The Characteristics of Mediocrity

The origin of the term “mediocrity” can be found in the two Latin words, “medi,” meaning “halfway’ and “ocrity,” meaning “mountain.”  The concept is that of  someone or something that is average or unexceptional in a hierarchical environment. Mediocrities do not rise to the level of excellence, but neither do they fall into the category of failure.  The other element of the term implied in this definition is the behavioral property that mediocrities possess as a group: their decisions and actions tend to be restricted not  by internal judgment, but by  the least common denominator of social convention.

Putting these two ideas  together, we can infer that a mediocrity is an individual who is so indistinguishable from others as to render him or her a nonentity, but at the same time, whose behavior ironically does not necessarily conform to generally accepted  conventions of decency.  In fact, in many sets of circumstances, it describes  someone so  devoid of ethical standards as to place the mediocrity’s actions or words significantly outside the normal range of appropriateness.

In the 2016 election cycle, the Republican party found itself in a dominant position, winning the presidency and majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, to say nothing of governorships and state houses. But, despite this overwhelming vote of confidence bestowed upon these chosen officials by the American electorate, with only one exception, the new government has been unable to enact any  laws embodying its populist promise to ‘’’make America great again.”

The one piece of legislation  proposed by the President and passed by both legislative bodies was the so-called tax-reform bill, which was advertised to the public as a middle class tax cut but which turned out to be a massive boon to corporations and the top one-tenth of one percent of the income distribution at the expense of everyone else.  The bill was passed in record time with no legislative hearings and no transparency as to its content.  Moreover, the resulting ballooning of the country’s budget deficit has jeopardized funding for the long-standing middle class entitlement programs of Social Security and Medicare.

The relevance of these developments is that they have been engineered by mediocrities, individuals  simultaneously lacking any personal mark of distinction themselves as individuals, and yet  capable as a group  of producing destructive outcomes for the very voters that elected them.

One may ask on what basis are we able to so characterize these people?  And, while formulating a response,  the first thing we notice is that the term actually describes  two separate and distinct collections of features,  both of which have a well-developed set of principles that guides their beliefs and behavior.  The active role in this case is played by   the President, an instigator of populist incivility, while the congressional Republican majority in the Senate and House of Representatives have traditionally advocated conservative values that call for limiting the role of Government in the society.

The problem Congressional Republicans now face is that the President is the leader of their party, but his policies, his personal style, and  his behavior directly conflict with their long-held conservative principles.  And while Congressional Republicans may play a passive role in the legislative process, reacting to the President’s actions, they face an ethical dilemma that does not ensnare Congressional Democrats for whom there is no conflict. between their voting decisions and their consciences.

is also true that the new government does not have a monopoly on mediocrity, and that there are plentiful examples of both types in everyday experience, although active mediocrity is more readily observable than passive mediocrity, which involves more of an internal struggle.

So, what are these characteristics that are endemic to active mediocrity?  I believe there are four:  first,  A PROCLIVITY FOR BULLYING;  in the President’s case, this aggressiveness and dearth of empathy has manifested itself against anyone he perceives to be weaker than he is, including his 2016 Democratic opponent, the Intelligence Community, the Justice Department, and selected members of his own party and cabinet. In addition, his communication style rests exclusively on ludicrously extreme claims:  every one he supports is the most accomplished person in his or her fields, and all his actions and ideas are the most important in  the history of the country. More generally, all bullies typically employ these tactics and display hostility as a defense mechanism toward  individuals they perceive as more articulate or more successful than they are.

Second, DEPENDENCE ON A “BLAME THE VICTIM”  STRATEGY; when the President is exposed in one of the many scandals that has marked his time in office, his response has been to lash out at the deliverer of  the information, typically at members of the news media.  And in general, a mediocrity confronted  for bullying activities, will attack the exposer offensively rather than acknowledge any wrongdoing.  The President himself makes his failure to ever issue an apology to anyone a point of personal pride.

Third, DEFENSIVENESS; the President is very sensitive to any criticism and interprets it as an indicator of disloyalty.  And mediocrities generally are unable to acknowledge their condition or address it honestly. The root cause is a lack of self-esteem, and this deficiency then prevents them from seeking out trustworthy confidants, which itself leaves them vulnerable to the commission of avoidable mistakes.

And fourth, RELIANCE ON THE APPROVAL OF A RESPECTABLE ENABLER;  For the President, his appearance of legitimacy hinges on someone close to him to play the role of “the adult in the room.”  The problem is that most of the individuals who have performed this function have been revealed to have their own “feet of clay.”  The President’s claim for respectability currently rests with that of his Secretary of Defense.

Moreover, within the group dynamics of any social setting inhabited by a mediocrity, there is always one other individual, who has acquired the respect of the larger group,  that  makes it a priority to overlook the mediocrity’s shortcomings and defend that person against all criticism,  in the same way that the President’s base of supporters remain staunchly loyal to him and deaf to the outrageousness of his statements and actions.

The characteristics of passive mediocrity may, in some cases, overlap with those of active mediocrity, but there are two features whose description applies uniquely to the passive variety, as best illustrated by the legislative members in the Republican majority.  I believe there are two of these features:

First, OBSEQIOUSNESS, the particular form of dishonesty practiced by passive mediocrities as  a reflection of disrespect for an authority figure;  It usually takes the form of a not-very-credible show of support for a particular idea expressed by an active mediocrity, motivated by a hope of personal gain for themselves.  The most subtle application of obsequiousness occurs when the dishonest show of support lacks sincerity in a fairly transparent manner, permitting the passive mediocrity some small degree of dignity, especially when the expected gain turns out to be illusory.

Republican Senators and Congressmen practice obsequiousness when they praise the President’s leadership role in crafting his meanspirited agenda, and they barely acknowledge that in spite of their numerical advantage, most of it has not become law.  More generally, passive mediocrities utilize obsequiousness to disguise an absence of self-confidence during interactions with an authority figure.

And, second, AN EXCESSIVE CAPACITY FOR COMPROMISE:  As mentioned earlier, Republicans possess a well-developed ideology as to the proper way to conduct themselves in life.  Both liberals and conservatives adhere to the conviction that the democratic form of government is the most effective way to organize the lives of its citizens.  In fact, the United States has fought and won wars against authoritarian regimes whose leadership believed that the personal freedom of its citizens should be limited. The subtle philosophical difference between Democrats and Republicans revolves around the role of government in furthering the cause of democracy, with Republicans favoring less interference with market forces, and Democrats believing government should play a more proactive economic role.

Given this background, every citizen of the United States, and most especially those who have been elected to serve in higher office, should, regardless of their views on this philosophical issue, be united about the appropriate response to to the behavior of this President, who embodies the very spirit of authoritarianism (to say nothing of incompetence.)  But, while 100% of the Democrats in the Senate and the House of Representatives have done so in both their voting records and in their spoken words, the number of Republican office-holders with the integrity to express their disapproval of this state of affairs has been very small, and, until recently, could be counted on the fingers of one hand.  The question posed by this expression of passive mediocrity is “Why?”

All adult human beings are confronted at least once in their lives, regardless  of their race, their religion, their sex, or any other defining property, with a conflict between the set of underlying beliefs that define who they are,  and the immediate circumstances in which they find themselves.  The resulting ethical dilemma, in which they feel themselves torn in opposite directions by these two overwhelming forces is considered by many to represent the defining moment of their lives.

In the case of Congressional Republicans, there would normally be no conflict, as supporting a Republican President and adhering to conservative principles would amount to the same thing.  But this President was elected by the minority of voters who had become disillusioned with established politicians and responded positively to his political inexperience and his populist style  under the Republican banner.  So, what, then, does it mean to be a Republican?  Is it this President’s party, or does it still represent the traditional conservative values (the ones the voting public rejected?)

Congressional  Republicans have found different ways to answer this question.  Some have explicitly compromised their principles and reluctantly supported the President, unable  to withstand the assault of his bullying tactics, while others have succumbed to the Stockholm syndrome and embraced him enthusiastically. Still others think they have found a way to  retain their integrity by speaking out against the President, but then simultaneously announcing their intention not to seek reelection in the coming term.  This latter tactic may be safe, but it is also cowardly and costly.  Nevertheless, it has become the method of choice for Congressional Republicans to resolve their conundrum. When the Republican Speaker of the House recently followed this path, he was the 40thRepublican office-holder to do so.

An example that illustrates an instance of passive mediocrity beyond that of current political personalities is the case of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the province of Judea during  the reign of the Emperor Tiberius in the 1st century.  In his capacity as chief magistrate, it was Pilate’s responsibility to determine the innocence or guilt of Jesus of Nazareth on the charge of treason to the Roman Empire.

Pilate had a conflict of interest between his loyalty to Rome and his need to mollify the Sanhedrin Jewish Council, an important interest group in his jurisdiction.  Based on his examination of the evidence and his questioning of the defendant, he found no credible evidence to support the charge, but the Sanhedrin  leaders, fearful of Jesus’s challenge to their authority, called for his conviction and execution.  Then, because of a tradition of freeing one convict on a feast day, Pilate washed his hands of the matter and offered to follow the wish of the large Jewish crowd that had gathered.  Unfortunately, the crowd  chose to commute the sentence of a thief and  murderer rather than to show mercy to Jesus, and so, in spite of the unfavorable optics, Pilate ordered him to be crucified.

In the Broadway musical production Jesus Christ Superstar, composed by Andrew Lloyd Weber, the character of Pilate reviews his conflicted thoughts about these matters in a dream he recounts.  Here are those lyrics:

“I dreamed I met a Galilean,
A most amazing man.
He had that look you very rarely find:
The haunting, hunted kind.

I asked him to say what had happened,
How it all began.
I asked again, he never said a word,
As if he hadn’t heard.

And next, the room was filled with wild and angry men.
They seemed to hate this man.
They fell on him, and then
Disappeared again.

Then I saw thousands of millions
Crying for this man.
And then I heard them mentioning my name,
And leaving me the blame.”

Pilate’s dream explains why this man, with the appearance of an important Roman Governor, was really just a passive mediocrity.  He admits to being impressed with the manner and demeanor of Jesus and recognizes the disfavor Jesus has earned with the established Jewish authorities and the cost he has already paid for retaining his integrity.

From his own examination of the evidence, he knows Jesus is innocent of the trumped-up charges against him, but he is willing to put that belief aside to placate the desires of a powerful interest group.  He hopes to satisfy them without disturbing his conscience by obsequiously  taking advantage of the feast day exception, but the plan backfires when the crowd makes the wrong choice, and he must then execute an innocent man.

In the final verse of his dream, Pilate looks out into the future and sees that this person over whom he has made his failed compromise will one day be the originator of a whole new religion with billions of followers, inspired not by a rigid set of rules, but by the faith that God can see into each person’s heart  and ascertain their actions’ degree of justice, so that no transgression would ever again be judged unconditionally  unforgivable. And as an afterthought, Pilot also sees that he himself will be remembered, if at all, as the mediocrity that gave the order to crucify that remarkable person.

 

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It May Be a Man’s World, But I Don’t have to Like It

I just finished reading Paul’s sister Linda’s tell-all memoir, It’s Perfectly Normal, and I was so impressed at the skill with which she expressed herself in what was her second contribution to this series of stories that I found myself whooping “Brava,” at her ability to successfully negotiate her second story.  This is Booboo DiStefano, a one-time main squeeze of Paul’s.   My nickname, you might recall from my own earlier story, I’m Breaking Down, was the result of my parents’ forgetting to use birth control nine months before I made my appearance on the scene.  I’m Breaking Down itself was an application of what might be termed “Dickensonian Intertextuality”, in that its plot was inspired by a Charles Dickenson short story “Bill Boston”, transferred into a setting relevant to myself and Paul.  But upon reflection, I realize that, like Linda, I also have another story to tell, and so, following her lead and expressing it in a phrase very much in the news these days, I say “me too.”

While Linda’s narrative is more about her own personal struggles with insecurity and the resulting penchant for self-deception which accompanies them, my own thoughts are motivated by a reaction to some fundamental organizing principles that dictate how human societies operate.  Similarly, while Linda felt the need to utilize the “macguffin” of a dead cat named Quandary to articulate her ideas for her, I choose to speak directly to the reader without the need for an intermediary.  My message is very straightforward:  The world is roughly evenly divided between men and women in terms of their numbers, their native intelligence, and their desire to lead fulfilled lives, but with regard to anything else, the two sexes are decidedly unequal.  Although women are the ones who possess the capability to reproduce other human beings through the sexual act, in most societies men tend to dominate positions of authority in the workplace, so much so that women who spent their lives in tasks other than raising children were, until fairly recently, viewed as an anomaly.

It might be worthwhile to consider the source of this inequality.  Since men are typically physically stronger than women, they may feel that this advantage gives them license to treat women as their possessions.  Moreover, since possessions can be bought or sold without consideration for the feelings of the owned object, daughters often find themselves under the control of their fathers, in some cultures are not permitted free choice of their romantic involvements, and historically, could be sold to a suitor for the price of a dowry. This confluence of economics and the sexual act is also the basis for sexual harassment, where a man in a position of authority can coerce a woman into performing sexually against her will in return for granting her some small advancement in her status.    Once married, many women are expected to be subservient to their husbands, taking the lead in raising the children, keeping the house, and supporting the breadwinner in his career.

This difference between men and women also carries over into the bedroom, since the sexual act may be interpreted differently by the two sexes. Under what condition, for instance, is the sexual act even permissible?  Must the two people be married?  What if they aren’t married, but they believe they are in love?  Or what if they aren’t sure they’re in love, but they feel a powerful attraction for one another, and the anticipation of pleasure lures them into a sexual encounter?   If a man’s internal chemistry combines with a belief that a particular woman belongs to him, he might be more likely than the woman to gravitate towards the less restrictive end of this permissibility scale, and an episode that begins as a mutual desire for pleasure could turn into an occasion of rape, in which the man’s need to assert his dominance  interferes with his capability to hear the woman’s insistence that his attentions are unwanted.

Now, when I knew Paul, I think he was in love with me and always treated me with the greatest respect, but I wanted to keep things casual.  He actually asked me to marry him, but I turned him down, since I took him literally, but not seriously, while he took me seriously but not literally.   Part of my reason was that I was angry about these matters I’ve been discussing here, that society doesn’t treat women fairly, so I wasn’t interested in marriage then, and – I’ll admit it – I wanted revenge.   A psychiatrist once analyzed me and concluded I was afflicted with something called the “Turandot Syndrome,” and I believed it was payback time.  I’m sure Paul would have made me extremely happy and been a great husband and father, but he was too good a human being to be subjected to the kind of shabby treatment I had in mind for my future husband.  I later learned Paul married the woman who was his long-term soul mate.  Eventually, someone else proposed to me and since, like my two sisters, I wanted to have three children, I accepted, but almost from the get go, I was unfaithful to him.  Even though this particular man might have been an innocent bystander, as a representative of the male sex, he got just what was coming to him.  Then, one evening, he made passionate love to me all night, and then awoke the next morning to the realization that he was really “gay.”  Our subsequent divorce derived from our irreconcilable differences.

I think what riles me up the most about the way women are treated is the hypocrisy of it all.  Led by their collective Johnsons, the superficial jerks that most men are lose all sense of decorum around a pretty face or a shapely figure and fall all over themselves to put these specimens on a pedestal for the price of a friendly smile.  And if a man isn’t a complete boor and holds the door of an elevator open for a woman to enter first, it is cold comfort when that same man is paid more money for doing the same job she does.  Of course, we women are probably no angels ourselves, taking advantage of these blockheads’ weak egos to manipulate them through flattery, but this behavior is really pretty shortsighted on our part, since by acting this way, we never acknowledge to ourselves the fundamental unfairness of it all.

I feel I should mention the other man in my life, who I knew before both Paul and my husband. He was a little older and more sophisticated than the boys I knew in high school, and you could say he was really responsible for opening me up emotionally.  His parents had christened him after a Frederic Weatherly Irish ballad, and when I met him I was still a teenager.  He was the first man to ever treat me like an adult and he told me how beautiful I was.  He would always buy me expensive presents and so, feeling beholden to him, I agreed to let him be the first man to ever make love to me.     After that we began meeting in the afternoons after class for sexual encounters, and I became pretty comfortable around him, and because he treated me so respectfully, I considered it like we were going steady.  Meanwhile, he continued to compliment me, telling me what a great kisser I was and that I had a beautiful body. Although I might not care to put it on my resume, what girl doesn’t want her man to appreciate her infrastructure?

Gradually, though, he began pushing the edge of the envelope, suggesting we experiment with more and more unusual activities.  He never insisted on anything, so I didn’t feel I was doing something wrong or against my will, and so I let his imagination set the agenda.  The first time was when he asked me to pose for a series of nude photographs to show off that beautiful body of mine.  Since it seemed like an exciting idea and I wanted to please him, and because I couldn’t think of a reason not to do it, I agreed. In the days to come, we would occasionally review my portfolio as a means of putting ourselves in the right mood to make love.

On another occasion, though, after complimenting me on my great-looking caboose, he wanted to put his Johnson up my bum, and, citing my exceptional kissing capabilities, putting it down my throat (although not in that order.)  At the time, I went along with these initiations into the realm of “rough sex,”  because I felt I owed him proof of my affection in light of the attention he had lavished on me and that my carrying on a relationship with him was evidence of my consent.  But eventually, my thinking evolved and I came to understand these unnatural practices as a form of rape by a man who obviously believed he had an ownership claim on me and was entitled to dominate me.  Once I realized that, I knew it was time to move on, so I ended the relationship.  Later, after I told Paul I couldn’t marry him, I gave birth to a son, who I wanted to name after him after.  But then I realized that this other man could learn of my decision and be angry about it, and since I didn’t want my family to one day be able to see my nude pictures on the internet, I felt the safest thing to do was  to just name the baby after this  other man I had known in high school.

One of the most unfair things about the way I and other women are treated is society’s differential response to sexual relationships.  Men are congratulated, often in lewd terms as good old boys, while women are disparaged as immoral sluts for performing the same identical acts, and this prejudice is embedded throughout the culture.  This hypocritical double standard, by which a woman’s choices of who to love, are regarded as shameful, while a man’s shenanigans are seen as something to boast about, can be listened to in popular songs or watched on television and in movies.  The portrayals of women in the genre of modern Rock music are among the most degrading imaginable.

I didn’t want to sign off before putting in my two cents about the 2016 election and what’s happened in the country since then.  It was clear that the two parties were suffering from temporary insanity when they both chose to nominate such laughably inappropriate candidates as Clinton and Trump, making voters decide which one was the lesser of the two evils.  Given everything I’ve told you so far about the how the society mistreats women, you might expect that I voted for Clinton, the woman candidate in the race, especially after Trump’s misogyny was revealed in that Hollywood Access tape. After all, America is the only western democracy that has not had a woman leader.  But, although she was a woman, it was clear to me that she was the wrong woman, enabling her husband to think with his Johnson, juggling mistresses for years, while she turned a blind eye to pursue her political ambitions.  In addition, her arrogant sense of self-entitlement, as well as her hypocritical dishonesty and corruption led me to conclude that the efforts of women to redress the issues I have been cataloging here would be set back many years by her representing herself as the sincere women’s candidate.

Meanwhile, although I certainly wasn’t fooled by his obnoxious style of bullying opponents, his preying on women, and the transparent lies in his simplistic, moronic speeches and tweets, I voted with the majority of white women against Clinton and therefore for Trump.   The only person I know of whose decision in 2016 was founded on a sense of integrity was Paul who, for the first time since he was eligible to vote in 1972, chose not to participate in this election.

Of course, when both parties abrogate their responsibility to nominate appropriate candidates, there were bound to be destructive consequences for the country, no matter who won.  In this case, the new Trump administration reflects a number of misunderstandings about the nature of its job, so, to paraphrase the title of one of the many recent books about the new president, the situation is worse than we think.  The driving force behind this government, the president himself, prides himself on his lack of experience, so it is no surprise that the most important feature of its attempts to govern is its incompetence, an inability to pass legislation to implement its policy agenda.  Far from being a problem for average citizens, though, it is actually good news, since, unlike earlier administrations which understood that the role of government was to protect society’s most vulnerable citizens and to redress injustices, this administration seeks to enact policies to further exacerbate wealth inequalities by looting the Treasury for purposes of further enriching its wealthy friends.  In a narrative designed to deflect observers from this goal, Trump and his surrogates keep up a running barrage of misinformation apparently based on the assumption that Americans are too stupid to see through it, and as a result, the information value of his claims is nonexistent.

Other elements of Trump’s first year in office are a marked deterioration in civility, emboldening white supremacists to no longer be reticent about expressing their racist views; an ignorance of the adverse effects of climate change and more generally a lack of respect for scientific research;  and an aggressive stance toward nuclear rivals coupled with an admiration for other authoritarian regimes.  It almost feels like the president of Russia is paying Trump to destroy its traditional rival, the United States, by making America worse again. Of course, given all these developments, it’s a guessing game as to how this goal will be achieved:  Will we be obliterated by a nuclear weapon launched by a rogue nation, or perish from uncontrolled hurricanes, floods, fires or mudslides stemming from global warming, or meet a violent end as collateral damage in a racial conflict?   We can only guess.

I hope I’ve made a convincing argument that the entire female sex finds itself unfairly placed under the domination of men, most of whom are single-mindedly motivated by a preoccupation with satisfying their sexual desires without consideration for the feelings of women.  I have attempted to demonstrate, as a single mother, my disapproval of this state of affairs in my own life by my actions, but should anyone wish to criticize me for those actions, I think they need to ask themselves why is it acceptable for a man to do these things, but not for a woman?  I say we need to fight fire with fire and that men need to receive their just comeuppance.  So, come on, girls, it’s time for us to let men know there’s a new sheriff in town with a fresh perspective on things.  I say that from now on, when they go low, we go lower!

It’s Perfectly Normal

I’m back.  I’m rested.  I’m ready. My name is Linda Viable and I was the narrator of the very first indirect, or Third Person story (in which a narrator tells the reader a story about a third person) my brother Paul ever wrote, called Scare Tactics, in which I trash my mother.  Although Paul later developed this innovative technique in a number of his later stories utilizing increasingly more sophisticated plot lines, I recently reread Scare Tactics, and I found it actually held up pretty well.  Now I’m back by popular demand to be the subject of what is planned to be a Direct, or   First   Person story (in which the narrator communicates his or her story directly to the reader,) featuring yours truly.

I get a little bit of a bad rap from people who know me alleging I’m very secretive.  But my life is really an open book.  So, what is it you want to know?  I was pretty much of an average student in high school.  I didn’t have any special interests or extracurricular activities and certainly no romantic attachments, which my mother would have frowned upon.  My brother must have felt insecure toward me, since he used to belittle me every chance he got for no reason.  Both my brother and I were accepted as legacy children to the Midwest university where my father earned his Ph.D.  As I had wound up taking 4 courses in French in high school, I followed the path of least resistance and majored in French, developing my expertise in conjugating French verbs.  In contrast, I don’t know what his problem was, but Paul dropped out of school after his first year and bounced around for a while before finding his sea legs and going back to college at the State University of New York.

One of the downside consequences of my not really having taken ownership of any meaningful specialized knowledge or skill during my college career was that I was completely unqualified to hold a job upon graduation.  I had moved back to my parent’s house in suburban Maryland, and I would scour the classified ad pages of the newspaper every day in search of employment.  One day, I hit pay dirt:  a big government agency located a short drive from our house, responsible for monitoring the nation’s weather patterns was hiring candidates in entry level positions, describing it with those three little words that every French major longs to hear, “no experience required.”   The job was tailor-made for me:  the personnel department just needed to verify that I had a B.A. degree from a legitimate university and that I didn’t have a criminal record, and before I knew it, I was gainfully employed.

I still don’t know what it was I did there every day.  I guess the Agency is what you would call a bureaucracy.  Thousands of people worked there, but I only knew my supervisor and the few people in my immediate group.  My job description was to show up at 9 A.M., leave at 5 P.M., eat lunch in the middle of the day, and perform whatever meaningless tasks they told me to do the rest of the time.  I can no longer recall the exact content of these things, but I suppose they were no more purposeless than conjugating French verbs.

The important turning point in my life occurred after I had been working there about a year when they sent around a memo telling us that they were moving the headquarters of the agency to Boulder, Colorado, and anyone choosing not to move would be laid off.  There may well have been employees there for whom, because of their children’s schools or their spouse’s job, this announcement represented a catastrophe.  But for me, who had no particular allegiance to the Maryland location, it was an opportunity for adventure.  I hadn’t even finished reading the memo when I told my supervisor I wanted to go.

Although my official duties required for the job remained unchanged following my relocation to Boulder, there was something about the fresh air in the new environment that really encouraged me to blossom and break out of the rut I had drifted into.  I gradually developed the perspective that the true significance of my job, with its perquisites of paid vacations and vested pension benefits, was to provide the home base and the source of funding to enable me to live my actual new life, which would now consist of previously unexplored interests and activities that were fun to do.

One of the interests I developed there was encouraged by a couple women in my apartment complex who used to drop by for coffee occasionally.  We were sitting in my kitchen one evening when one of them asked if I had any vivid memories from my childhood I could describe.  After reflecting for a moment, I recalled the time my father arranged a boat ride for the family to celebrate my mother’s birthday.  The trip was going along fine, and we were interacting with the other passengers, when I’m afraid I inadvertently ruined everything by getting seasick.  My mother begged the captain to turn the boat around and return to shore, but he refused, citing the interests of the other passengers.  When she told him sadly it was her birthday, the other passengers mocked her by singing Happy Birthday to her.

Both women told me I had recounted the story so well that we should start a storytelling group, where we would meet once a month, and one of us would have responsibility for telling a story and leading a discussion about it afterwards.  They each added that they knew other women who would be interested in participating.  And so, my interest in storytelling began.  I think we had 9 or 10 members eventually, and we shared stories that mostly originated from actual events, but the element which turned them into interesting stories that held the audience’s attention was the judicious use of the raconteur’s imagination.  My own stories I employed to regale the group might have begun with specific events involving my family while I was growing up, but I craftily tilted the plots so as to present myself in the most favorable light.

Once the genie was out of the bottle, however, I’m afraid my imagination took on a life of its own.  The most egregious example of this development had to do with my use of the social media platform known as Facebook.  In it, users can utilize their I-phones and computers to post observations, photos, and videos to all their followers as a group (it is not really designed for private communications the way emails and text messages are, so that what readers see is a jumble of disconnected messages from unrelated users seemingly talking past one another.)  In my case, I opened up two Facebook accounts, one in my name, and the other in the name of my cat, Quandary.  Most of my posts were in Quandary’s name, so, for instance, if I wanted to communicate something about myself to my readers, I would have Quandary post the information.  A problem arose when Quandary died, but I have adapted to this temporary setback not by cancelling Quandary’s account, but simply by signing his posts “Q Spirit.”  Of course, casual readers unfamiliar with my eccentricities might literally be in something of a “quandary” themselves reading this material, but I figure that’s their problem.  It’s only an issue for the minority of Facebook readers who are laboring under delusion that posted messages are supposed to communicate meaningful information.

It is true that I occasionally worry that my overactive imagination may one day completely get the better of me, and I might unconsciously slip into a state of mind from which I can no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy – a condition that economic growth theorists and elevator operators refer to as “deep overshooting.”  When I find myself overly concerned about this possibility, I try to keep in mind that it is my constitutional right to base my ideas on an alternative set of facts, even if I am playing with a deck of only 51 cards.   I’m sure my role model, President Trump, doesn’t let a
little annoyance like reality get in his way.

Besides my new interests, I have also found new activities to amuse myself with in my new adopted home, most of which stem from the fact that I am surrounded by the Rocky Mountains.  I tried skiing, but I quickly concluded it was much too dangerous.  On the other hand, mountain climbing, for the most part, doesn’t suffer from this disadvantage.  And, after developing my skill on less challenging peaks, I soon graduated to more difficult heights, and I now hold the Boulder record for the largest number of “fourteeners,” or successful scaling of mountains with elevations of 14,000 feet or greater.

Since I had no previous experience with mountain climbing, you might wonder what special preparation I had to undergo to ensure my readiness for these ordeals.  I’ll tell you, to get myself emotionally in the right frame of mind, I seek out inspiration from movies I have seen, which can also pay big dividends in a pinch if I’m stuck for a story to tell in my group.  Now, personally, my two favorite movies are the under-appreciated  masterpieces Willard and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but for its sheer manipulative power, you can’t do better than The Verdict, starring my dreamboat Paul Newman as attorney Frank Galvin (if that surname sounds familiar, it’s because my brother gave it to his central character in his novel In My Mind’s Eye.)

In the movie, Galvin is hired to prosecute the case of a large Catholic hospital and two world renown physicians, defended by an expensive team of lawyers, for malpractice in the incapacitation of one of their patients.  Galvin proceeds to make one error in judgment after another and at one point is convinced he will lose the case and ruin his already-shaky career.  But then, he pulls a rabbit out of a hat, tracks down a missing witness who was the admitting nurse on that day, takes advantage of errors on the part of the judge and the lead defense counsel, and pulls off something of a miracle, winning the case against all odds.

My inspiration is drawn from Galvin’s summation to the jury.  In it, he talks about how most of the time we are just lost, that witnessing dishonesty and corruption takes its toll on people and can make them doubt themselves and doubt the law.  “But today,” he says, “You are the law.  In my religion, we are taught that to have faith, you need only act as if you have faith, and it will be given to you.  To have faith in justice, you need only to have faith in yourself that you can act with justice.  I believe we have justice in our hearts.”  I tell myself these words when I’m having an exhausting struggle with one of my fourteeners.

During this time, I began branching out and taking advantage of the agency’s generous paid vacation policy to visit a number of foreign countries, sometimes to try my hand at mountain climbing there.   I know that Paul and his wife also do a lot of travelling and, in fact, I recently learned they were in England at the same time as I was, but I didn’t try to get in touch with them.  After his wife phoned me to ask why I had dodged them, I  first pleaded ignorance, but later I began to warm up to the idea that maybe I had been judging Paul too harshly all these years.  One thing led to another, and we arranged for me to visit for a few days this summer.  I was a little nervous about it since I’m now getting a little long in the tooth, and, with my long gray hair, I am no longer recognizable as the cute brunette on my Facebook page.

Paul does not have a very good memory, so I like to ridicule him about it by saying “Paul?  This is Linda, your sister,” whenever I telephone him.  No matter how many times I call, I always say the same thing. Paul has been very successful in the business world and has become quite a philanthropist in his old age, leaving money in his will to be disbursed after he and his wife die for funding several medical research grants at a local hospital and also a chaired professorship at the university where he earned his Ph.D.  I asked him impetuously if I was included in his will, but he had to tell me that although I was included in an earlier version, it became obsolete after he got married.  Incidentally, I’m something of a philanthropist myself.  As Q spirit announced on Facebook, “The storytellers league was soliciting contributions, so Linda coughed up twenty bucks.”

Paul’s wife had bought us tickets for an unusual concert which featured a segment of a rare kinescope performance by Alberta Hunter, who was a famous Jazz singer from the early 1920’s to the late 1950’s, when she stopped performing and worked the next 20 fears as a nurse, only to come out of retirement in the late 1970’s and resume her singing career. I knew the tickets had to be expensive, so I said I could not accept their generosity unless they permitted me to reimburse them for my ticket.   Don’t get me wrong – I was not offering to treat them to the concert or anything like that, only to pay for myself.  As I explained to them, since I was not as wealthy as they were, this was the only gesture I could make to show my appreciation for their hospitality.  When I said this, though, they looked puzzled and asked, if that were true, how could I go on all those trips to foreign countries?  But, I told them I always flew economy class, stayed in cheap rooming houses, and, since I had no friends, I took my meals alone in my room.  I don’t know if they tried to square my claims with my active participation on Facebook, but I could tell they knew I was lying, which made the discussion very awkward.  Oh, President Trump, where are you when I need you?

The concert was quite good, and the Alberta Hunter segment, in which she sang something called “Without A Song,”, was composed by Richard Fusilier. It was very moving, and she introduced it with the observation, “They don’t write them like this anymore.”

Here are the lyrics:

Without a song, the day would never end
Without a song, the road would never bend
When things go wrong a man ain’t got a friend
Without a song

That field of corn would never see a plow
That field of corn would be deserted now
A man is born but he’s no good no how
Without a song

I’ve got my troubles and woe and sure as I know the Jordan will roll
And I’ll get along as long as a song is strong in my soul

I’ll never know what makes the rain to fall
I’ll never know what makes that grass so tall
I only know there ain’t no love at all
Without a song.

The performance forced me to ask myself difficult questions that left me feeling uncomfortable.  I realized that maybe I really am secretive with people I know but can’t take them into my confidence for fear they’ll see I’m really too comfortable playing fast and loose with the truth.  What Alberta Hunter sang was that there are already too many limitations in our lives, so we probably shouldn’t add to that number by choosing to keep the trustworthy people we know at arm’s length.

I’m not sure I did a very good job of patching things up with Paul; probably, the least negative judgment about me they could come to was that I was a real piece of work.  Naturally, there was an exchange of emails afterwards, saying how wonderful it was to see one another and that they would plan to visit me in Boulder next time, but we didn’t give a time frame for that.  I’ve tried to recall everything from my visit as well as everything else that I’ve included in my discussion here, and I honestly don’t think I’ve done anything wrong or peculiar.  It all seems perfectly normal to me.

 

The Consequence of Destroying Meaning in the English Language

A typical conversation about any everyday experience, these days, commonly goes like this:
“That was amazing.”
“I agree.  It was just incredible.”

Notice that the words “amazing” and “incredible” are used interchangeably as synonyms, despite their having distinct, well-defined meanings of their own.   “Amazing” actually means out-of-the ordinary and is therefore synonymous with “Remarkable.”  In contrast, “Incredible” means “Not Believable,” and therefore literally suggests that the second speaker is accusing the first one of distorting the truth.

An important implication of this continual misuse of these words is a degradation of the language, ultimately creating a permanent separation between words and the true meanings they were designed to communicate.  After all, if every mundane observation is categorized in common speech as amazing or incredible by large segments of the population (indicating something extremely positive or extremely negative) these terms quickly forfeit any meaning and are no longer capable of communicating something that is truly amazing or incredible.

The true meaning of these words, however, can still be understood by gaining an appreciation of their historical usage.  The best example can be found in the hymn “Amazing Grace,” which effectively communicates the power of the word that has been consigned to triviality in our modern culture.  That power is reflected in its lyrics

Amazing Grace
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I’m found,
Was blind but now I see.

These words have been used in a wide variety of circumstances to express the despair of lost hope in the wake of some specific adversity, and the weight that is lifted by the unexpected appearance of a force that restores the suffering party to his or her previous state of lucidity.

The flagrant disregard for the use of language to communicate truth in preference for exaggerated and extreme statements does not stop with everyday experiences.  Food, for instance, doesn’t merely taste good, but every culinary event is “delicious.”  Of course, if every meal is delicious, meaning extremely tasty, then nothing is truly delicious.  So, “delicious” has become the new “amazing.”  Similarly, some occurrence that the lemmings in our society perceive as very positive is now labeled as “awesome.”  In reality, awesomeness is very rare, but in our culture, “awesome” has become the new “incredible.”

Other uses of language that would have had the potential for meaningful communication in a more authentic context are now employed ubiquitously in a way that reduce them to superficial exchanges, where all participants express themselves in empty chatter, neither seeking nor giving any real information.  The most egregious examples are the universal question, “How are you?” followed by the universal command, “Have a good day.”   Vis-à-vis the question, everyone responds “Good,” regardless of how they really feel, with the understanding that the inquirer really doesn’t care how they are and would be put off by an honest answer.  Similarly, whether the respondent proceeds to have a good day after the encounter is independent of the command that he or she do so.

In addition, these perverse modes of expression have been adopted in interview situations where one party, the interrogator, is seeking information about some topic from another party, who is credited with having expert knowledge on the subject.   In responding to any query, experts will typically begin their answer with the word “So,” implying that their opinions carry the weight of self-evident conclusions and are  not to be questioned.  Responses to any clarifying questions are then initiated with the interjection “Look,” suggesting that the person seeking such additional information has no business doubting the expert’s insightfulness and therefore deserves to be bullied.

At first glance, it might appear that harping on these substitutions of the sloppy usage of words in place of their traditional counterparts might be a case of placing form over substance, like objecting that an adjective was being used as an adverb, or an intransitive verb was being used as a transitive verb.   But there is a deeper, more sinister development that has occurred contemporaneously with this separation of language from meaning and of truth from falsehood that has enabled it to come into being.  This event occurred during the 2016 presidential election cycle in which Republican candidate Trump was elected over Democratic candidate Clinton.  Some of the features that characterize the Trump presidency are often attributed to the president’s unorthodox personal style, but I would argue that those features have been facilitated by the very developments involving the cultural misuse of language that I have identified here.

What are the elements that characterize the Trump presidency?  I believe there are six:  First, COUNTERFACTUALISM, the communication of a narrative to the public that is clearly inconsistent with readily verifiable events; Second, NOVICITY, the complete absence of relevant governing experience on the part of the president and his staff; Third, ELITISM, the drafting of a legislative agenda and the appointment of a cabinet staff chosen to promote the mission of further improving the lot of the extremely wealthy at the expense of minorities and the middle class; Fourth, INCOMPETENCE, to date, the complete inability to enact any element of this agenda; Fifth, RACISM, evidence of a consistent pattern of preferential treatment  for white nationals over minorities;  and Sixth, ISOLATIONISM, the forfeiture of America’s traditional world leadership role through its withdrawal from global organizations and multilateral trade agreements.

The misrepresentation of past and present reality by the president and his representatives is the direct result of the current divorce of words from the truth they were brought into the language to communicate.  These individuals rely heavily on two language fads in particular to implement their message.  First, there is the penchant for exaggeration: Not only are many of their enterprises “amazing” and “incredible,” but everything they do is “great,” while all their opponents’ efforts are “horrible.”  Second, their dependence on superficiality, championing simplistic positions that appeal to a narrow segment of the electorate supported by well-organized lobbyists (such as in the case of the right to bear arms,) or naively explaining, for example, that another country (China) should solve the U.S.’s conflict with a third country (North Korea).

The resulting poor correlation between the president’s pronouncements and any trustworthy information is further exacerbated by his heavy reliance on the social media platform “Twitter” and his representation by particularly uncommunicative communication directors.  The antidote for overcoming these obstacles is the role of a free press, whose job it is to separate truth from fantasy.  Despite the roadblocks news organizations are required to overcome and the barrage of criticism they receive from the administration, they have performed yeoman service, recognizing that their work is the critical element in creating a reliable source of real information in an authoritarian regime.

Two of the other characteristics are closely related: it is almost axiomatic that an administration sadly lacking in governing experience will demonstrate incompetence in accomplishing any legislative goals.  But the more fundamental question is why, with control of the presidency and both houses of congress, the Republican Party is still unable to push through its elitist agenda.  The answer is found in the wisdom the country’s founders, who allowed for the possibility that the public might make poor electoral decisions and so designed a constitution with checks and balances, making it hard for an antidemocratic government to do any real damage.

The administration has proposed deporting Mexicans who have been living and working in the country for years, building a wall on the southern border to keep Mexican immigrants out, and claiming naively that the Mexican government should be forced to finance the project.    It has also proposed a ban on all Muslims seeking to enter the country, it has tried to “repeal and replace” the signature health care legislation of Trump’s predecessor, the first black president, which would have the effect of causing millions of citizens to lose their health insurance coverage, and it has put forth a tax overhaul proposal that would be a windfall for corporations and wealthy Americans while raising taxes on voters with extremely high medical costs or living in states with significant state and local tax burdens.

The main branch of government that has prevented the most blatantly discriminatory elements of these plans from being enacted has been the Judiciary, which has ruled them unconstitutional.  The Mexican President has made it abundantly clear he has no intention of financing a wall, and Congress has been unwilling to allocate funds for such a wasteful project in a federal budget already hampered by an out-of-control deficit.  But it has also been the Legislature, divided by opposing factions in a Republican-controlled Senate and House of Representatives, that has been unable to enact elitist laws, and so to date, in the conflict between the Trump administration and the safeguards put in place by the country’s founders, the safeguards are winning.

Candidate Trump had made his platform abundantly clear in the Republican primary race, which began with 17 presidential hopefuls, and he still he won the Republican nomination and ultimately the presidency.  How then, did he manage to get elected?  The basic reason is that the American electorate, as it has demonstrated many times in the past, lacks the character to resist the appeal of a demagogue who identifies a scapegoat to blame for all its problems and makes the unrealistic promise that his election will solve all its woes.  In this case, he tied the long-term trend of job and wage stagnation accompanying technological progress with white workers’ antipathy toward a black president during the previous 8 years, specifically holding his predecessor, President Obama responsible.

But an equally important reason was the weakness of the Democratic nominee, candidate Clinton.   Like President Obama, her candidacy had historical significance:  following the first black president, she was the first female nominee of a major party.  Unfortunately, her behavior bore the stain of dishonesty and corruption.  In fact, her flaws are comparable to those of President Trump:  he refuses to distance himself credibly from his global business interests and won’t release his tax returns, while she took exorbitant fees from financial firms, secretly arranged for the Democratic National Committee to sabotage the candidacy of her rival for the Democratic nomination, and, as President Obama’s first Secretary of State, she stored classified information on a private email server that was then vulnerable to cyber attacks by a foreign government.  It is no wonder that in requiring voters to choose between the lesser of two evils, 2016 was marked by historically low voter turnout.   And, although both candidates continually claimed to speak for the American people, neither has ever apologized to the American people for their behavior.

I now turn to the final two elements that define the Trump presidency.  Racism is most apparent in the president’s obsession with his predecessor, whether more people attended his inauguration, falsely claiming President Obama wiretapped the president’s home, and even whether President Obama was legitimately eligible to hold the office by virtue of his place of birth.  Moreover, the influence of racism is seen in a number of his cabinet choices, in his failure to denounce Neo-Nazi violence on a college campus, and even in his judgments about terrorism incidents, needing more information before he could comment on a white rifleman who massacred hundreds of concertgoers, but vilifying a Muslim who killed 9 bicyclists with a truck.

But again, racism has its roots in the peculiarities of the misuse of language that has become so rampant in the society at large.  Thus, when white people casually ask minorities the universal question (“How are you?”)  and give them the universal command (“Have a nice day,”) they seem oblivious to the additional degree of insipidness  they impose on them.  Racism is so deeply ingrained in the larger culture that even white people who fancy themselves sensitive to the burdens of discrimination are often intolerant of members of minority groups who express themselves more sophisticatedly than the enlightened  white person privately expects.

The basis for the final element of the Trump presidency is his message that, under his predecessor’s leadership, America’s allies exploited the country financially.  The language the president uses to signal his intention to change this state of affairs is “America First,” which became his campaign slogan, and this expression has resonated well with his base of alienated voters.

This simplistic slogan, though, hides a very serious departure from the country’s long-held foreign policies.  Now, as the new president lectures the country’s allies that they need to pay a larger share of their common defense expenditures and to grant America more favorable terms of trade, he also makes friendly overtures to a number of antidemocratic regimes, most notably Russia, on whose president he showers praise (one possible reason that he has chosen to pursue this reversal of the country’s traditional foreign policy might be that President Trump committed some embarrassing indiscretion while performing his business dealings in Russia, and the Russian President has threatened to expose him if he does not maintain this new policy.)

One result of these changes is that the president continually threatens to withdraw from the international organizations in which America has traditionally enthusiastically participated (e.g., the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization)  and to renegotiate established treaties (e.g. the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Iran anti-nuclear deal, and the Paris Climate Accord.)  Should any of these plans literally be implemented, the effect would be to leave the country isolated from its allies and viewed as untrustworthy by everyone else.  Like the other elements of this presidency, this effort represents a retreat into the past.  It should be recalled that America’s dalliance with the now-discredited policy of isolationism in the 1930’s ultimately led to its being drawn into the conflict of World War II anyway.

I believe I have demonstrated that modern society’s linguistic sloppiness has been a contributing factor that has led to the Trump Presidency in all its elements.  Nevertheless, the absence to date of a groundswell of protest suggests that that the public may have become inured to the president’s language and his behavior, from his articulation of an alternate understanding of reality, to his reactionary perspectives on social issues, to the attempts to enact his elitist legislative agenda, and to his reckless foreign policy, which ultimately has the potential to involve the country in nuclear war.

Although there is an official reaction in the form of investigations by two Congressional committees and one special prosecutor, the scope of these seems to be limited to a search for evidence of collusion or obstruction, rather than the charge of treason that would be applicable if it is discovered that the president is  indeed willingly being blackmailed by the president of Russia.  Meanwhile, everyday life continues as usual, with no real sense of urgency and no awareness of this connection between the Trump presidency and the language people use to communicate with one another every day.  Every citizen who reads this essay should remember this lesson the next time he or she unthinkingly describes some phenomenon as amazing or incredible, or the next time they ask someone how they are and tells them to have a good day.

You’ve Changed

 

Hi, Paul. Don’t you remember me? Not so long ago, you told me you loved me and that I made you feel loved. And, after I baked one for you, you said I was your cupcake.

When I met you, I wasn’t planning on falling in love…but I took one look and somehow knew. You made me feel like a kid again, as though I was falling in love for the first time…and then I realized it was the first time I had really fallen in love. When I met you, I didn’t realize how much that love would grow – how that first attraction would reach beyond passion to the comfort of knowing there was someone I could trust to always be there for me, to honestly love me.

On our first date, I remember we went back to my one-bedroom apartment after dinner, and you took me in your arms and we slow-danced around my living room. You were respectful enough to go home after kissing me good night, so when we arranged to meet again a week later, it felt more natural for us to become more intimate. I knew you were very successful in your job at the bank where you worked, and I could tell that you really liked me. Nonetheless, I was taken aback when, a year later, you asked how I would feel about selling my one-bedroom condominium and buying me a two-bedroom apartment in the same complex. I thought about it a little, but I could tell that it was your way of showing me I was important to you, so I agreed. Later, you remember, we sold the two-bedroom for a small house further north, and later still, we sold that house for an even larger one. I knew without a doubt…the luckiest day of my life was the day I met you.

Meanwhile, I was still working in an unimportant job in a large, impersonal office. Not only was it meaningless and boring, but it didn’t even pay well.   Once, we were talking about it, and you asked if I could have any job I wanted, what would it be? I knew right away that the business I would be excited to be in was to become my own boss as an independent antiques dealer. I imagined how I could buy old, used items, manage the inventory, and find the best marketplaces to sell them in at a profit.   I had even “dipped my toe in the water” by going to tag sales on weekends and listing my purchases for resale online. You were quite interested in my idea and said it was similar to equity trading in that my success depended on an ability to spot undervalued assets. When you suggested that I quit my office job and offered to help me start an antiques business, I couldn’t believe my good luck. That was the moment when I knew that I loved you with all my heart.

Once I’d thought about it though, I knew it wasn’t something I should have let you do. As long as I can remember, even as a kid, I’ve had a problem with money: it’s obvious it’s all tied up somehow with my lack of self-esteem, and while I know that, I don’t know how to deal with it or control it. I used to shop compulsively for clothes, and even though I had closets full, it seemed I only felt good when I was buying things, and I didn’t feel attractive without a constant supply of new clothes. Whenever I was unhappy or lonely or depressed or felt inadequate I would shop. I always had trouble paying the bills, but I couldn’t stop. When I got the “antique bug,” that became my compulsion. The hunt for treasure was addictive, and it seemed I had found a way to justify shopping: I could sell what I bought.

It was expensive getting started in the business, but you always regularly gave me a check every time you visited. Even when I had other expenses, like for my car or repairs for the house, you would always pay for them. And afterwards, we could relax in the house. I knew you had been disappointed in other relationships: your previous girlfriend was dishonest and didn’t take your love seriously, and the woman you had lived with when you first returned to the city was disrespectful and often expressed hostility toward you.   With me, I did everything I could to prove to you how much I loved you. And I would always send you different interesting greeting cards on Christmas, your birthday, and especially on Valentine’s day, and, I would always include a note expressing how important you were to me to let you know I was thinking of you.

Still, sometimes, you’d lose your temper with me about all my spending, and I hope it was the anger speaking when you said you gave me things to buy my love. I loved you for your sensitivity, your honesty, your sense of humor, your integrity, and your thoughtfulness – not for your money. It did bother me that I always seemed to be exchanging intimacy for financial assistance, but I believed that situation was just temporary and would be corrected when my antiques business finally took off. 

I’m not sure exactly when our happiness started to fade. You told me you were experiencing unaccountable mental lapses, after which you couldn’t remember obvious things. You’d seen doctors about it, but none of them seemed to recognize any of the symptoms. I let you know I would always love you no matter what happened, but that didn’t seem to encourage you the way it usually did. After that, you would still visit me at the house as usual, but when we’d talk about things, you didn’t always make sense, you wouldn’t remember what we’d talked about the day before, and then you’d give me a check, but you’d leave after a few hours without making love to me. At some point, you just stopped visiting me altogether.

Later, you phoned to say you weren’t going to visit anymore, that you realized you still loved the woman you had lived with earlier (the one who didn’t respect you, remember?) , and that you were marrying her. You said you were sorry if you were hurting my feelings, but your health was at stake, and, more than my feelings of love, you needed someone who was competent to deal with those challenges. I also got the impression that this other woman was more sophisticated than me about art, music, foreign travel, and generally in the finer things in life that weren’t just utilitarian.

Well, actually, Paul, your “dumping me” did hurt my feelings. I know I made you happier to be alive than you’d ever been before. I’m sorry about your medical condition, but I would have taken good care of you right up to the end, and, anyway, you know, nobody lives forever. Now, I have nothing against this other woman, beyond her stealing the man of my dreams, but I’m confident in saying that she doesn’t love you like I do. True love isn’t just fun and games but must encompass the element of truth that forms the basis for its validity. Anyway, I wish I could have been what you wanted me to be. I miss you so much and I love you always. No matter what else happens in our lives, I’ll always be your cupcake.

Looking back on it, two songs always remind me of you, Paul, and I often imagine myself singing them to you. One is called Once I Loved, and it was co-written by Filho Ney, Veloso Caetano Emmanuel, and Viana Teles. It was most movingly performed by Shirley Horn. These are the lyrics:

Once I loved,
And I gave so much to this love
You were the world to me

Once I cried,
At the thought I was foolish and proud,
And let you say goodbye

Then one day,
From my infinite sadness you came,
And brought me love again

Now I know,
That no matter whatever befalls,
I’ll never let you go
I will hold you close,
Make you stay

Because love,
Is the saddest thing
When it goes away

I will hold you close,
Night and day
Because love,
Is the saddest thing
When it goes away

The other song that makes me think of you is called You’ve Changed, it was written by William Carey and Carl Fischer, and it was most meaningfully performed by Ella Fitzgerald. The lyrics are as follows:

You’ve changed
That sparkle in your eyes is gone
Your smile is just a careless yawn
You’re breaking my heart
You’ve changed

You’ve changed
Your kisses now are so blasé
You’re bored with me in every way
I can’t understand
You’ve changed

You’ve changed
You’ve forgotten the words I love you
Each memory that we’ve shared
You ignore every star above you
I can’t you believe you really cared

You’ve changed
You’re not the angel I once knew
No need to tell me that we’re through
It’s all over now
You’ve changed

 

 

Crashing Thunder

 N.B. This story is based on the life of a real Native American figure, who lived during the early part of the twentieth century, and his biographer, who lived from 1883 to 1959, although the content presented here is a fictional interpretation I have imagined consistent with the actual historical events.

I want to express my appreciation to all of you for coming out here tonight to attend this very special meeting of the American Anthropological Society.  As most of you know, I am Paul Radin, and when my mentor Franz Boas, the founder of the field of modern Anthropology, first encouraged me to do the field work for my doctoral dissertation among the Winnebago Indians in Northern Wisconsin, I relocated to their territory in 1908.

In my experience, many people have a tendency to romanticize the lives of these Indians that the original Spanish explorers found here when they first colonized the continent.   Today, the Indian is often viewed as a symbol for the youth and freedom of expression, and for liberation from the shackles of civilized constraint.    In my field research, I endeavored to develop a methodology that would offer a more realistic assessment of the Indian culture than these quaint, sentimental notions.  A significant stumbling block to the achievement of this objective was the cultural norm of quiet humility among the members of the Winnebago tribe, which left me with few eyewitnesses willing to testify about their firsthand thoughts and experiences.   I was able to find one family, however, a Mr. Blow Snake, and his youngest son Crashing Thunder, a man of prodigious memory and extraordinary analytical capability, who agreed to an extensive series of interviews.  And after translating them from the Winnebago language and transcribing them in a monograph entitled Crashing Thunder: The Autobiography of an American Indian, the work was published by the University Press   in 1926.

We are pleased to have Crashing Thunder with us this evening in person to share some of his reminiscences on the important influences that shaped this remarkable man’s life, as well as his reflections on some of these matters.   And now, without any further ado, the American Anthropological Society is pleased to present Mr. Crashing Thunder.

*************************************************************************************

Thank you Paul for that kind introduction.  Ladies and gentlemen and honored guests:  I am pleased to be here tonight to   discuss a variety of issues that my experiences as a Winnebago have taught me.  Many are discussed in the Autobiography, which Paul was instrumental in preparing, while others I have developed in the years since then.

I suppose the underlying theme of my efforts to strive for understanding of both the Winnebago people and my own place in that Indian nation revolves around the idea of the fragility of life.  This notion then informs the activities in which I have engaged, the decisions I have reached, and the actions I have taken to implement those decisions.  Early in my childhood, I remember my parents had acquired two puppies to serve as companions for my sister Mountain Wolf Woman and myself.    We really loved those little puppies, but when they were fully grown, they both wandered off the reservation and were hit and killed by automobiles in a place called Good Hope Road.  Watching my father bury the corpses was the first time I can remember being aware of death’s finality.

This early experience with violent death has lent a melancholy demeanor to my outlook on life.  I wondered whether such death might be a consequence of previous impure thoughts or actions on the part of the victim, unobtrusively observed by some higher power.  And, if so, who is this higher power anyway?  If He is the Creator of the Universe, I have a bone to pick with Him about the way He designed living creatures.    As it is, we are input/output processors, which require daily inputs of food and water to survive. It seems to me that life would be much simpler if we were engineered more as celestial beings without the need to maintain the upkeep of a physical body, susceptible to suffering and death by starvation, disease, or violent causes.

But the explanation is more likely that the world is a risky place, and our beloved puppies were simply unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The role chance or uncertainty plays in our lives cannot be overstated, but paradoxically, its influence is probably underappreciated.  Discrete events that have the potential to adversely impact our lives can occur at any time without our conscious awareness of their existence.  Our reaction after the fact is always that we need to take remedial steps to ensure that such disruptive events never happen again.   But it is in the nature of randomness that disruptive events never disrupt our lives in precisely the same way again, so we are continually refighting the last war.  What is needed to escape this cycle of failure is a paradigm to accurately anticipate future events.

Unfortunately, the record shows that human beings are singularly inept at forecasting future developments.  At a roundtable seminar held for probability theorists and other professional prognosticators at the turn of this past century, none of the participants predicted the technological breakthroughs of the electric light by Thomas Alva Edison, the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell, or the airplane by Wilbur and Orville Wright.  Nor were the political changes of the women’s right to vote, the imposition of prohibition, or the rise of Fascism foreseen.

If we consider the other characteristic of our old friend, the higher power, namely that of Omniscient Being, we may imagine a game-theoretic environment in which we are called to be researchers, where we utilize our skills and our observation of the available evidence to compete with Him for purposes of uncovering the underlying logic of His laws, with the aim of improving our predictive batting average.  Because of the uncertainty intrinsic to the nature of this struggle, though, we must be ever conscious of our potential for error.  Although the world may judge us after some development has occurred by checking whether we had anticipated it, this simple metric fails to appreciate the complexity endemic to our task.  Conceptually, there are actually two distinct types of errors we could commit when we make a prediction about the future:  certainly, we could predict something that later failed to occur, like the economist who predicted 9 out of the last 5 recessions, but we could also fail to predict something which later did in fact occur.  The world tends to view being blindsided by an unanticipated development as being somehow more egregious, but both types of mistakes are equally serious.

I wanted to apply the need for improved anticipation of future events to this theme of life’s fragility a bit further.  The Winnebago tribe is occasionally involved in warfare against other tribes in cases when diplomacy to resolve differences fails to produce satisfactory results for either or both parties.  Whether we are attacking an enemy position or defending our own, the successful prosecution of the conflict depends critically on our ability to anticipate our position relative to that of the opposing tribe.  There are normally four stages in any confrontation:  SIEGE, in which the aggressor lays its foundation that announces its offensive intentions to the defenders; ASSAULT, in which the aggressor launches its well-defined attack on the defensive position; STRANGULATION, in which the defenders, seeing the adverse impact of the aggressor’s assault, proceed to lose hope; and ASPHIXIATION, in which the defenders must choose between death and surrender.

More generally, I mentioned earlier my view that human beings are called to be researchers, to work to understand the complexities of the world in which we find ourselves and to apply our reasoning skills to the task making sense of the phenomena we observe.  In this regard, these same four stages can also apply analogously to our research efforts:  we first lay siege to a problem of interest by identifying it and marshaling our intellectual resources appropriate for the goal of transforming the issue from an unknown quantity into understood knowledge; launching an assault against it is the application of analytical methods in a disciplined way to address the particular problem as mapped out in our research strategy; strangulation involves the specific technical details of solving the individual complexities not necessarily foreseen in the initial strategy;  and asphyxiation occurs at the point where the problem surrenders its mystery and is assimilated into the researcher’s bank of knowledge.

Now, I have struggled with the need to anticipate sometimes-violent conflict in my own personal life.    A random event which had a life-altering effect on my life occurred when my brother-in-law, Thunder Cloud, was murdered.  For a long time afterwards, I became very despondent and attempted to drown my troubles by consuming large quantities of alcohol.  My father, Blow Snake, too, drank prodigious amounts of Scotch, but it was only blended whisky, whereas I much preferred the rarefied taste of single malt Scotch.  I also found that this liquor was favored by young ladies when I would retire to the nearby tavern to buy them drinks for the purpose of getting them inebriated and transporting them back to my apartment to take advantage of their impaired judgment.   I should add that I have always been intrigued with the appearance of the female body and find it interesting that when a woman removes her clothing in a burlesque parlor, it is considered obscene, while the nude sculpture of a Greek goddess in a park is regarded as highly artistic.  I can only conclude that pornography depends on geography.

Not all expressions of intimacy, however, can be characterized as debauchery, and I have found that the most satisfying of these occurs in the context of a relationship based on a mutual feeling of love between the two partners.  Now, in my experience, there have been three different types of love:  false love, true love, and competent love.  While I have made many mistakes in my life, a large percentage have resulted from misjudgments about the individuals in these categories.  False love, for instance, is highly correlated with physical beauty, which can be ambiguously interpreted.  It could reflect inner purity and genuineness, but it could also hide deceptiveness stemming from a selfish inability to feel empathy.  When I encountered false love, I was seduced by the beauty, stubbornly extended the benefit of the doubt in spite of the evidence, and stupidly said yes when I should have said no.  In the case of true love, the beloved communicated a sympathetic identification with her partner, although she lacked the capability to react  effectively to adverse developments in my life and she was not  sophisticated about the finer aspects of life.  In my encounter with true love, I regretfully said no when I might have wanted to say yes.  Regarding competent love, the deficiencies in true love are corrected.  I said yes and I have not regretted my decision.  She does not sugarcoat the truth, however, and she does not suffer fools.

One day in the midst of my life of dissipation, I learned that my brother’s killer was a member of the Pottawattomie tribe living in Nebraska.  This information gave my life new purpose, and I gathered my other bothers together and we went on the warpath, journeying to the offender’s hometown under the cover of night and taking our revenge in a particularly gruesome way.  I mean we really got Medieval on his sorry carcass.  Later, however, we were arrested, put on trial, convicted, and sentenced to life sentences in the state penitentiary without hope of parole.

Do you see the irony here?  I had been concerned with the fragility of life and how difficult it is to predict future events without error, and I now found myself in circumstances where there was no chance that my life would be imperiled, but there was also no hope that I could ever experience freedom again.  I began to appreciate that life without hope was more debilitating than facing a death sentence, and the prospect began to stimulate the morose side of my nature.  I began to dream of escape, but all pathways led to the same destination. Like someone facing an incurable disease, I began planning ways to end my own life.  I realized that this outcome would not happen by itself, so that the issue of method was not just a minor detail, but was central to the goal of achieving the result.  I reasoned that the appropriate method needed to possess the properties of certainty, quickness, and painlessness, and in lieu of acquiring a handgun, only a fall from a great height would accomplish the task.

I was eying the exercise yard from our common living quarters three stories above it when word came that our lawyer had discovered a procedural error in how the district attorney had gathered the evidence against us, and we were all being released pending a new trial.  Talk about almost saying yes when I should have said no! I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and I realized that if the timing had just been a little different and the lawyer had made his discovery a little later, prisoners might be scraping parts of me off the soles of their shoes during their exercise period in the yard.

On the Sunday after my release, I experimented with the hallucinogen Peyote I had gotten from one of the other prisoners.  After ingesting it, I fell into a trance and found myself in front of a large ornate throne with a deafening sound like rushing water ringing in my ears.

“Mr. Crashing Thunder,” boomed a deep baritone voice, “I am Earth Maker, the higher power I believe you made reference to earlier.  Our records indicate that you wished to deliver some feedback to me about the job you think I’m doing.”

I was quite disoriented by this experience.  In fact, I was shaking in my boots.  I didn’t even have the presence of mind to ask for inside information on His latest laws I might need to research.  I was so intimidated by this encounter, that I lost my courage and believed that a straightforward response was not a viable option.

Well, you see Sir,” I stammered, “I only wanted to tell You that I think You’re doing a great job; that design of Yours to make living creatures input-output processors was a stroke of genius.   And to think You did the whole thing in only six days and came in under budget.  You’ve earned Yourself a well-deserved rest.  I think You should take the rest of the day off.”

“But you indicated there was room for improvement.  Don’t you have any suggestions?” Earth Maker urged.

“Well, on the commandment side of things,” I squirmed, “I thought Your prohibition about graven images was spot-on, but maybe You could also include comparable rules outlawing casting votes for Fascist dictators or buying retail?”

Earth Maker looked pleased.  “I’ll take it under advisement,” He said.  “And now, if you’ll excuse me,” He said, looking at His watch, “I must be off to another appointment.  Earth Maker’s work is never done.”

My audience with Earth Maker marked a significant turning point in my life, as it was after that I began to define myself as a spiritual person.  I can see my flaws in the willingness to compromise my core values, and the awareness of my cowardice has taught me humility.  The experience has also given me some detachment from the ways of the material world, as well as giving me a better handle on the mysteries of beauty in our lives.  I have finally learned that authentic beauty cannot be merely decorative, but it must have a spiritual basis.  As Count Leo Tolstoy once remarked about the nexus between poetry and mysticism, “Mysticism without poetry is merely superstition, but poetry without mysticism is just prose.”

 

I Could Have Been a Real Billionaire

It all started out innocently enough. We were ensconced in our usual hotel suite at the Carlyle for one of our regular Thursday afternoon meetings to engage in yet another mutually satisfying, invigorating and tension-relieving episode. As we were transitioning from the arousal stage to the state of tranquility which follows it, I lay back in our four-poster bed, lit up a cigarette and told her that we were really going to have to stop meeting like this.

“Must we?” Avery purred. “Why is it all right for you and that blackguard of a husband of mine to do it, but not me? Well, as evidence of my commitment to equal rights for women, I say what’s good for the gander is good for the goose”.

But I remained firm. “We can’t afford to be indiscreet now that I am the Republican nominee and you are the Democratic nominee for the presidency in 2016” I told her.

“But, don’t you love me, Deeejay? She pouted. “Deejay” Srump is the name I took after I Included a segment on my really great reality television program in which I spun 45 RPM records from my 1960’s collection. Fortunately, before I could respond to Avery Hill’s inquiry, the telephone rang, and it was that boob of a husband of hers, a former president himself, quizzing her on what she was planning to cook him for dinner that evening.

It’s true that she and I were destined to meet in this epic battle to decide which of us would lead the country at this critical point in its history. I, of course, with my successful business background, was initially confident that I was the better candidate, although the latest public opinion polls did suggested that I was in the minority in this belief.

Respondents to these polls placed my complete lack of government experience in the “needs improvement” column, while Avery was seen as the stable continuation of the socially liberal policies of the previous administration. In addition, she would be the first woman president, which was viewed as a positive attribute in the same way that the previous office holder’s being the first black president was seen as plus.

“I’ve waited patiently,” Avery used to tell me. “Now it’s my turn.”

I thought we were preparing to leave when Avery told me she wanted to discuss a business proposition with me. “Listen, Deejay”, she began, “I know you’re just running for president as a lark to expose the hypocrisy of the political establishment, and that presidential power runs a distant second to wealth in your personal preference function. In contrast, being elected president would be very fulfilling for my ego and would permit me to serve as a role model for other women. I’m way ahead in all the polls, so it looks like I’m going to win anyway, but just as a little extra insurance, how would you like my foundation to write you a check for an amount of money that would bring your account balance up to an even billion dollars? I remained calm. “What makes you think I’m not already a billionaire?” I asked her.

She burst out laughing. “Who told me you aren’t really a billionaire? “she retorted. “You did by how you conduct yourself. A real billionaire can afford to be a little magnanimous in how he interacts with the world. Instead, you’re always rabbiting on that you think others are taking advantage of your good nature and not paying their fair share. I’m sure you’re not starving, but a girl on a date with a billionaire shouldn’t have to go Dutch treat”.

It was true what she said, but I always assumed that if I bragged that I was a billionaire, voters would perceive me as immune to bribery and therefore more honest and trustworthy than other candidates. Still, I was intrigued by her observations asked her to tell me where she was going with all this, but she answered my question with one of her own.

“Who’s your favorite Fascist dictator, Deejay?” she queried.

This was actually a complex question. To respond accurately, I needed to rule out successful non-Fascist dictators like Stalin or Mao, so that only Hitler, Mussolini and Franco possessed the necessary credentials. Of these, I always believed that Hitler suffered from self-esteem issues, and Franco wasn’t sufficiently ruthless. Mussolini, on the other hand, exhibited a certain joie de vivre and a degree of swagger that announced to the world, “This is who I am. Deal with it.”

“Fine” she said. “Now, you throw the election to me by doing your best imitation of Mussolini during your campaign, and later, after I’m elected, I’ll transfer the money to your account”.

My immediate reaction was one of anger, but upon reflection, I realized I was just being swayed by my foolish pride. In fact, she was correct that I didn’t care about being president like she did, and I could use the extra cash, so I agreed. It was just the tremendous type of agreement to be expected from a terrific dealmaker like me. I offered to shake on it, but she demurred.   “We could indicate our assent another way,” she said.

****

You might wonder why Avery felt the need to go to such expensive lengths when the popular wisdom held that she had victory all but sewed up anyway. The answer lies in the realization that 2016 represented an atypical election. Normally, voters feel strongly that one candidate is good and the other is bad, so that casting one’s vote entails the straightforward decision to vote for the one they favor. But in this case, both candidates were generally viewed unfavorably, so the act of exercising one’s civic duty became a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils.   As a result, support for one of them was more often an expression of dislike of the alternative than a positive endorsement for the voter’s choice and is accompanied by lower than-normal voter turnout. In our case, Avery had routed classified emails on a private server, while I had engaged in questionable business practices. A case could be made that both of our actions bordered on criminal behavior, and both of us became quite adept at articulating alternative interpretations of the facts. Avery confided to me that my candidacy was the necessary condition for her victory.

Anyway, in keeping with our secret agreement, I began a series of actions that showcased my ability to bully her and be downright cruel to her in public, permitting her to come across as the nicer person. And when we met in a number of televised debates, I intentionally failed to do any preparation, so she would have an opportunity to appear more knowledgeable on the issues, as well as having a more presidential temperament. While my plan initially had the desired effect when I came across as a dunce and Avery appeared as a student who had just studied for a big exam, unfortunately, it came out later that one of her friends in the Democratic National Committee had given her the questions ahead of time. When this fact was publicized, it took some of the bloom off the rose of her performance.

One strategy I employed to make her appear to display better judgment than me was my public admiration for the president of Russia, the former head of the KGB who was publicly providing aid to the brutal and corrupt regime in Syria. Now, normally I would have expected this friendliness toward America’s archenemy to be toxic to my campaign, especially after the pundits speculated that my positive attitude was prompted by the possibility that he was in possession of incriminating evidence about me and was threatening to blackmail me with it. Unaccountably though, my core supporters were not phased by this admission and continued to prefer me. And, flattered by my kind words, the president of Russia began taking active steps by leaking false and unflattering information about Avery into American media outlets. Of course Avery was no stranger to this kind of underhanded misuse of the media, having used the same tactics against her challenger for the Democratic nomination, but it is just ironic that what started as a plan to make myself look bad should end up boosting my candidacy.

I then secretly released my special bombshell – the Hollywood Access tape, which depicted me bragging to a colleague about sexually assaulting women. Not only should this event have firmed up Avery’s support among that handful of women who weren’t already committed to her candidacy just because of her sex, but Republican men, not exactly paragons of support for women’s issues, were abandoning my candidacy in droves. Avery unquestionably had momentum on her side, but it turned out to be her high-water mark.

The director of the FBI had investigated her email missteps early in the campaign and there had been rumors of a possible indictment.   We were holding our breaths, but after a lengthy investigation, he had cleared her of any wrongdoing. Now, just a few days before the election, as Avery was busy making speeches on behalf of Democratic down-ballot candidates in an effort to run up the score on her coattails, the FBI director announced that some new emails had just come to his attention, and he needed a few days to review them to make sure there was nothing incriminating in these new ones. The timing of this new delay couldn’t have been worse, and although she was again exonerated just before Election Day, it came too late to prevent those voters on the fence from changing their allegiance.

In spite of these bumps in the road, though, on election eve, Avery still had strong leads in all the polls, and she spent that final day preparing her acceptance speech, and selecting the location for her anticipated celebration on election night. It was to be held in a building with a tall glass ceiling which she would symbolically shatter when her electoral vote total passed the magic number assuring an insurmountable victory. I myself had begun planning how I would absorb the huge increase in my wealth that I was about to earn. Accordingly, I was more surprised as anyone when the vote tallies began coming in, first in small states with insignificant numbers of electoral votes but then, at some point, it gradually became clear that something had gone horribly awry. All those states without many electoral votes had voted for me and those small numbers individually were adding up to a total that swamped my opponent. I won virtually every state outside the East and West Coasts–- the parts of the country I had labeled the “out of touch elites” during the campaign.

After the fact, the pundits claimed that my victory was not that surprising, given how unlikable Avery was. Why the Democrats hadn’t thought about this problem earlier was unclear, but the issue that still mystified the pundits was why all the polls had failed to accurately predict the outcome. I’ve thought about this puzzle myself, and I developed an explanatory theory: Avery was unquestionably viewed as the more respectable choice, but no one liked her. So, when the pollsters asked people who they planned to vote for, they were too embarrassed to name me, so they lied by naming her and then voted for me.

Winning the presidency was not something I had expected. My biggest disappointment, of course, was that Avery was no longer in a position to pay me that wad of cash, so I’m just glad I hadn’t incurred any debts in anticipation of that windfall. Of course, no one has to know I missed my chance to be a real billionaire. After all, if I wanted them to know that I’d have released my tax returns.

The other problem is that I’ve spent my life being scornful of politicians, so I’m completely unprepared for the responsibility of assuming the office of president. I was in my element when I was addressing my hardcore faithful supporters at a campaign rally where I could articulate my evaluation of some opponent’s flaws. I don’t know if that campaign-style rhetoric would be received very well if I’m supposed to be the president of all the people and responsible for uniting the country, including those who didn’t support me. Still, I was elected to this office by a sizable majority of the electoral vote.  And if anyone criticizes me, I’ll remind them of that fact.