So now Trump really is the president. I was astonished and appalled when he got the nomination, and thought it only guaranteed that Hillary would win. I was more astonished when he won the election, and was only pleased by the result because it meant that Hillary would not be president. Since then, I've heard or read a number of people saying things like "I no longer recognize my country." I don't think they really mean it. It's the striking of a pose, a way of saying "I'm very upset." But to one who did really mean it I could only say "You never knew your country."
Donald Trump is thoroughly American, as American as...well, apple pie doesn't really do anymore, does it? I believe the phrase at one time was "Mom's apple pie." The average American mother has no time and probably little inclination to bake an apple pie, and very likely doesn't know how. So let's say Donald Trump is as American as...as P.T. Barnum. As Hollywood. As reality TV. As Disneyland. As SUVs. As professional sports. Mega-churches. Yellow journalism. Buzzfeed and the Drudge Report. Talk radio and the New York Times. Al Sharpton. Al Gore. Starbucks. Google and Netflix. Rock-and-roll. A 10-million-word tax code.
Any useful discussion of this country has to take into account the fact that we're crazy.
But admittedly, it is extraordinary that someone like Trump is president. I don't expect him to be a good president; in fact I expect him to make a mess. But I hope he surprises me again.
Something that struck me in his inaugural address was the extent to which much of it reminded me of Obama. Not in its specifics, of course, and not in its tone, but in its assertion that this is an unprecedented and almost mystical moment, and that from this point on all our problems will begin to be resolved by the sheer personal power of the speaker. Take this sentence, for instance:
That all changes -- starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment: it belongs to you.
Very Obama-like. And he goes on to promise changes which are not in the power of the president to make. From that broad perspective, both presidencies appear to be symptoms of a general movement toward a belief that government, and specifically the presidency, is the most important reality in society, the one that has the power both to cause and to solve our biggest problems, to save us from ourselves (or rather, in the minds of all too many people, the enemies in the other party). There's a longing for a king-messiah that exists on both sides of the political divide. It is far from what our founders intended, in fact is something they feared, and apart from that it is unwise, and apart from that it is unworkable. It will lead to more disappointment, anger, and polarization--the same things that helped make Trump's victory possible. We are flung out into the extremes: unbalanced nationalism on the one hand, unbalanced anti-nationalism on the other. And so on.
Show me a citizen of the world and I'll show you someone who probably doesn't like his own people very much.
As American as Star Wars. I saw Rogue One last week. It's enjoyable if you like that sort of thing, and especially if you like the original Star Wars--I mean not just the original trilogy but the first of the three in particular (which is still my favorite)--because it tells the story of how the plans for the Death Star got into the hands of Princess Leia. Thus it brings the action up very close to the point where the original film begins. It's also somewhat in the spirit of the original, and for that matter even resembles it in plot, beginning with evil descending on an isolated farm on an out-of-the-way planet.
A few things that struck me:
Seems like most of the episodes at some point have a scene that takes place within a wretched hive of scum and villainy which has a pronounced middle-eastern feel, or perhaps I should say a Hollywood notion of a middle-eastern feel. This seems a bit odd. Why would planets in a civilization that can travel among the stars always have dusty marketplaces thronged with people in robes jostling and haggling? Is this not culturally insensitive?
And why are those fully-armored storm troopers so very easy to kill? Or to disable with one blow from the fist or foot of a slender young woman who probably weighs 110 pounds at most?
This episode has a battle scene which is apparently meant to recall the final scenes of the original, when the Death Star is attacked. I was struck in 1977 and still am by how much the spaceship combat scenes resemble WWII air combat scenes in old movies. And in fact the whole structure of the Empire and the rebellion against it is very much a reprise of the fight against the Nazis as rendered in post-war movies, only with space-opera trappings. This is not the only movie (or movies) for which that holds. And it occurs to me that that struggle has become fixed in our minds as a sort of archetype of noble war. But the totalitarianism which is the enemy in that archetype did not exist until a few decades into the 20th century. Sure, there were always tyrants, and noble struggles against them. But this idea of the enemy as one giant inhuman machine, with its anonymous and absolutely obedient hordes of troops, and the cold, haughty, and ruthless commanders who are also absolutely obedient (and in fear of) some equally cold and haughty and ruthless superior--I think that's something new, at least in degree. More realistic films don't do it so thoroughly as Star Wars, but the flavor is there in almost any drama that pits some hero or heroine against a government (or big corporation).
Princess Leia appears briefly at the end, and the filmmakers somehow gave her the face of the young Carrie Fisher. I was oddly and surprisingly touched by that, as I had been by her recent death. In trying to figure out why, I concluded that it was partly because the original movie had seemed such a breath of fresh air to me. I remember very well the night my wife and I had gone to see some other movie--I have no idea what it was now--and saw the Star Wars preview. We looked at each other and said "We have to see that." And we did, and it was delightful.
The '70s had been a fairly dark time in some ways, a come-down from the crisis of the '60s and at the same time a sort of consolidation and solidification of some of the more negative things, and movies especially had grown considerably darker: the Dirty Harry movies, for instance, and more artsy works like Taxi Driver. And for me personally it had been a difficult period. Star Wars was a complete departure from all that, with its young and brave heroes and heroine and its simple (or simplistic) war of good and evil. It was also witty and imaginative, which may be hard to remember now that it's become such a part of our culture. It was simple fun, but it also celebrated virtue with no irony at all.
This picture was taken in our local independent bookstore. It's not very clear, because I was trying not to be noticed and took it hastily. In case you can't read the names, the ones in the top row are Darwin, Einstein, and Austen. I think I see John Lennon and Poe in the second row.
These struck me initially as slightly annoying, and then as rather pathetic, like those Darwin-fish stickers that put Darwin in the place of Jesus. I always want to ask what sort of salvation Darwin is supposed to offer us. Deliverance from superstition, I suppose? But then what?