Bill Evans, Waltz for Debby

I’m out of words today. Trump is too much with us, he makes our brains febrile. In Iowa he said, “You can’t sit home. If you’re sick as a dog . . . even if you vote and then pass away, it’s worth it.” Music may be the best way to tune this crap out.

Waltz for Debby is one of the great jazz albums. Put this music on and bathe in it.

Hamburgers

The only bad thing about hamburgers is that Trump eats them. I love them even though they are America’s favorite food. My father, a big red-meat eater, cooked them over charcoal, crispy on the outside, red to pink inside. That to me is still the standard.

The recent fuss about not eating red meat is entirely overdone. Health foodies all say cut down on red meat; my Anemia problems call for more of it. One can never please the health Nazis who, like the other kind, are taking over the world.

You start with first-class red meat, coarse-ground steak is best, no chopped onions or other crap added in to adulterate the flavor. Salt and pepper only, a very hot fire on pan or grill, and of course a decent bun. The additions or toppings we will discuss below. Ketchup for Americans is pretty standard and so is cheese.

To my taste, fast food burgers are mostly bad, especially the McDonald’s offerings. The Big Mac is a joke of a hamburger: two thin badly cooked patties, lettuce, 100-island sauce and three pieces of bun. More bread than meat. Mi compañera and I were discussing why a club sandwich has a seemingly unnecessary third slice of bread. I said it was to hold things together. But the Big Mac has no such excuse. McD’s new offering, the Double Big Mac, has four beef patties.

The regular Big Mac in the U.S. has 590 calories 34 grams of carbs, and 1050 milligrams of sodium. If the Double Big Mac turns out to be the same in the U.S. as the Canadian version, it will have about 740 calories, 48 grams of carbohydrates, and 1020 milligrams of sodium.

Americans will now get even fatter. The best of the junk food offerings, I think, is Burger King’s Whopper: the meat is flame broiled, and you get a “4 oz (110 g) beef patty, sesame seed bun, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, pickles, ketchup, and sliced onion. Beats the Big Mac every time.

Mexicans put everything or anything in their hamburguesas, always served with fries: “beef patty, american cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onions, pickles, avocado, jalapenos, mayo, mustard and ketchup on toasted buns. Optional to add fried egg or ham.” The meat is invariably overcooked and tasteless.

I had a pretty good hamburguesa on the beach last week. It featured real meat, lettuce, tomato, mayo, avocado and a bit of red onion. Sometimes all the added stuff works, especially if it’s fresh.

In 1954 Ray Kroc bought into the McDonald’s franchise and established the first of the McDonald’s chain in Des Plaines, a suburb of Chicago. My wife and I used to stop there en route to Madison where I was then in grad school. In 1958 we had never eaten anything like it, a novelty food. Note the price; we were hungry and it was cheap.

Calling a Spade a Spade

The expression dates back to Greek times, and it’s been pretty common ever since. When I was growing up “spade” was a nasty way to refer to black people, but of course that usage has grown toxic for obvious reasons. So let’s take the original meaning—telling it like it is—to run down a few recent controversies.

Claudine Gay cooked her own goose with Harvard’s rich right-wing donors who are increasingly calling the shots and twisting the Corporation’s arm. (There you have it, three clichés in one sentence–like saying Happy New Year all over again.) Rep. Elise Stefanik, the noisy Harvard grad, thinks she is responsible for Gay’s demise. But really it was the plagiarism, not her insensitivity to antisemitism, that did Gay in. Harvard’s lagging response was shameful.

In academia, plagiarism is serious business and rightly so. You are stealing another person’s work, ideas and research, acting as though it were your own. It’s like violating copyright. Penalties should be severe, as some Harvard students pointed out in the Crimson newspaper. Some of them have been expelled for far less than what Gay did. You don’t want a president who’s a cheat.

It tickles me that right-wing media pointed much of this out, and now we have one Moira Donegan ranting in The Guardian that plagiarism had nothing to do with it. It was just another assault by the right on education. Moira, the doppelganger of Stefanik, is one of the more obnoxious and loud ultra-libs. She recently said, “‘Why are you booing me? I’m right!!’ I yell, fleeing the stage as I am pelted with tomatoes.”

Most of us are tired of these relentless culture wars and the people who prosecute them. Racism, vile as it may be, is not lurking around every corner. The left should be pointing out the right’s specious tactics rather than constantly playing defense of the indefensible. Two instances of this: knee-jerk reactions to the war in Gaza and Trump’s disqualification via the 14th amendment.

How can a sane person, Jewish or not, fail to protest the indiscriminate bombing that’s obliterating Gaza? Jewish people everywhere should be appalled at the IDF’s tactics. Gaza’s people are starving and the situation is close to famine. One can recognize the enormity of what Hamas did on Oct. 7 without condoning the vicious response of Netanyahu’s government. Even most Israelis are horrified by that.

And finally, how is one to think about the 14th amendment’s case against Trump? “The Case for Disqualifying Trump Is Strong,” says David French in the NYTimes. The Colorado Supreme Court got it right but that, as usual, is not the end of the matter. Failing to respect the Constitution’s plain words is just cowardice, says French:

At the heart of the “but the consequences” argument against disqualification is a confession that if we hold Trump accountable for his fomenting violence on Jan. 6, he might foment additional violence now.

Yes, it can take guts and determination to enforce the obvious. The Supreme Court is not the place to find these qualities, and certainly not the place to call a spade a spade. “Peace at any price” is how Neville Chamberlain put it.

How Bad Taste Dominated 2023

I first broached the subject of bad taste (about which there’s no disputing) back in July here. My point was basically this: “If culture is enlightenment, the new bad taste glorifies most any excess and flouts the most accepted of values. Are the Barbarians at the gates?”

They’re not only at the gates, they have sacked the city. Well, you say, one person’s bad taste is another’s flair or style. True, but relative standards of discernment have all but disappeared, if they ever truly existed. The Guardian’s fashion editor recently said the following:

The notion of good taste has always been problematic. Taste gets tangled up with class, status, knowing the unwritten rules, even with breeding. It doesn’t have to be. Having a good eye and a discerning sense of taste is nothing to do with snobbery, although the two are often lazily conflated.

Really, it’s more complicated than that, which is why I am trying to write a book about it. Bad taste now moves the world, as we saw all through 2023. It is the new cultural standard, and our complaining or ranting won’t change that. Trump offers a thousand examples. So does celebrity culture and the false status it accrues. Traditional education has caved to the world Claudine Gay represents. Pop culture could well be considered the godparent of ChatGPT. And so on.

Whatever cultural bona fides I have came through a lot of education and a lot of communications work in different fields. The late 1950s were my incubation period. American class and culture changed radically after World War II, becoming more democratic in word if not in deed. The war created an economy that floated a lot of boats in a culture that sustained them—for a while.

As an example, in that era the art world of Jack Kerouac, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and the abstract expressionists represented a culture that aligned itself against the world of money, which happened to be the province of their patrons. A few like Warhol got rich, while others created a taste for the new that reflected or ignored the personal poverty their producers had to live with. Most musicians also lived “on the edge” and still do. But wealthy buyers created that taste for the new art even while its creators looked down their noses at money and the money culture that supported it. The art world is still dealing with the aftereffects of this.

In other words, the money culture, or consumer capitalism, now more than ever dominates our lifestyle and, I think, has produced the recent epidemic of what old traditionalists like me call bad taste. The digital world has enabled it to thrive, and our complaints and protests won’t change anything. Our culture now provides us with everything—and nothing.

The kitschy and the tacky are all around us, and they have defined much of pop art for a long time. This won’t last forever, but old-fashioned culture-lovers like me are hiding out until it’s over.

“Fear of bad taste envelops us like a fog.” —Gustave Flaubert

 

Merry Christmas to the Zieglers

Holiday greetings to Christian and Bridget Ziegler, two hypocrites who represent the dark farce that MAGA has become. Accused of rape by a former partner in their three-way sex frolic, Christian has finally been suspended as head of the Florida GOP after railing against the charge and trying to hijack the party for millions to leave office.

Christian reportedly said, in the spirit of Christmas, “You can’t call that rape. It was the gift that keeps on giving.” And two sex videotapes have surfaced, giving further cause for ridicule of Bridget. She serves on two ultraconservative anti-LGBTQ boards and the Sarasota School Board. No hypocrisy is too ballsy for these folks.

Merry Christmas also to the Colorado Supreme Court and those who defended its decision. Which of course may not stand, as Samuel Moyn carefully pointed out. Like Santa coming down the chimney, SCOTUS will come bearing gifts for some but not others.

Finally, Merry Christmas to Joe Biden, who is winning no new friends in his pre-election polls. There appear to be no Wise Men in the White House who can get Joe to change course on Gaza/Israel, oil drilling, and his generally realpolitik approach to crises. The spirit of Henry Kissinger lives on.

Food Keeps Me Alive

Dobosch Torte

I read on Google that lemons are the world’s healthiest food. Imagine that! Go suck on a lemon if you’re hungry. Mexican food can be dreadful or delicious, as most expats here know. And all foods are a constant source of pleasure and controversy.

I grew up in a foodie family devoted to German, American and Continental cookery. Our guru was Grandma Elsie who ran the food fest with skill and laughter. I said the following about her in my memoir. When we ate weekly at her house,

the food was invariably superb. I would describe it as Continental-American-Jewish. Feather-light matzoh ball soup was a favorite. Latkes, extra-thin and crisp, were called German potato pancakes. A rare specialty of the house was Dobosch Torte, a rich sponge cake with twenty-one very thin layers interspersed with frosting of Maillard’s chocolate (ordered special from New York). This left everyone groaning. Elsie ran the show with humor and love. “Eat up,” she would say, “there’s another one (turkey, roast, etc.) out in the kitchen.”

Elsie’s pickles were famous and inimitable. She made them in big crock pots and passed the recipe on to my mother and sister who unfortunately could never quite duplicate her results. Food and its preparation is often the source of some mystery.

When you’re retired and looking for things to engage yourself, cooking is a welcome creative activity that gets your mind off everything else. In fact, cooking is therapy. A good friend brought me some nutless pesto that she had made. (I have a serious allergy to nuts.) I put some in a spaghetti sauce I was making, and it was a revelation.

At the supermarket the plastic-wrapped hamburger meat looked awful—pulpy and full of fat. I found some beef chunks and ground my own, so much better. The other night some folks came over for white chicken chili—beans, broth, chicken, corn, lime, onion, poblanos and spices. It was the first time I had made it, and fortunately it evoked compliments.

Over the last year or so I lost some weight, mostly because I was cooking better and eating better. The joy of cooking is more than the name of a famous old cookbook. It’s the essence of gastronomy.

Ivysemitism, continued

Trump and Roy Cohn, 1983

I was twenty-five, fresh out of graduate school at the University of Chicago and had just finished a Master’s degree. I had my doubts whether I’d be up for the grind of getting a Ph.D. and decided to take a year and test out whether teaching English could finally be my profession. At twenty-five you really don’t know what you’re doing.

I got accepted into what is now called the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, formerly a teachers college in the remote middle of Wisconsin, and God it was cold there. Back then in 1959 the college was evolving into a more liberal arts institution and later became part of the UW system.

Anyhow, I joined the junior faculty and taught English to what were mostly rural and unsophisticated white kids. I was nervous and unsure in my first classes and had no idea how to communicate to these unspoiled, smiling children from another planet.

The McCarthy era had just passed but was still fouling the political air, certainly in my liberal circle. I’ve written before about how the Army-McCarthy hearings brought about my political exit from a Republican family that to some degree tolerated him.

Anyhow, in one of my first classroom recitals I called out the Senator as some kind of sick despot. The kids just sat there, but one guy, we can call him Jay, got up and announced that the class was no place for politicking and that basically I should keep my political opinions to myself.

I was taken aback and, after later talk with faculty friends, realized that maybe Jay was right. Political controversy was not welcome in that environment, and the Senator of course was from Wisconsin.

I saw some reference to him in the recent blaring discussions over the Ivy presidents and the GOP’s general anger over their waffling responses. Big Donor Bill Ackman has made much noise about firing the presidents and holding all those students protesting Israel to account. Larry Summers, a former Harvard president, agreed with him but said “asking for lists of names is the stuff of Joe McCarthy.”

We haven’t yet realized the depth of the Senator’s vicious pursuit of communists, but an attempt to bring down those hated liberal universities might be in the offing. One must remember that counselor Roy Cohn was the source of Joe McCarthy’s atrocities, just as he later became consigliere to Donald Trump. There is no honor among thieves.

Ivysemitism

Antisemitism is a powerful drug, but the three presidents saw their duty as defending the open market on thought. They upheld, though very badly, the core notion of academic freedom, which is free speech. But when free speech becomes hate speech with the threat of violence, what then?

Can you put conditions on advocating for antisemitism? Maureen Dowd expressed it this way: “Not since Bill Clinton was asked about having sex with Monica Lewinsky and replied, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” has there been such parsing.”

I spent a lot of years in academia, teaching at NYU, City College and the University of Wisconsin. There were things about it that I loved, but not the sense of moral superiority which infected some of the faculty and administration. I finally found academia to be constricting because it was often smug and self-satisfied. Yes, there were other reasons that I left, but I found more freedom outside the ivy-covered walls.

Now we have the spectacle of Ted Cruz and Elise Stefanik accusing the Harvard president of “intentionally fostering an environment that allows rampant and dangerous antisemitism.” We should not be surprised that she and her colleagues are just continuing their regular attack on liberal institutions. The GOP is very good at confounding issues that have no necessary connection—such as linking aid to Ukraine with the border mess.

But of course she was right to go after the three Ivy presidents. I guess they were advised by their lawyers to give legalistic answers, waffling over what should have been an obvious  and strong response. The schools ought to be teaching the real and complex history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, not defending an abstract standard.

Academia is sometimes guilty of parsing the simple truth.

The Clown Prince of Money

What’s with that bomber jacket? Everything about this man (well, almost everything) is appalling. The most recent example is the now-infamous interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin.

Since the internet is now full of foul language, who can be shocked? What’s shocking is the childish way Elon thinks. When his advertisers fled from “X” he responded like they were bullying him (shades of his youth), blackmailing him. Sounds to me like a schoolyard incident with a schoolyard response.

Jonathan Chait called him out on this:

In general, blackmail is a crime where the criminal demands payment from the victim. It does not involve the criminal refusing to give money to the victim for a service they don’t want. . . . Specifically, declining to spend advertising money on a platform because the owner not only permits crazy and offensive comments to proliferate on it but also personally contributes his own crazy and offensive comments to the site, is not only not blackmail, it’s not even in the same universe as blackmail.

We put up with Elon’s conspiracies and Asperger-ish behavior for two reasons. One, he’s the world’s richest man, reason enough for some to ratify his charisma; and two, the U.S. government has sold out to him with its total dependence on contracts with his firms Space-X and Starlink. So we are all now in bed with a madman.

Tesla Cybertruck

The truck’s many flaws are recounted here, and they may be sufficient to kill it. But the competition isn’t really from Ford or GM or Ram. Its aim is to attract the people who bought Hummers, the truck of poseurs and polluters. Will there be enough of these to buy something that looks like it was “assembled in a dude’s basement”? Others think it looks “very sexy.”

Elon, as we know, is a risk-taker. And maybe the Intelligencer had it right: “Making expensive niche products for people with too much money tends to be a really great business, and Musk has made himself the richest person in the world by being exceptionally good at that.”

Well, the problem is that he’s got to find new buyers in a market that’s declining. EV trucks are getting more expensive and fewer people seem to want them. We hope this trend will change, but the costly and flamboyant Cybertruck isn’t likely to do it.

“History is not the past. It is the present.”

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory

So said James Baldwin in that fine mashup movie (2017) I Am Not Your Negro. It’s the most penetrating thought I know about how time works in the human mind. We never consider that everything we experience in this life is immediately relegated to the past. What we think of as the future is merely a projection of what we know. And the present is a kind of phantasm that, we think, gives us creative power over the ravaging effects of time.

So, as Einstein observed, our concept of time is essentially a fiction. Of course we need that fiction to survive and to manipulate the reality we create for ourselves. Part of that fictional reality is the notion that time always moves forward, that one facet of human life is the spurious notion of progress. In an earlier post I talked about this and referenced Carlo Rovelli’s wonderful book, The Order of Time.

But none of us are physicists like Einstein or Rovelli. We rely on some notion of an instantaneous present to exert control on human events. In Gaza, Israel’s reaction to Oct. 7 appeared to take no account of how it had created over time an intolerable situation for the Palestinians. When a country (or a movement) feels its survival threatened, statecraft and history go out the window. One sees this happening globally now.

I’m reading Naomi Klein’s recent book Doppelganger, which I recommend if you like good intellectual theorizing about why the world is so fucked up. She offers a way to reckon with not only the historical crimes of neoliberalism but a sense of how we are all looking in the warped mirror of doubleness.

Part of what she’s telling us is that we’ve lost our sense of history. If history is indeed what makes up our present, it’s no mystery why the world is floundering. Nations and people have forgotten who they are and how they got there.

Another rather more highfalutin piece by Thomas Mallon explores the ramifications of nostalgia and the social-political pain inflicted on those who believe in it, “a mental quicksand” at least for some. He also talks about the vagaries of memory and the permanence of the past in our lives as we age.

What we are always most nostalgic for is, in fact, the future, the one we imagined only to see it turn into the past. . . . But then comes the growing realization that short-term memory has nothing like the staying power of the long-term variety. Mentally, the seven ages of man speed up their full-circling, until the past’s sovereignty over the present is complete. The further along one gets, the more one understands that the past is indeed another country, and that, moreover, it is home. Long-term memory’s domination of short may be a hardwired consolation that nature and biology have mercifully installed in us.

Let me attest to the power of long-term memory as we age. Oldsters typically are bugged by short-term memory loss—forgetting your keys, blanking on a name, etc. But amazingly we remember the lyrics of old pop songs when we were kids, names of World War II battles, the food we ate at a long-past dinner, and so on. Long-term memory becomes an integral part of one’s present—a typical and surprising result of getting old. Our “present” has expanded.