Sunday, May 1, 2016

What kind of balance

Random thoughts, random questions. 

Why do our (mostly) young leftist friends feel free to make grand political statements, context-less pronunciamentos, at family gatherings, or indeed anywhere? I heard a few exasperated oh-God-I'm-sorry-I-brought-it-up Easter survival stories recently. So I heard about people who found it necessary to casually proclaim, for everyone, which of the presidential candidates are xenophobic and exclusionist while handing the ham and scalloped potatoes. It's exactly reminiscent of some very minor P.G. Wodehouse character wolfing tea and sardines and lamenting that the foodstuffs have been "wrung from the bleeding lips of the starving poor." That was already a hundred years ago ("Comrade Bingo," 1922). On other days I have listened to wine seminar leaders brightly yip about climate change, and I've known a gynecologist purr "Thanks to the Affordable Care Act ..." while absolutely attending to his duties. I wonder if it felt like this for centuries while the Christians in antiquity took over. Granted they did far more good than our Comrade Buttses have ever done (though the comrades are certainly plying a religion). I would much rather have lived in a world of monasteries and hospitals than of arenas where slaves fought wild beasts. Still. The time must have come when decent people who happened to be pagan no longer felt free to speak. That willowy triumphalism forever at your elbow can't have been pleasant. 

And where is our modern novelist, our Wodehouse or our Barbara Pym, to chronicle it? This spontaneous scolding is as prime a fact about life in society, which is what novels chronicle, as gaslight in Victorian London or Wodehouse's harmless upper class twits or Pym's postwar spinsters, living quiet lives but yearning for the archdeacon. We want a novelist to immortalize the character of what Rush Limbaugh calls the "millenial snowflake [i.e., each one unique] _________" -- fill in the blank. The reporter, the hipster, your niece's boyfriend, forever performing these little mopping up operations long after their victory. Oh but um, wait. Any novelist chronicling that has to get past the millenial snowflake editorial assistant gatekeepers first, the ones wearing rainbow/Che Guevara t shirts, whom we have already seen give the nod to all the right genuflections in some of our recent, random contemporary reading. The teen boys kissing, the Russian monarchist emigre slamming Margaret Thatcher, the olive oil researcher blessing Mohammed, each in the earliest pages of their respective thick books.   

Now then, re: the jihad murders in Brussels. Or, pick one. Something else will probably happen before I finish this. Did you know that the Jews in Europe held a kind of one-off candle-lighting ceremony in 1942 or '43, to honor Jews who had already been killed by the Nazis? You will find the story documented, I think, in Arthur Morse's While Six Million Died (1967). Of those who lit candles, another million or two were destined for Auschwitz themselves when their own countries fell. Hungary for example. I don't coarsely compare war crimes, I just note a possible pattern in the way prey can't believe predator is serious, even to the end. Even ISIS -- which some observers, writing in financial magazines of all places, claim really is "on the run," picking soft targets in Europe because its commanders are being killed off in Iraq -- even ISIS taunted "what [commemorative] color will the Eiffel tower be next?"  

Let me ask you this. What kind of balance is the aware person obliged to find, between the little frivolities and escapes of civilization -- and the massive threats to it which make one think it's a dereliction of duty not to focus forevermore on politics and war? On the mere survival of human possessions like the Gospels or the idea of murder being wrong? Here are some of the birds of Kenya. For example. 

And yes, I want you to cook amazing food and drink amazing wine. I want you to savor the Turkish rose botanicals in Nolet's gin. Would you believe, once in a while very kind p.r. people still contact me to ask whether my readers would be interested in a certain product? Then, I presume, they open a new tab and get a look at Pluot, and they email again asking, Um, what other publications are you writing for? 

Have you ever read much about astronomy? Have you ever read Astronomy magazine? 
Supermassive black holes blast matter into their host galaxies with X-ray-emitting winds traveling at up to one-third the speed of light. In the new study, astronomers determined PDS 456, an extremely bright black hole known as a quasar more than 2 billion light-years away, sustains winds that carry more energy every second than is emitted by more than a trillion Suns (Astronomy, February 20, 2015).
That's fine. It's also meaningless knowledge, except that human beings know it. And except that knowing it, like knowing a few Kenyan birds, may be more important than anything else. Art and science, escape and frivolity. In order to grasp that, you have to turn around and grasp that there is something better than and outside politics, something a civilized politics should leave one free to know. I think it was John Adams who said he fought the American Revolution so that his son would be free to do politics, and his son devote himself to the arts. But politics -- or whatever it is now, that random triumphalist scolding -- seems to invade all and shrivel all. Your Easter brunch, wine seminars, doctor visits and everything. Even astronomers clamor at the doors of global warming, begging for someone to notice them. For power. 

Here I pipe up about terribly serious things, even though to do so makes me feel like a pill. It seems so  disjointed, so single-issue. The botanicals in gin are more fun. But they do it, they pipe up all the time ....  

I chanced to watch thirty seconds of the movie Platoon recently. It was just at the scene when Willem Dafoe looks up into the murmuring jungle dusk and says, "We're gonna lose this war. We've been kicking other people's ass so long, I guess we got it coming." There, I suppose, lies the entire thrust of American politics for the last forty years. Politics, again, in the sense of your hipster nephew's pronunciamentos at family parties, not in the sense of foreign policy necessarily. Who knew Oliver Stone would have that much power? And I will admit: thirty seconds of Platoon teaches that if nothing else, the beauty of the single life is that you don't have to feign a pleased interest at this, too. And then discuss it. You can switch off the t.v. and go to bed. 

Last, and it is terribly serious, do you think it's likely that Ambassador Christopher Stevens died of something else besides smoke inhalation at the embassy in Benghazi on September 11, 2012? I have Facebook friends who post links attesting that it was worse than that, but I must admit these friends have a rather gamy taste in "likes" and links. No respectable source I know has ever raised the possibility. Still. Is some other cause of death likely? Is it likely we will never be permitted to know? Is it likely that previous generations of Americans would have demanded to know and would have been answered? Is it likely that the woman responsible for broadcasting the ambassador's whereabouts, ignoring pleas for help, and then swearing repeatedly afterward that his killers must have been provoked by an amateur movie, and then for infamously asking What Difference At This Point It All Makes -- is it likely that she will be the next President? Is it likely the ambassador never should have been there, negotiating "freedom fighting" and "nation building" with people who don't want either? Possibly, yes. All of the above. 

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