Monthly Archives: September 2017

A Low Dishonest Decade

wh-audenAfter reading today’s paper, I thought of the poem below. I disagree with a few of the sentiments Auden expresses.  But it’s such a great poem.  And we managed to survive and prosper anyway.

SEPTEMBER 1, 1939 W.H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
‘I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,’
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

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His People

357

View of the World From 9th Avenue  Saul Steinberg

When I first heard the pundits use the term “Trump’s people,” I thought they meant those who live on Fifth Avenue with a fabulous view of Central Park. Now I know they mean the “white working class” and other “angry white people.” Putting aside Trump’s appearance (the strange hairdo and the perpetually pursed lips), the lack of government experience, and his “unpresidential” behavior, I cannot buy Donald Trump as a working class hero. The man is, after all, a “New Yorker,” and New Yorkers do not get elected president.

A New Yorker is someone who grew up in Manhattan, and most other Americans (of all races, religions and creeds) find them annoying, and for good reason: They give off a powerful air of overweening superiority. People from the other boroughs of New York City as well as Long Island like to think of themselves as New Yorkers, but Manhattanites know better. Even those who live in the “bedroom communities” of Connecticut and New Jersey and work in “The City” (what other town in America is referred to as The City?), like to think of themselves as New Yorkers, but as a neighbor of mine, born and bred in The City, once observed: They’re “worse than the boroughs.”

The last U.S. president from New York was FDR, and he wasn’t really a New Yorker; he lived “upstate” in Hyde Park, the place with which he was most closely identified. The last presidential nominee from New York was Governor Thomas E. Dewey, who lost twice, first to FDR and then to Harry Truman in probably the most surprising upset in history, although, arguably, Trump’s victory over Hillary comes close to or surpasses Truman’s defeat of Dewey.  However Dewey also was not really a New Yorker, for he was born and raised in Owosso, Minnesota (population as of 2010 – 15,194) and afterward lived 65 miles north of The City.  Since then, no one from New York has been nominated by either party (until Trump), despite New York’s large number of electoral votes (the largest number throughout much of American history until 1968, and currently the third largest).  Credible candidates from New York like Nelson Rockefeller and Rudy Giuliani couldn’t even win their party’s nomination.

The New Yorker attitude towards the rest of America was best portrayed in Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker Magazine cover, “View of the World from 9th Avenue.” The picture suggests that New Yorkers believe that there isn’t much of a country between the Hudson River and the Pacific Ocean (see above). Another famous example of the New Yorker attitude towards the rest of the country is the late New Yorker Magazine movie critic Pauline Kael’s possibly apocryphal line, that she didn’t know how Nixon could have won the 1968 presidential election because “nobody I know voted for him.” Some believe that the real quote is from a speech in which she said,“I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.” Either way, Kael remains the embodiment of Manhattan snobbery.

Growing up Jewish in Chester, PA, near Philadelphia, I often heard derogatory remarks about New Yorkers, particularly about New York Jews, who, it was said, felt superior to all other New Yorkers. New York German Jews were even worse because they considered themselves smarter and more sophisticated than everyone. My family and their friends conceded that New York Jews were smart and funny (most of the great comedians, from Groucho Marx to Woody Allen are New York Jews), but German Jews were, like the rest of their former compatriots, bereft of any sense of humor.  Most of all they believed that Jews from New York were the incarnation of the Jewish anti-Semitic stereotype: the “pushy,” money grubbing, loud, obnoxious “kike.” Not unlike the nominally Presbyterian President Donald.

The Donald’s opponents have loudly proclaimed him to be an anti-Semite and racist. The opponents also believe that Trump’s father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The “evidence” backing this assertion is that someone who was probably Trump’s father was arrested at a 1920 Klan march in Trump’s Queens neighborhood when the father was twenty. The New York Times report notes that he was arrested for not immediately obeying a police officer’s order that he move on and that he was shortly released. The report notes that there is no evidence to support any of the possible reasons why he was there, and the evidence that he was there at all is less than air tight. Yet, from this comes the claim that he was a Klan member.

It is well known that Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser is Jewish and that his daughter converted to her husband’s Orthodox Judaism. The opponents assert that a person with close Jewish relatives in addition to many Jewish business associates and friends can still be an anti-Semite. That he lives in and is closely identified with a city Jesse Jackson infamously called “Hymietown” (the Jewish population of New York City is exceeded only by Israel’s) is apparently irrelevant as well. And we are supposed to believe that Trump’s alleged anti-Semitism (and racism) motivated Hilary’s “Deplorables” to vote for him.

To be sure, I agree with much if not most of the case against Trump. He is obviously unqualified to be president. Business experience is a good thing for a president to have, but it apparently does not mean that he knows how to get Congress to enact the programs he ran on.  I also agree that a lot of his behavior in office is bizarre if not pathological. Still they say that “his people” support him and even approve of his behavior. I don’t think bigotry has anything to do with the reasons why he (improbably) defeated Hilary. Trump achieved the previously unimaginable because he was the only candidate who seemed to understand that an awful lot of people out there in “flyover country” and even states like Pennsylvania are fed up with weaselly politicians, Stalinist politically correct “students,” government waste, illegal immigration (and spectacularly unconstitutional “sanctuary cities,”), racial quotas, presumptuous federal judges, cop haters, a ridiculously complicated health care system and tax code, do-nothing government bureaucrats and more, much more. All of that overcame the distaste that many Americans have for New Yorkers.

Now, if only a more qualified and disciplined candidate, regardless of where he came from, had understood what Trump understood and had the nerve that Trump had to run on it.