” has always been the spirit in the independents’ domain.

{Memories…Somewhere in my archives is an interview I did with Vianney Halter in 2007, in which he says “I’d like to make a watch that doesn’t tell time.” It was at a table  at the Métropole in Geneva with Felix Baumgartner and Max Büsser, who had kindly arranged  the three-way panel. Of course, Halter’s  Magritte-like statement was born of the overheated pre-Recession years, but fast forward to the Carrée des Horlogers 2018 and you find a watch in a case of cheese made by Moser & Cie. as a way to express support and solidarity with for really Swiss watchmaking. }

You can always count on Max Büsser and his MB&F(riends) to freely mix creativity with technical virtuosity. This year, the Can-Am case of the Horological Machine No. 8 was borrowed to house a second collaboration with the renowned Stepan Sarpaneva for a special moon phase, which is projected onto the lateral window using the clever and technically virtuosic prism system. A reminder: The “Frog,” MB&F’s HM No. 2 dating to 2012, also received a Sarpaneva moon…

At any rate, MB&F was my opening shot at the SIHH itself, and not one to be forgotten. It was followed by some meandering around the Carrée des Horlogers, a warm-up of sorts for the eyes, to see what was really happening in the industry. Having exploited the wow effect of its dual fluid pumps to the max, HYT is now exploiting the intricacy of its movement in the H20, whose sapphire crystal has expanded to act as a barrel for the watch. The customer and his or her neighbors can now admire the mechanism from all sides. Shaping sapphire crystals that way is no easy task, and it’s a testimony to the brand’s willingness to push the envelope, even though the result may not be to everyone’s taste.

Being and nothingness

Hautlence shares space with its MELB sister brand H. Moser & Cie. The latter still seems to be making heavy water of it with its very singular shapes, especially since the departure of Guillaume Tetu. The brand has gone through several crises already, but has always managed to recover somewhat and plough on. Whether the use of an ambassador like ex-soccer player Cantona was a good idea still remains to be seen. None of my American colleagues has ever heard of the man.  And as a non-fan, I must confess to my own ignorance of this erstwhile celebrity of the field.

Hautlence complicates matters

The company, however, has always  worked the edges, producing complex mechanical toys, with lots of crystal to exhibit the brand’s main claim to fame, a movement the produces jumping hours on a chain, or retrograde minutes, and so forth…. an engineer’s dream. H. Moser & Cie is quite the opposite.  The hallmark of the brand is a mysterious, smoky dial on the Endeavour or Venturer series. The simplicity extends to a number of technical/esthetic features, beginning with the escapement module inside, which vastly simplifies servicing thanks to the replacement of pre-adjusted modules. Add to that hacking seconds (precise adjustment), flash calendars, where needed, a seven-day power reserve (less winding) and a delightful miniature hand that serves as a date pointer by following the hours, of which there are twelve, just like the months….

Back on the grid

There is life outside the Carrée des Horlogers of course. It would be lèse majesté to elevate on the independents onto a pedestal, while forgetting the brands that toil in large, well equipped buildings and have markets and deadlines and major investors, even stockholders. The Carrée, though, is the place to whet your appetite for more reasonable watches … or spoil it, as the case may be….

The safest way to navigate choppy waters is to shore up what one has – and the waters are choppy, since the industry just came off one crisis, and the USA is on some strange self-destructive trip that may well engulf the planet. Montblanc, IWC, Girard-Perregaux, even Piaget are exploring some of their greatest hits. Montblanc is relying more and more on Minerva, loves the classics and the ultra-thin, IWC has revived an old 19th-century pocket watch whose bare-bones dial and digital hours and minutes actually look very modern, so when the presenter says timeless, this time you can believe it. This is the Tribute to Pallweber 150 Years edition (albeit driven by the 94200, a 28,800 vph  machine with a 60-hour power reserve). Vacheron Constantin has also steered a conservative tack with several lines, like the 56, but their métiers d’art series keeps on giving works of art, tiny vignettes, like the Aérostiers de Versailles 1783, featuring the hot-air balloons.

Testing, testing…

Some of the regulars at the SIHH were also showing signs of adventurousness and readiness to move into a different lane. Baume & Mercier, for example, took leave of the carefree and chic Great Gatsby-ism and is trying its hand at revving engines along with the Indian Motorcycle Company… . Bikers and Baume? It doesn’t fit somehow, not yet anyway, though the design of the trotteuses are really very sharp, no doubt about it. And for someone wanting to buy a totally in-house watch for a reasonable price, the new Baumatic is definitely worth the money. You get a silicon hairspring and other contemporary knickknacks, and all that at a very reasonable price. The big 35 on the dial might remind one of BRM, but that is just me, I guess…

B&M gets funky…

While on the subject of cars and other roughriders, should mention two brands that like Big Effects. The first is Roger Dubuis, whose presentations tend to be similar to earthquakes wrapped in eruptions drowned by tsunamis. It’s fun, no doubt about it, but the stuff should be commensurate with the product at all times… Cars and Dubuis are fairly congruent, especially the kind of steroid-pumped vehicles that are made for speed and seem to inspire lots of men – and women – to race around city districts making noise and  risking the lives of calmer folk. For watches, though, the hard sell on the issue is almost a shame. Noisy Lamborghinis and screaming tires seem as far away from high-powered watch mechanics as Planet X and and the Sistine Chapel. But the brand was selling different-colored watchbands made of the actual rubber of tires used for different weather conditions. 

The other brand that likes its emotions fortes is Richard Mille. The ultimate technophile, Mille has been amazing the world with some genuine innovations. Who can forget the tourbillon with the magnolia for women, which seemed infinitely more erotic in many ways than the sophomoric RM 69? Or better yet, the Nadal watch with the amazing shock absorbing system using pullies and hyperfine cables. This year (2018),  Argentinian polo player Pablo Mac Donough (yes, he is from Argentina) became the model for the RM 53. And if you thought polo was a sport for the dainty, time to reset… Mc Donough suffered a devastating injury to the head as a kid playing polo, but got back up on his horse once healed and went on to become one of the world’s best. What does a watch face under such circumstances: getting bashed out of existence. So Richard Mille set about creating one that could suffer crushing polo whacks.

Revivalists

Not everything that glitters is madness; classic lines never really go out of style even if creative heads in colorful shoes are trying hard to push the envelope. And most brands have some delightful designs tucked away in the attic worth bringing back for a brushing off and some updating. Jaeger LeCoultre relaunched Memovox, a robust 1968 (yes, 50 years) diver’s watch with an alarm to warn the diver when to start surfacing procedures. It is accompanied by the Polaris, etc…  The sales tagline is made by makers, and involved a high-end bootmaker from Argentina and…

The 60s are back

Variations on themes…

Audemars Piguet, for its part, never stopped relaunching its phenomenally successful Royal Oak, which this year comes in a few new versions, like a thinner one, which reveals the brand’s undisputed technical prowess. The publicity film about this was meant to suggest some deep philosophical discussion on how to evolve while being the first (?), on youthfulness and hipness. According to CEO Benhamias, younger watchmakers and older ones were at loggerheads regarding how far to push the technical limits for this new Royal Oak offshore…. This sounded a little far-fetched, but, OK, we old guys are a bunch of sticks buried in the mud of the Joux Valley, and, the young are there to show us how it goes, we got the message, let me take a pic and fire it off to my IG ccount, which is connected to my FB account and automatically sends a link to my Twitter feed… Cool. Nevertheless, with some relief and a feeling of expectancy, Bennhamias announced that after years of development, AP will be coming out with a new line next year. Everyone looks forward to it. (Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Grande Complication, I like the black version slightly better, because even though the white version may be more technically advanced, there’s something extremely cool about an pitch-black, hyper-complicated, anniversary Royal Oak Offshore.)

AP…. the Oak is still Royal, but is there something new on the way?

Steadier and franker, Panerai made no fiery speeches about innovation and disruption and DNA: The Italian brand, which has a remarkable fan club (I know one or two, they’d kill to defend Panerai’s honor), seems happy with its magnificent Lo Scientato and tungsten rotors, it’s fascinating sandwich dials and for men who want to feel like men and women who like to slip into something more masculine. Now, the same watches are coming out in 38-millimeter case that lets one wear a Panerai without necessarily attracting envious stares or tearing one’s silk sleeve.

Not all brands have chromosomes that reach back multiple generations or deep into the glebe of the Vallée de Joux. But remember when the news came down that Peter Speake-Marin had sold his brand to some investors and was just leaving his name? He may be one of the only living watchmakers who can boast a brand bearing his name and his codes without his having to lift a screwdriver to make it happen. A quick survey of the new collection (I did not see all of it, but keep an eye out or Wristwatch Annual 2019) reveals some refreshment to the brand, a tighter case, a modernized look, with a bolder approach to colors.

Trump, wurst and salami

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 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.

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.  And VIPs are in on the game, with clips that in perfect prurient-puritanical style — always suggesting, never delivering —  come millimeters away from pornography, sort of like Jane Russell’s famous bra designed by Howard Hughes. And now, no one is allowed to criticize without the ochlocracy descending upon them and casting them into a labeling prison. You are X, because you criticized Y.

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. It can be the 1/10th of a second of Janet Jackson’s breast, or some evangelical fraud promoting the end of the world on a certain date. And so Trump, by hook or by crook, manages to elbow his way to the top rank of the news cycle, and so the gatekeepers (the editors) feel compelled to fill the airwaves with infantile tweets and the fawning and braying of his surrogates. It’s also an economic issue: This is cheap raw material.

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 will say that it 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 actually boring. The  pop music industry is built upon this premise, but so is the new “populism,” or neo-Fascism, to avoid silly euphemisms.   (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.

 

 

 

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.

De bello fatuo: synthetic wars

Hearts fostered a US empire through fake news.

When New York Journal illustrator Frederick Remington contacted his boss, William Randolph Hearst, from Cuba in 1897, it was to inform him, that the insurrection against the Spanish colonial overlords was simply nothing to write home about. “You furnish the pictures,” Hearst telegrammed back, famously, I should add, “I’ll furnish the war.” Hearst, who made his fortune with what used to be called “yellow journalism,” went on to hype up a non-conflict, inflaming public opinion with reports on an American citizen imprisoned by the Spanish authorities and of a female rebel being strip-searched. He went on to lay blame for the sinking of the Maine at the doorstep of the Spaniards, and thereby got what he really wanted: yuuuuge circulation numbers plus the bloody Spanish-American war that further pumped his newspaper’s revenues. Wars are money makers.

Hearst hadn’t spread entirely fake news, but it wasn’t real, either.

Things haven’t changed much since then, it seems. The medium can massage the public into believing some patently absurd stuff. Case in point: A “war” that has been raging for some time now, one made up almost entirely of whole cloth. The conflict in question is just one large and noisy front in a mostly bogus “culture war” that became especially heated as soon as Barack Obama became president in 2008. If you are wondering why, really: It was a skin-deep issue.

I’m talking, of course, of the “War on Christmas.” It is one of those ridiculous non-issues that a cohort of flimflammers on Fox News and points right on the media map ramble on about to the derision of late-night hosts and to the amazement of the millions who say merry Christmas and decorate Christmas trees without being hauled off to some atheistic torture chamber to be beaten to a pulp with tomes by Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, with a few volumes of Nietzsche thrown in for good measure.

President Trump of late has been making a great deal of hay out of this fake war, tweeting, notoriously this on Christmas Eve:

Great. So he won a non-existent war. And he is proud of it. And his base jumps up and down and hollers “We won,” and starts throwing insults at non-existent enemies of their Merry Christmas wishes. Booster Mike Huckabee, a leading officer in the cult of fatuous ignorance, went so far as to compare Trump to Churchill, I guess for his verbal gesticulations during this  non-conflict. Winston Churchill, why not Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, George Patton, or even Erwin Rommel…. It’s all for The Base (Al Qaeda in Arabic), and it tends to swallow this kind of agitprop hook, line, and sinker: Obama is taking their guns, was born in Kenya, is a Muslim, millions of illegal voters, microwave ovens spying, child porn rings run out of the basement of a cellar-less pizza parlor,  and so on. Let us not dwell too long on this utter bilge coming from this ersatz president.

At the Scopes Trial, science was in the defendant’s chair.

More seriously, we are truly in an Orwellian mind warp, since the alleged war is in fact non-existent, but focuses the attention of so many people, apparently. On December 25, 2017, the Washington Post reported on Linden, TN, where saying Merry Christmas and writing it on any free surface has been elevated to a deeply religious and revolutionary act. Is this for real? Poor Tennessee. 93 years after the embarrassment of the Scopes trial, it is still wallowing in some self-aggrandizing self-stigmatization, a deeply satisfying feeling of finally being recognized for having always accepted the dirty end of the stick, a notion that is spread mostly by their own chosen and much-hailed leaders.

Reality check
Trump hopped aboard the War on Xmas boat for political gain, of course. Most people realize that the man’s interest in spiritual issues or religion itself is near zero, though I would be loath to judge from a distance. His entire career smells oddly of materialism, of gain by stealth, of master bamboozler, though he might at heart be very pious. That, at any rate, is what some evangelicals are willing to believe, in order to be able to support him. But New Yorkers know him well, so he turned his

To each his own: Trump: Happy Holiday. Obama: Merry Christmas

attention to nice people in rural USA (and I mean “nice” without ANY irony, believe me). If Trump has any religious/spiritual impulse, it is probably more Borgia than Cotton Mather. As the Washington Post put it: “During the general election, about 80 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump, even though he rarely attends church and is a cursing, thrice-married former reality television star from Manhattan who has been publicly accused by 13 women of kissing or groping them without their consent.”

O’Reilly, big on Christianity, small on respect for women.

Let it be said loud and clear and once and for all: There is no war on Christmas in the USA. In countries that are not under Christian sway, there are restrictions, or prohibitions (Brunei and Somalia come to mind). But in our thriving consumer-democracies, the answer is a clear NO. If people have been saying happy holidays, or season’s greetings, or something other than Merry Christmas, it has been mostly to be more inclusive of those who do not have Christmas in their cultural baggage, and that might even include themselves. Moreover, Happy Holidays is, after all, just a euphemism of sorts, a little like calling the toilet a bathroom, or powder room. Whichever way one looks, Christmas is always there in word and deed, in the form of Christmas trees, or houses decorated with angels and reindeers and (mostly white) Santa Clauses, bumper stickers, shop windows… all patriotically burning up electrical power.

But the fake warriors in this fake war have managed to blow this fake issue out of proportion by repeatedly screaming it into the ether, and as manure will do when thrown at a wall, some will stick. They are doing this for one reason only: To keep up the outrage ratings, which translate into advertising dollars. If you haven’t picked up on this yet, it’s time to get real.

Fox’s Bolling fostering the birther idiocy: agitprop for the choir.

The down side is that they are trying to reframe the separation of church and state as some kind of punishment for religious groups. In the process, these hollering heads have also made religion a highly political issue, when in fact it should be very private, especially in these multicultural days. This, in turn, has leavened the outrage already fermenting in the minds of their captive audience, people who feel permanently threatened by the shifting mores of a world that has exploded many old-fashioned notions of what makes up a society. In the above-mentioned Post article, one man is quoted as saying the following bit of styrofoam wisdom:  “The government, I think, is trying to oppress Christianity with some of the policies that they come up with. They’re trying to oppress it, force people out of what they believe in.”

This is simply astounding stuff. And the most astounding is that these same people, who, I am sure are really nice, family folk, with jobs and good intentions, are also willing to believe Trump, who is virtually the caricature of a typical city slicker and con-man, a man who’d have been run out of town on a rail, tarred and feathered, by the grandparents of today’s vociferous evangelicals..

Late-night hosts fought back against the fake news from “Bullshit Mountain.”

The War on Christmas commandos, from that painfully obnoxious and oafish Hannity, to the latest bobbing dashboard Barbie, la Lahren, have, to an extent, been ululating against the political correctness extremists, whose tendency towards ornery linguistic fastidiousness can quickly become irritating to anyone trying to speak plainly – as a former radio announcer, yes, I managed to offend some to my left … I think that language has power and we should watch what we say occasionally, it can genuinely offend people. But two wrongs do not make a right, on the contrary, they reinforce each other in a very negative manner. This however is another discussion altogether.

What’s Christmas?

Let me just make note of a few things here. First of all: the real attack on Christmas, in particular as we celebrate it, with massive consumerism, rowdiness and very vocal blessings of everyone, even those who are not interested, is not new. In my recent blogpost about the cardoon here in Geneva, I mentioned in passing the fact that the theocratic government of the city under Calvin – one of the founders of evangelical faith, one could say, and a granddaddy of the Puritans who came to those there United States – prohibited Christmas in the city. It was considered idolatry and far to Roman (Catholic), as it indeed was. Calvin and his successors were not the funnest folk anyway, their view of God was that He (definitely male, definitely white) was a rigid, unforgiving sourpuss, who smites and smote anyone of His creations that were not in His good books.

Public decree against Christmas from mit 17th-century Massachusetts… Were they liberals back then?

At any rate, the American Puritans in Massachusetts maintained that tradition during the 17th century. They found Christmas celebrations were too rowdy and fun (there we go again), which interfered with their need for gravity and serious reflection on infant damnation. Furthermore they found no real biblical basis for it. And if anyone knew the Bible, it was those Puritans.

As for the South, with all its intense and very extroverted evangelicalism, it continued to be opposed to the celebration of Christmas for ages. Writing about the Presbyterians (Trump’s alleged spiritual home) after the Civil War in the South, historian Ernest Trice Thompson noted that there was “no recognition of either Christmas or Easter in any of the Protestant churches, except the Episcopal and Lutheran. For a full generation after the Civil War the religious journals of the South mentioned Christmas only to observe that there was no reason to believe that Jesus was actually born on December 25; it was not recognized as a day of any religious significance in the Presbyterian Church.”

This opposition continues to this day, as theologian and author Kevin Reed points out in his long and fascinating slog through the history of Christmas and the opposition to it. Part of the reason is the fact that the feast is based on “pagan celebrations held in conjunction with the winter solstice,” Reed writes. “Unable to eradicate the heathen celebration of Saturnalia, the Church of Rome, sometime before 336 A.D., designated a Feast of the Nativity to be observed.” So let us join the Vikings in celebrating Yul!

So allow me to quote his conclusion:

“The Protestant Reformers summoned us back to the scriptural law of worship which allows us to admit only those institutions in worship that possess express scriptural warrant. To take a stand in support of Christmas is a repudiation of this legacy of the Reformation [my emphasis]. It is a retreat from a hard-won point of orthodoxy.
A consistent application of Reformed and Presbyterian principles of worship requires the repudiation of Christmas. Answer 109 of the Westminster Larger Catechism forbids “any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself.”

 

Fe que no duda es fe muerta

All of this should give food for thought. What is religion? What is spirituality? What does Christmas really mean? Why did the Puritans, Evangelicals, revivalists, in short most Protestant denominations, actually speak out against celebrating Christmas, but today they pretend to love it and want to celebrate it.  What’s this with the vapid political boasting à la Trump? Do people think that yelling Merry Christmas will deliver brownie points for a trip to heaven? Does it make a real difference? Is this what faith is all about? Or is it just a bit of publicity hounding?

Those who came to the New World over the centuries came for religious freedom among other things. In Europe, many were genuinely persecuted for their beliefs. French Protestants suffered heavily at the hands of the Catholic League, the Thirty Years War left a trail of devastation in Central Europe akin to that left by World War Two. So the founding fathers instituted the separation of Church and State as a means to protect that freedom. Governments do not get in the way of religion, and religions can keep out of sinful political business. There is no “erosion of religious freedoms,” that’s a total myth. In fact, in the USA, anyone, apparently, can get behind a pulpit and, abandoning self-respect and given a few improv lessons, can seduce people into sending them money for spiritual perks, including a right to rapture. That’s just the business, and the old saying caveat emptor applies. And it applies to any spiritual direction. Just look at men like Pat Robertson, Young Falwell, Osteen, Hagee, Paula White… the list goes on and on, people who earn some really tall paper praising the Lord and passing around the collection bucket.

Alas, freedom of speech does permit anyone else to get behind a microphone or keyboard, or in front of a camera, and point out the contradictions in your thinking about religion, or politics, or even your choice of jeans and Christmas decoration. It’s a fact of life in a democracy. And I agree: It should be done politely, and the snarkiness of our debates these days has become extremely irritating. But as the Unamuno quote I used as a subhead suggests, doubt is sometimes a good way to keep faith alive. If your faith is threatened by someone saying Happy Holidays, or Season’s Greetings, then I’d revise the faith, not start hurling insults at “Democrats” or “Liberals” or “Communists” or “Muslims.” With a little questioning, the USA might have avoided falling into the hands of an extremely transparent con man.

Merry Christmas, by the way.

Some further reading:

A History of the ‘War on Christmas’

http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualNLs/Xmas_ch2.htm

 

 

 

 

 

The other side of the dream

Over the years I have avoided wading into politics too deeply. History, my favorite topic, is long and painstaking, but it is a patient art in many ways. Looking back on events gives some perspectives on the present, it tends to relativize things, and it also, ironically, takes time. Daily events may seem new and exciting when pundits are rudely and crudely hollering at each other on-screen, but given a different f-stop, they often lose their edge or even relevance. Hence, one of my favorite quotes has always been “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” uttered by French diplomat and temporary Napoleon adviser Talleyrand.

The hyper-reality show.

Seeing events as part of a continuum is also curiously satisfying. For years now, I have been writing down my thoughts about politics in a kind of running private political diary. Occasionally, I uploaded (what a word!) a piece or two to a blog platform that no longer exists, so I will have to put them back up on Journos-Blotter… At any rate, whenever a clip or quote or article seemed particularly relevant, I took note. For instance, as the Trump campaign gathered steam last year, I jotted down thoughts that appeared pertinent, like his continuous attacks on the press, on the judiciary, on rivals, and his strange rhetorical assemblies, which are reminiscent of preachers in terms of content and syntax, with unfinished, suggestive sentences, extreme imagery (shooting someone on 5th Avenue), rawness and, most notably, trading of substance for a lot of conspiratorial nonsense. These notes, by the way, are a continuation of notes from earlier election campaigns…

What made the Trump run and makes his subsequent presidency special is the dizzying level and frequency of windy swagger, fake news stories, and pure baloney. In fact, the bullshit (please forgive the rude term: I am using the Harry Frankfurt definition, in short: indifference to truth) came and comes at such a rate that there was and is simply no real time to debunk the stuff, before the next wave starts cresting, leaving the nation as a whole exhausted but deeply unsatisfied, much in the way binge-watching series can leave one titillated, but with the sense of having learned strictly nothing of any importance for your life or the future of the planet.

Something to talk about other than serious news….

Some are happy. The MSM always has stuff to report, especially since the White House seems to be very leaky, perhaps by design. Furthermore, these days full-grown adults associated with the administration either as members or surrogates are earning huge salaries to go on television and brazenly lie, obfuscate and invent stuff, and to defend the president’s own lies… It gets very confusing up top. At the other end of the social ladder, during the campaign, you had Trump supporters who were either on the extreme right of the political spectrum (including many Holocaust deniers), dyed-in-the-wool racists, religious extremists, or card-carrying members of the lunatic fringe. I cannot say how many were bots, as I was not that savvy at the time. But one thing is sure: Those people who were “really suffering,” as some condescending journalists like to say, are not feeling any upwind these days, whether they voted for Trump, or not.

Society has a deep neophile streak, of course, and so the general consensus from the talking heads was, and still is, that Trump is something new. And that is what his supporters like. New stuff, disruptive stuff, different stuff. Amazing for people who can go to one Hollywood movie after another and still believe each one is new. Trump is new at the presidential level, true. But as a political and societal phenomenon, he is a standard-issue American wind machine, a blusterous snake-oil salesman, freely mixing Babbitt with Elmer Gantry, some Coughlin with McCarthy. The GOP could have, should have, probably stopped him, but preferred expedience and party first. A wing of the party already tried the lunatic playbook in 2008 with Sarah Palin, who can only be described as a light, female version of Trump. At least she was a genuine provincial, and not such an obvious city-slicker conman. He’s a New Yorker, for crying out loud. In letting Trump through, the GOP played a risky game. The election could have been lost, which would have lt the party dodge a very dangerous bullet. With Trump’s electoral college victory in 2016, the GOP backed itself into a corner they seemed to be trying to escape.

And then came Roy Moore.

What is forcing me in some ways to come out of my opinion closet is the Alabama election. The victory of Doug Jones over Roy Moore has been touted as a major upset for Trump and the GOP and especially for Steve Bannon, a swamp creature in his own right. Much of the GOP started moping because of their loss of a Senate seat, but I’d guess a good number of them are breathing a quiet sigh of relief. Having saddled the country with Donald J. Trump (I’ll get to him in a few weeks), they would have had to contend with another loose cannon and publicity hound extraordinaire, this time in the Senate.

Nothing about Roy Moore qualified him for being a senator, really, for almost the same reasons Trump has little business being in the White House. It’s not even his creepy sexual obsessions. “Senator” etymologically suggests age and wisdom combined. Moore is more Disney than Tacitus, a typical fraud who, after years of building up and polishing an image as a kind of latter day Billy Sunday, now actually seems to believe his mind’s eye. He mixes 19th-century Wild West iconography – the horse, the pistol, that corny cowboy hat– and ideas that are fundamentally anti-Enlightenment irrationalism of pre-Revolutionary times.  Those are the physical and intellectual (can one use that word here?) props. And they definitely resonate with people for reasons that would require a lot of copy to explain.

Top: Real fraud.                                                                                                              Bottom: Real cowboy.

 

Suffice to say, his catechumens have been convinced by radio and TV barkers that they are victims, poor, stigmatized members of a class reviled and mocked by a nasty elite. And there is some truth to that. Comedians from Jon Stewart to Bill Maher have enthusiastically strip-mined what Mencken once called the “Sahara of the Bozart” for material. Ridicule is fun, when you’re not the butt of the joke, but it’s not the best way to engage in a dialog, since the victims will prefer to double down on their core beliefs rather than question and revise them when someone outside their bubble points out the absurdity of their world view (we all know that feeling, I suspect).

Assisting them in that doubling down effort  has been the bizarre idea that the Moore-Trump-Bannon-Pence crowd are their liberators from what amounts to a self-imposed plight. The GOP and media outlets like Fox, Breitbart and Co. have been playing to this crowd, feeding it an enormous amount of fake rage and outrage, like the fictitious “War on Christmas.” We’ve all watched that nonsense become mainstream, and suddenly the talking heads (this, by the way is really on both sides of the divide) are saying: “People think,” or “People say…” Naturally, then, when Trump starts ranting about “voter fraud,” or his mouthpiece Conway launches a collective hallucination about microwaves spying on you, a huge group of people is willing to simply disconnect their grey cells and start nodding. The most recent excuse for Roy Moore’s loss in Alabama is that Doug Jones was aided by “Muslims and Marxists.” Moore, at the time of writing, is still fundraising. I.e.: the marks still have some juice in them….

Read that again: Moore is still campaigning. For funds.

The reason why people let themselves be bamboozled like this is complicated. One thread can be found in Kurt Andersen’s book Fantasyland, an excerpt of which was published in The Atlantic. The ability to think outside the box, to dream stuff up and then live it, is a quality that many associate with the USA. It’s why one occasionally finds people mocking gloom-and-doom Europeans, whose dialectical thinking tends to put a damper on American hyper-enthusiasm … But when imagination becomes fantasy, it can turn into a weakness. The idea that you can be whatever you want is what drives a lot of genuine innovation, but there is a delicate and permeable border between imagination and illusion or delusion.

What you can do for your country.

Breaking news: Jesus hates everyone except white Evangelicals.

 

John F. Kennedy fostered a positive imagination, it was forward-looking, exciting for the huge baby-boomer youth, and let young and old dream of great things. In spite of all his foibles, his uncontrolled gonads, his bellicosity, he made people want to go out, get an education and do great things. His dialectical opposite is Donald J. Trump and men like Roy Moore, who are, alas, increasingly becoming mainstream. They revile education, science, rationalism. They generate that exhausting energy of hatred in people. They divide and try to conquer at least enough rhetorical territory to make some difference, and bring nothing to the communities they rule over, except some feeling of belonging. They lead to ruin.

The Moore candidacy revealed again a society torn apart between the future and the past, between urban progressivism and rural regressivism – what else can one call it? – between multiculturalism and aggressive and proud know-nothingism. America is, let’s face it, fighting the civil war again by other means, with other issues, and the media have their role to play as contributors to the dysfunctional dialogue and perpetrators of the hysteria. Whataboutism and its equally evil twin, false equivalencies, have led to some strange fallacies: Apparently, you have to equivocate the conviction that the earth is flat with the hard work of explorers, astronomers and other scientists since the days of Ptolemy and before. Of course, with the Trump presidency, there are some serious threats to democracy in the USA. Let us not kid ourselves, the man and his tribe, including Moore and the like, are not interested in having a viable and corrective opposition around.

Birmingham Alabama, a modern city these days, but it ain’t Alabama.

The Democratic victory in Alabama did boost the morale of what is called “the left” in the USA. The hope from the broad swath of Americans who’ve joined the #Resistance is that it might signal a return to a more mainstream and less risky track by providing another necessary opposition voice in the Senate to counter some of the egregious economic goals of the GOP under Trump – let’s leave it at that for the moment. There is also some hope that the Trumpian rhetoric can be toned down, that US foreign policy can be once again.

There is a big caveat, however. First: Jones won by a very narrow margin and thanks to the investigative work of the Washington Post. Moore, in any “normal” or healthy society, should have lost by a massive landslide even without the uncovering of his liking for very young girls*. Norms these days are not what they used to be. This leads to the second point: expectations management. By positioning themselves as more reasonable versions of Trump and downplaying the real impact of the president, GOP candidates still have a good chance going into 2018, which is why they don’t appear terribly worried. The Democrats should note as well, that the GOP has no scruples when it comes to political fights, they will risk the security of the nation if it has to to win. The Democrats must avoid complacency.

Third, the tax bill is being demonized as a gift to the superrich. And it is. But the real scandal there is how it was passed, the process, the fact that the Democrats were shut out. This could become a lose-lose either party, but the Republicans, together with Fox and radio agitprop, have shown they  are willing to take serious risks. They’re good at the game and bank heavily on the electorate’s notorious fickleness and inability to remember stuff that happened just a few weeks ago. They are already playing the song “They didn’t want it,” leaving the Democrats very vulnerable to any positive effects from the bill. Moral of the story: Never underestimate an opponent without scruples.

*I’d like to add at this point, that I teach kids in the age range that Moore seems to like them. I try to imagine some thirty-plus religious flake trying to seduce them, and it makes me simply furious. They are CHILDREN, no matter what nature has given them in terms of physical maturity. The idea that one go after them sexually is absolutely shocking and the sign that the man is deeply disturbed and extremely immature. This is corroborated by the fantasies about himself he exhibits publicly.

 

 

Thorny delight

A look at a specialty on Geneva’s Yuletide tables.

One cannot help but think that if the Latin influence were not so strong in Geneva, Christmas might not be such a jolly affair in the city. Indeed, when dour and sour Calvin turned the place into a theocracy from about 1541 onward, with his rigid laws and set punishments running all the way to death by burning or drowning, he set a course still felt to this day. Among other things, he made fun and games anathema, and so Genevans had had to find ways to make merry without irritating already naturally irritable ghosts and deities. And his staunch hatred of bling meant that the local jewelers had to find a new way to practice their art: clock-making… But that is not the subject of this post…

From right to left, W. Farel (l.), Jean Calvin (m.), Theo. de Bèze (r.)… The reformers: “Don’t be happy, worry!”

Calvin prohibited anything and everything that could be remotely fun. Carnival is not celebrated in Geneva, for example. Calvin even went as far as prohibiting Christmas as a feast of idolatry and for a few hundred years after, the Genevans did not celebrate the Birth of Christ, Prince of Peace…Tell that to the wind machines ranting on about the fake “War-On-Christmas. What the city does have is the somewhat extreme and boisterous annual celebration called “Escalade,” the commemoration of a skirmish between the (Catholic) troops of the Duke of Savoy and the (Protestant) Genevans came right before Christmas 1602 on the Gregorian calendar. It comes along with fancy dress parties and general rejoicing and chocolate cauldron consumption. I have described this otherwise insignificant event outside Geneva in an earlier post.

All this to say: the influence of Calvin is still felt in Geneva. Ultimately, however, the Genevans did goback to celebrating Christmas. The city gears up in November already with wonderful lighting arrangements in the leafless trees, and shopping becomes more frenetic. But on Christmas Eve or Day, on the festive tables, amidst the smoked salmon, foix gras, oysters, calorie-laden bûches (the French pastry Yule log) and various wines, you’ll find a delicacy whose rewards, like Calvinistic grace, are only revealed and delivered after a long and arduous journey.

Image result for the Cardoon
Cardoons prior to preparation

The item in question is the cardon, in English cardoon, in Latin Cynara cardunculus, a thistle-like plant related to the artichoke found occasionally in the wild in Mediterranean regions and elsewhere.

Cardoon character
At first glance, it looks like some irksome and resilient weed requiring immediate annihilation. So, as with the olive and several other labor-intensive foods, one must marvel at the first people who figured out that the cardoon is edible and that it has a wonderful artichoke-like flavor with just a hint of bitterness and a fine texture.

It also has history. The Mediterranean people already cultivated it in antiquity. According to lore, it was Protestants from the south of France who brought it to Geneva following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 that deprived France’s Huguenots of their religious and civil rights. These families settled in the so-called Plaine de Palais (where the Bastions and National Theater is today) and continued cultivating their cardon, refining over the centuries to make it – guess what – even more thorny (épineux). Today, the “Cardon genevois épineux” is actually the only Swiss vegetable with a protected designation of origin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The slothful – Catholics, perhaps… no offense – will buy the vegetable already prepared, cut into short segments, and packed into large jars or in vacuum packed bags for up to CHF 15 the kilo. The self-respecting Genevan will purchase it fresh for about CHF 5 per kilo from one of the famed local market-gardeners (maraîchers) at any outdoor market.

The easy way to get cardons… buy it at the supermarket for about CHF 14,95…

You can’t miss it there: imagine a pale yellowish, oversized celery with a thick root. Occasionally they come stuffed in a plastic bag, not very ecological, but it will protect your hands from the thorns.

Taming the wild cardoon
From seed to table, the cardoon is all about the sweat on your brow.

A few years ago, Pierre Gallay, a gardener, explained the cultivation procedure to me. It’s sown in May and grows quickly in summer. In autumn, the leaves on each plant are folded up to promote natural bleaching. In November each cardon is then uprooted by hand along with some earth and put into cool cellars where it continues to grow and bleach out without risking frosts.

Geneva produces about 130 tons of cardons per year, according to the Association of Plainpalais Interests. These Genevan heritage enthusiasts also point out in traditional Calvinist style, that with its fibers and low calories, it is the perfect counterpart to the prandial “abuses” of year’s end.

To prepare it, shave off the thorny edges. Then peal the stalks as you would rhubarb or celery, pulling off the stringy ridges and skin. Cut up into inch-size pieces and tenderise overnight in a milk-water mixture. Then boil in salty water (about 30 minutes) with a dash of milk. Dress with cream (yes, but double cream from Gruyère) and pepper, or use the liquid for a béchamel to cover the cardons, sprinkle with Parmesan or Gruyère and bake till the cheese is a little crispy. You are now a step closer to being Genevan.

 

 

 

Geneva by night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angels in Geneva

This story is entirely true because I imagined it from beginning to end. Boris Vian (1920–1959) Preamble to L’écume des jours (Froth On The Days)

We all seek a measure of security in a connected, networked world, where corporate identity ensures global monoculturalism at all levels and offers the comfort of  familiar space. We can travel the planet without ever really seeing it, enjoy the exact same coffee in Singapore as in New York or Warsaw, buy the same clothes in shops that all look the same, hear the same shallow music with me-me-me lyrics, and even taste the same foods. Our hyper-technology tends to reinforce the uniformity around the globe, creating more safe space, removing all sting and thrill out of the adventure of life. Everything can be seen. And paradoxically, in the flood of images being traded across the globe every second of the day, it’s our imagination that suffers.Angels-05

Throughout their lives, puppeteers Tina and Michel Perret-Gentil chose to sally forth into the great unknown without fear of being disconnected. Their particular art of telling stories through their puppets engages the imagination far more than any movie or series of pictures on Instagram or Flickr. Their life and craft dispense metaphors that trigger chains of thoughts and eureka moments and genuinely slake our minds’ thirst for exploration of mystery and for more journeying.

Here’s the story of two very special people living a different life in Geneva.

Angels-01
Tina —- life on a string.

When Tina was 19, she packed up her bags, took the seeds of her life’s experience from a childhood and youth in the stark, majestic mountains of the Canton of Grisons in eastern Switzerland, and went down into the lowlands to plant them and see what might grow. The year was 1967; in the western world, a new generation of humans was taking its first hesitant steps away from the social and political straitjacket of a more conservative past. Change was in the air, and it was to break into full-fledged rebellion a year later in Paris and other European capitals. Geneva was not yet the pressure-cooker-like, global maelstrom of finance, oil, real-estate speculation and tarnished money it is today, but the presence of the UN and other international organizations already gave it a distinct stamp, a whiff of distant shores, of exoticism that contrasted with the in the quintessential Calvinist petit bourgeoisie of the city. It was a mix lacking elsewhere in the Alpine Republic.

Tina, née Marianna Katharina Casanova, who had learned French and done some secretarial training, had no ambitious plans for life. She just wanted to work at the post office and get a feel for life in a biggish city. “My aunts and my mother had worked at the post office in Obersachsen (her native village), and as a child I would help them deliver telegrams or express mail for pocket money,” she recalls. “I did that for a few months in Geneva but I realized I did not want to be behind a counter all day, I wanted to get out and deliver the mail, and be with the people.” And so her first seedlings withered quickly under the fluorescent assault of reality.

As time passed, however, she came to realize that the post-office job in itself was just a symbol for the determination and self-confidence bequeathed to her from her mother and aunts well before Swiss women even got the right to vote. The Grisons, that large mountainous Canton in Eastern Switzerland with its stark peaks, eight months of snow, where people still speak a derivative of Latin, Rumantsch, boasted particularly traditional values. “They were different from other women,” she says of those powerful women in her life, “they wore more jewels, they wore trousers, they were the first women to ski up there, they all made music, and I got a diatonic accordion for my ninth birthday,” she points out, a touch wistfully. “I had a wonderful childhood up in the mountains, close to nature.”Angels-07

When I visited Tina the first time to write this article, she was still close to nature. Her home, surrounded by greenery, is unique in and for Geneva, a city plagued by an extreme dearth of lodgings and where rents are astronomical. Almost forty years ago, she and her husband Michel slipped quietly into the nomadic lifestyle of rolling homes “It was not a conscious decision, it just happened,” she says, “but I couldn’t live in a house anymore today. Those poor Romas whom the government was always trying to force into homes, they must have gone crazy.”

They had four trailers, long, dark wooden structures that her life-long companion Michel Perret-Gentil had carefully and skillfully revamped, adding windows, insulation, wood paneling, and the occasional decorative touch. One was for sleeping, one for the office and atelier, there was one for each of their two children, who are now grown up and have children of their own. Her son Jan lived in Uganda for a while, where his wife worked for an NGO. Daughter Anna is in Geneva. For guests or other meetings, Michel put up a large yurt, the tent-like structure of wooden slats covered with felt used mainly in Mongolia.

At the time of the first interview, these homes were located in a garden lot in the Cherpines area of the city, which until May of 2011 had been zoned for agriculture. The two functional homes were placed so the doors face each other. Between the two was a simple picnic table covered in wax cloth and shielded from the rain by a canvas. Often, on warm days and nights, they sit together or with any of their innumerable friends and chat, dream and discuss projects. They are as gentle with the environment as possible, always using biodegradable soaps. The waste from the toilet is compost.

Puppets from Rajasthan live and entertain in Geneva
Puppets from Rajasthan live and entertain in Geneva

In their five years’ residence at the Cherpines, they had planted a wild garden with roses, some vegetables and herbs, dug a small pond, and even planted a willow, using offshoots from a tree at their previous residence. “Everyday I look at the flowers in the garden, I feel they are inhabited each by their own spirit, and that gives me strength as well and confidence.” These two words return in our conversations over and over again. Strength, confidence.

During our interview, we sat in the kitchen, essentially a wide corridor with a gas stove and an old wood cooking stove used on colder days. The walls are covered in mementoes, pictures, notes, drawings, post-its, the eclectic ephemera of a life on the road and with children. A shelf carries a crowd of strange objects, statuettes and, incongruously, an old shoe. The sheer immediacy of the outdoor takes away any feeling of being inside. It’s spring, and a host of sparrows, blue tits and blackbirds are carrying on a lively conversation. The west wind that brought a light rain is also shaking drops off the trees onto the roof above us and making the nearby highway more audible than usual. The cats come in and out of the open door. The air is rich with spices, herbal teas and espresso and a hint of patchouli, an aromatic anchor in Tina and Michel’s lives.

We sit opposite each other. Her eyes are dark aquamarine, almost grey. They take in everything without hunger, as if they could hear. She speaks in clear, emphatic tone, her French has the slight singsong of her native Swiss German, and every move of her long thin arms shakes a parade of bangles. She modulates her voice down to whisper sometimes, or stretches out a syllable beyond its shelf life.

Angels-08

A touch of theater is an occupational hazard: For nearly 38 years, Tina and Michel have been puppeteers, telling stories, singing, accompanying their little wooden actors with all manner of sounds and instruments. As such, they have become an integral part of the cultural scene in Geneva, appearing wherever there is some manifestation or celebration of the stage arts or children to entertain. They also launched a late spring festival called “Dust of the world” (Poussière du Monde), homage to nomadic culture featuring song recitals from the Maghreb or Colombia, or evenings of fairytales. It all takes place in a in the Parc Bernasconi in Geneva. The theater itself is in fact two magnificent concatenated Mongolian yurts, whose cloth walls are supported by slats intricately decorated with arabesques.

It is there, on a Sunday afternoon, that I picked up one of their shows. This one featured their kathputli puppets – a special type of string puppet originating in Rajasthan – enact vignettes from life and legend presented to the scratchy recordings of folk music taken from old 45s. The program opens with two puppet musicians playing… and very quickly you forget the intricate, perfectly timed pas-de-deux of the two puppeteers operating behind a simple anthracite backdrop. Among the more virtuosic scenes is an acrobatic horseman holding a torch on his galloping steed, a little scene featuring a woman who suddenly turns into a man, much to the disappointment of an eager suitor, and our horsemen joisting. It is a far cry from the flash-bang, often violent drama with which the entertainment industry usually tries to hypnotize spectators. But rows of children up front, some surely hardened Wii, Gameboy and TV users, are wide-eyed in fascination, so much so that they begin moving forward and at some point have to be guided back to their place.Angels-02

Puppeteering is a form of expression in metaphors. The tales always have some didactic or moral goal, or they are reflections of life itself and its sometimes absurd realities. Therein lies the fascination: Like court jesters, the puppeteers can reveal disguised truths for the audience. And after a while, the puppets themselves come alive, a little like Pinocchio, only less schoolmarmish: “The most extraordinary exchange occurs between them and us,” Michel once wrote. “We give them life, and in return they give us the possibility of living. Some are thirty years old. They don’t age. They wait discreetly, always ready for our hands to seize them. The wait is never very long, and when our hands take them it’s not just our hands doing the work, but our hearts are present as well.” By his own admission their creations avoid caricatures, sentimentality, irony and the spectacular, leaving “receptivity and imagination” in Michael’s words.

He is not just venting theory. The puppets are what sparked the couple’s unusual, nomadic lifestyle. They became “the means of transportation for a journey without a goal… Like the horizon, the goal is always escaping me,” he wrote.Angels-09

That journey began in the early 70s. After the post-office debacle, Tina learned to type and found work at a bank. It was then that she met Michel, a young man with curly hair, opaline-blue eyes, and the wild creative vein of an extramural philosopher. He liked his job washing windows. It gave him time to cultivate and expand his tangled web of thoughts while peering into opulent shops, thoughts that got him thrown out of the military within a week of passing muster. “He was filed as ‘socially not adapted’” Tina says with a broad laugh. “You should have seen his demeanor, plus he had a bunch of psychological reports. But we did have to pay a military tax after that.”

Inspired by friends who had visited India, they put money aside and, in 1971, bought a VW bus and drove to India by road. “It was a magnificent journey,” Tina recalls. There were adventures – such as people shaking their car at night – as they wended their way through the Balkans, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The beauty of discovering the world remains, tinged with the occasional thrill. “Afghanistan was simply marvelous, the people were hospitable, friendly,” she recalls. “Michel and I used to say that no one talked about the country because it was in peace, and look what happened, the Russians, oil, money.” They even stayed with smugglers near the Khyber Pass — “Guns, ammunition and Camel cigarettes! All over the place!” — who offered them an evening of music, dinner, and a night in silk sheets.Angels-05

They spent nearly a year in India and Nepal discovering a brand new culture. When it came time to return, however, war between India and Pakistan had broken out, so they abandoned their car and flew home with the help of wired funds.

Back in Switzerland, life continued, but their paradigm had shifted. One day they went to see a puppet play directed by a fellow named Michel Politti. It was a classic coup de foudre, love at first sight, when all the disparate parts of life seem to gell into a full-blown affirmation, a single, vibrant “yes!” They wanted to return to India anyway, so Angels-10through the Indian Tourist Board they found a center to learn how to make and activate the kathputli puppets of Rajasthan, one of the oldest forms of the art. They gave up their jobs and hit the road again, this time in a small, two-cylinder Ami 6 Citroen station wagon customized for camping. There followed six months of toil, learning to carve, sew and string up the kathputli, and create small, eye-twinkling, moving tales to entertain people.

Their return to Europe was not auspicious. The car’s engine froze up in Belgrade and they had to leave a large case filled with their freshly made puppets behind to take the train. Nevertheless, back in Geneva, at a little house rented from the city near the airport, they began rebuilding their stock. “We practiced a lot, and a woman saw us and asked if we would like play at the annual meeting of the Swiss puppeteers,” she recalls. “And would you believe it? Suddenly everyone wanted us. People would ask us how much money we wanted, we had no idea.”

The tours began. First to France, then Germany, later to Eastern Europe and England. Soon, they were able to live from puppeteering and decided to buy a big 1947 Saurer bus to save themselves the cost of hotels. Ironically, the vehicle had originally been used by the post office to transport people as well as mail. They travelled about 12,000 miles a year. When the children came (born in 1976 and 1980 respectively) the trips became shorter, or Michel’s mother had to step in as a baby-sitter. Their shows evolved and expanded as new puppets were created and new tales added. Michel had found his calling in the creation of a string of “circuses” with special puppets. In Pécs, Hungary, they won a prize for his “Cirque philosophique,” which combined music (Tina on accordion) and Latin texts. They performed at festivals and in schools, for Christmas and Easter.

Meanwhile, in 1982, the city of Geneva wanted their cheap little house back to turn it into lodgings for flight attendants. Tina and Michel decided to make a deal. Rather than accept alternative accommodation, they asked whether they could use some municipal land and put a second bus on it. The city let them use a plot in the Malagnou section. Soon, real-estate developers started ogling that plot, so they moved to a new place lent by friends, and then when the developers reappeared again, like locusts in neckties, these urban nomads moved again. And again… Each time they came to a new spot, they cleared the grounds, planted gardens, created a paradisiacal human biotope. As the children grew, they added the rolling homes, long, simple structures that had been abandoned by workers or other similar nomads.Angels-06

Like many gentler flowers, the Cherpines location was long coveted by predators as easy prey. On May 15, 2011, after an acrimonious campaign, the people of Geneva voted to have this  rural section of Geneva rezoned for building. It may have been necessary, since the city’s growth needed to be accommodated. Overnight, the price of land exploded and the speculators moved in with deals that were tough to refuse. They offered local property-ownerss staggering sums for their plots. Tina had always maintained a friendly relationship with her landlord. She also kept the plot impeccable, beautifying it with a garden. At the time of the referendum, he was recovering from an operation. Tina visited him as to wish him well and was greeted by a vicious “When are you moving out?” Money talking.

It was time to pack again.

In the six years since the Cherpines were delivered to speculators, not a building has been built. Why should it? You can sit on fairly cheap land while the rest of the city squeezes into small and often dumpy apartments, and the price of the land will just go up. No investments needed, except for some taxes and a few good lawn mowers.  The misery of some, make the happiness of others, an old French saying goes. While Genevans waited for more apartments, Tina and Michel had to move. They found a place in the Lignon area. It is not as idyllic, but wherever Tina and Michel “drop anchor,” their space always radiates care, beauty, calm.

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January 2017. Outside it’s cold. The damp comes off the river Rhone nearby, it’s like the Erlkönig’s voice. We sit in the warmth generated by the wood stove and talk about the next puppet show. The city is cutting back on funding for artistic pursuits, maybe the deficits will come down, but while economic woes can be corrected, cultural poverty is a downward spiral that eats at the foundations of human society. There is some anger in her voice at the way the world is becoming increasingly polarized. She notes the neighborhood, young people who have chosen to live in their campers to save money, not necessarily idealists. They go to work like everyone else. Then there are the punks, who, she notes, are developing self-sufficiency and engaging in different crafts.

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And there is the ever-lengthening past she speaks of as if it was the present. That is the gift of nomads, and it is their essential melancholy. They carry their entire lives in their baggage, in their minds, in their souls, in their homes, tents, on the backs of their camels and horses, or in their old vehicles. Those of us who have moved around a great deal know the value of human beings, of other people and peoples. Our consumer society demands that we fill cellars and attics and try to be reconcile ourselves with an unpredictable future. The nomad collects and keeps mostly weightless stuff around, thoughts, dreams, philosophies, ideas, and sanctifies human to human contact.

Michel sits beside her in the kitchen. His clear blue eyes are opened wide by overarched eyebrows; his look is a mixture of admiration, love, gratitude and amazement. He seems at peace. Those who knew the old Michel speak of his great intellect and ready conversation, his fast mind and love of life. Three years earlier, while packing the stage after a Christmas play, a massive heart attack struck him down. He recovered, essentially, but death’s had struck and its claws raked a part of his mind, taking his treasure of thoughts, his memories and many puppet adventures away forever. Today, he handles the puppets literally by heart, which was always his way. He is a man of the heart, friendly, resolute, creative and a touch mysterious, without being obscure.

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Dangerous angels in Geneva fire the imagination (with thanks to Hugh Schofield for kind permission)

Wherever Tina and Michel go, they are approached by acquaintances, friends, admirers. It’s more than just the attraction of the theater. It is the single-mindedness with which they lead their lives and their belief in the importance of the human creative impulse and the power of the individual. Michel came up with a clever, double-edged name for them, “des anges heureux,” (happy angels), which is almost a homonym for “dangeureux” (dangerous).

After our first interview, still in the Cherpines, she took me back to my car back. On the way, she showed me the lovingly tended garden. She is a long, lithe woman, with stunning poise. Her hair is always pulled back in two thin braids that reach almost to her knees. At 62, she moves with the grace of a ballet dancer, be that while walking through the market shopping, receiving gifts, or giving life to the puppets. And the rhythmic sound of a tabla, or djembe, a tombak or any other live percussion will set off a languorous swaying dance like that of a field of wheat caressed by a breeze. The beauty of her being radiates from an inextinguishable inner fire. At night a lighted candle always flickers near their home, “to signal that we are here, we are still burning,” she smiles. As I drove away in the luke-warm spring drizzle, I could see their home in the rear-view mirror and another quote of hers echoed in my ears:

“We are on wheels. When we go, we will leave no traces.”

SIHH 2016 (part 1): wild cards

Tivoli Soldat Dos

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The 26th edition of the SIHH closed its doors recently and so it is time to take a look back over four plus days of watch-watching, of receiving the skinny on the latest models from the brands, and of sharing ideas, views and some minor scoops with colleagues in the hallowed halls of the SIHH, the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva, Switzerland.

First and foremost, the big news much appreciated by many of the invited guests present (and surprising to some of the extramural journalists, who tend to know only the really Big Brands): This year the SIHH welcomed nine sort-of independent brands into a square space called “Carrée des horlogers,” which loosely translates as Watchmakers’ Plaza. That is not too many, mind you, but among them were some of the most genuinely innovative, not to say wild and wooly, players of the industry. Urwerk, check! MB&F, check! HYT check! Christophe Claret, check! And more, but let’s get ahead of ourselves.

The effect of these dashing horological beatniks was shattering, to quote an old British vodka ad. Just imagine, one minute you are enjoying the smooth presentation of the Baume & Mercier collections, which are geared towards a generation of up-and-coming young adults moving about a connected world, but still engaged in human-to-human activity. The Petite Promesse with its doubly-wound bracelet is indeed a cute piece, and the Capeland Shelby Cobra is a solidly attractive chrono even for those not necessarily enamored of automotive “sports” – interestingly, it avoids lots of ostentatious Ferrari red in favor of a less familiar black dial with yellow hands, tachymeter and strap pattern.

M0A10290 Continue reading “SIHH 2016 (part 1): wild cards”

About me

Fond memories in print
Fond memories in print

Some biographical information:
I was born May 9, 1957, in New York City, parents both freelance photographers.

International Baccalaureate (Intl. School of Geneva)
B.A History and German (Middlebury College)
M.A. Communication Studies (University of Massachussetts/Amherst)

Living in Europe (mostly Germany) since 1985.

I work as a journalist, copy writer, translator, ghostwriter, editor.
I work in radio and do voiceovers occasionally.
I have worked as a travel photographer as well, and still like using the camera.

You can find out more on my website: www.radkai.ch

Or drop me a line at: marton@radkai.ch

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