Tuesday, December 27, 2016

On Jefferson Davis's White House

Today, my mom and I visited Jefferson Davis's Civil War home in Richmond, his White House. (It actually is white.) The White House is part of the American Civil War Museum.

My brother and I visited Richmond four years ago intending to visit the White House, as well as the complex next door, which was then called the Museum of the Confederacy. (The name was changed a year later when the museum merged with the American Civil War Center, which is also located in Richmond.) We were amused by the name, by our assumption that the museum would be a neo-Confederate celebration of "heritage." But the cost was prohibitively expensive, or at least too expensive for irony. 

We did end up visiting a branch of the museum in Appomattox and were pleasantly surprised. It was upfront about slavery. It was an excellent museum with fascinating artifacts. I remember seeing a mathematics textbook which gave students word problems involving slaves and dead Yankees. We regretted skipping out on the museum in Richmond.

So, as I was back in Richmond, I didn't want to repeat the same mistake. We visited the museum and Davis's White House. The museum was not as spectacular as the one in Appomattox, but the artifacts were still interesting. There was an interesting collection of Confederate flags, including a Louisiana flag that celebrated the state's Spanish and French heritages. There was a doll that supposedly carried much-needed medicine. There weren't any outright racist images on display, and I'm not sure if that was a result of decisions made by the new administration. The museum was blunt that the war was fought over slavery, not states' rights, but it's depiction of Confederate culture did not include many slaves.

The tour of the White House was strange. The guide's tone was eerie and neutral. She mentioned the house butler who "self-emancipated" in 1864 by running away. She mentioned that Davis left his plantation in Mississippi in the care of his black overseer. She mentioned the number of slaves Davis kept on site. But much of her tour described a lovable family. Davis's young boys would kiss and fondle the Greco-Roman statuary. Davis's wife Verena was an opinionated woman who loved to talk politics, quite outside the norm for a proper Southern belle. There was a lovely piece of silver inscribed with the name of a Union officer who looted the mansion in 1865. It wasn't very nice to steal something and write your name on it, our tour guide said, but thanks to the inscription, historians knew where the silver came from and could return the it to its proper place. There was a stereoscopic toy, and a child's Confederate uniform Verena sewed for her son so he could play war with the neighborhood boys.

The decisions that must have been made in that house. The tension that existed as the war was coming to an end. The thoughts of the slaves who served dinner, many of who must have been privy to the greatest secrets of the Confederacy. Our guide did tell us of Lincoln's walk through the mansion, 36 hours after Davis's escape from Richmond, in April 1865. But most of our tour was about the Davis family and the tragedies that befell them. Davis lost his fortune after the war, and suffered only a brief imprisonment. His business ventures failed. But eventually he went on speaking trips with his daughter. A rich admirer set Davis up with a plantation on which he lived out his final years. Jefferson and Verena outlived all but one of their children, which is sad, but I think they got off easy. 

Still, the house was nowhere near as disturbing as Monticello, a space in which the greatest thinker of the Enlightenment in North America lived among his slaves. If Verena Davis or the previous owners of the house had better taste in home furnishings, Jefferson Davis had more eccentric hobbies, and the majority of their slaves weren't so many miles distant, their White House would have more power. My mom hit on the most interesting part of the house, but I don't know how much meaning we can derive from it: It looked like a brothel.   

Monday, December 26, 2016

On Monticello

I visited Monticello this afternoon with my mom. I haven't been to Monticello in at least 23 years. In that time, the public's idea of Thomas Jefferson, as well as the elite historical consensus, has changed. Monticello now includes a special Hemings tour, which I didn't take. Instead, I heard a 45-minute talk on slavery at Monticello.

I only know so much about the Hemingses and just a little more about the institution of slavery, mostly from books I read in college, Roots, and 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013). Much of the information from the lecture particularized this general information for Monticello. And there are things you can't learn from books and movies.

Here was the cabin of John and Priscilla Hemings. John was Jefferson's carpenter. Priscilla took care of Jefferson's grandchildren. Unlike other slaves on the plantation, they had a bed. Ten people lived in their cabin.

When one of Jefferson's granddaughters got married, there was a happy celebration at the big house. Among the slaves, just down the hill, there was fear. A marriage of a granddaughter meant  Jefferson had to pay a dowry, and that meant that he would be giving away a few dozen slaves, thus breaking up families, tearing children from their parents.

Here we stood at the site of a small nail factory. Boys as young as 10 were put to work from sunup to sundown -- 16 hours a day in the summertime -- to make nails, all of which were necessary to maintain the structures on Jefferson's property. The boys were beaten by overseers, but the beatings were rarely necessary. They had to make a daily quota of 800 nails, a bucketful. If they consistently or semi-consistently failed to make that quota, they would be demoted to field slavery. Two of Jefferson's children worked here.

There was a small structure which stood at the edge of a hill. It was a few feet down from the slave shops and the Hemingses' cabin. On either side of the structure lay the gardens. From the structure, you could look down further on the fields where the majority of the plantation's slaves toiled. Jefferson would walk down from his house, a fine structure which he based on neoclassical architecture he studied in Europe, a house filled with thousands of books on religion, politics, and natural history, eighteenth-century gadgets, gifts from American Indian tribes, and fossils of mastodons found on the North American continent. He would walk past the row of factories, including the building where his sons labored 16 hours a day making nails and the crowded cabin where his children slept. Then he would come to this small structure where he would survey the fields where his slaves toiled for most of their natural lives in conditions that would drive most people I know to suicide.

In academia, we deal with works of art that are "problematic." Many of my colleagues do their students a disservice when they treat fascinating, beautiful works of art as solely the products of the evils of capitalism or white patriarchy. Tosca is more than the product of colonialism and whatever we currently think is cultural appropriation. Winsor McCay's hallucinogenic, operatic comics are more than their racist imagery. Washington Square is more than its absences, namely the brutal factory conditions in nineteenth-century New York that Henry James does not depict in his novel. It's possible to study Puccini's phrases without long discussions of the economic relations between Europe and Asia. It's possible to study the formatting and structure of McCay's dreamlike visions of New York, at least for a few dozen pages, without focussing on his ugly depictions of people of color. It's possible, actually kind of easy, to talk about Washington Square without talking about the Industrial Revolution. The rejectionism can be taken to extremes. Our English departments are churning out graduate students who don't like novels, poetry, or plays, and who can only see the nineteenth-century novel as a bourgeois invention created out of a culture that enslaved millions.

I can't stand that form of fundamentalism, the joylessness that rejects genius because it fails to attain moral purity. Still, for a few minutes I started to see where my colleagues were coming from.

We tell ourselves that Nazi art was just kitsch. Only one of my colleagues has told me that he thought Olympia (Leni Riefenstahl, 1938) was good movie. A professor I admire who has the patience to sit through avant-garde films that would torture a tortoise, told me she couldn't sit through Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935) because she thought it was boring. Do we really believe Riefenstahl is awful, or do we tell ourselves that because we just can't honor a woman who cast concentration-camp prisoners as extras?

We don't tell ourselves Jefferson was a terrible writer, the way we tell ourselves Hitler was a bad painter, because we can't. Jefferson was a beautiful writer, trained in rhetoric, who understood the force of a good sentence. Among our presidents, only Abraham Lincoln bests him. Adams, Madison, Grant, and Obama are the runners up. His mind was eccentric and fascinating. We laugh at the Jefferson Bible. But he also lent his eloquence to his most vicious, racist tracts. He struggled throughout his life to define liberty, surrounded by hundreds of people whose very presence declared the very idea of America a lie.

After standing where I stood today, it seems downright dishonest, almost wicked, to ignore Jefferson the slaveowner when I think of Jefferson, the fierce advocate of religious liberty. But it would also be too easy to only talk about Jefferson the slaveowner. Teach your students difficulty. Tell them to try to answer the questions that can never be satisfactorily answered.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

On Looking to the Periphery

Taking a break from Library of Congress toil, to take some notes vaguely related to my dissertation, some of which may become a paragraph in the final product, but probably won't.

When you start writing about the Balkans, you end up repeating cliches in your attempt to explain why the region is unique and worthy of study. Much of the secondary research I've been doing the past few days acknowledges these cliches, while also more or less accepting them and trying to qualify them.

A short list, mostly on Croatia:

1. The Balkans exist at a cross-section of various cultures, religions, and linguistic groups, and therefore its identity remains in flux. 2. The Balkans is in a constant state of transition. 3. National identity is confusing and the orientation of various parts of the Balkans often shifts towards and away from various major cities. Zagreb, for instance, at various moments of its history looked to either Belgrade, Budapest, or Vienna. 4. The attempt to create a true national identity in any particular artistic tradition is all but futile. There are too many influences and the cultures are never as static as, supposedly, the cultures of France, Spain, or the U.K. 5. Croatia exists at the periphery of major powers, whether they be the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, socialist Yugoslavia, or, most recently, the European Union.

A scholar I read quoted Ljubo Karaman, a historian of Dalmatian and Croatian art, who argued that Croatia's art tradition stemmed from the "freedom of the periphery," its place at the edge of empires rather than at the center. By being situated far from economic support and political authority, artists are allowed to "draw from two or more sources and to make creative synthesis in auspicious moments." These quotes are taken from a lovely essay by Eve Blau, "Modernizing Zagreb: the Freedom of the Periphery," which can be found in the book Races to Modernity: Metropolitan Aspirations in Eastern Europe, 1890-1940.

The anti-Disney movement grew after World War II, a movement that supposedly rejected Disney's hyper-realism in favor of earthier, messier, and more experimental forms of animation that was, more often that not, produced on lower budgets. When I interviewed Bordo, one of Zagreb Film's animators, in 2014 he told me that the anti-Disney movement was a misnomer. He believed that his colleagues were just following a non-Disney philosophy. They were doing their own thing. And most of them liked Disney. The School was hanging out in the freedom of the periphery. They ran a film festival, and helped define various animation movements and styles in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in North America (read: National Film Board in Canada). In other words, they invented their own center.

In film studies, scholars have been struggling with their own ideas of the periphery since the 1970s. At this point, the cliche is so banal in my field that our theorists have successfully complicated it through transnational theories so as to deny its significance. Still, beneath all our knowledge, there is something romantic about placing Canadian animation (which survived on government funding), Hungarian animators, and Polish animators as working on various kinds of peripheries far from the centers of Hollywood, Moscow, and Japan. Whatever the intentions, the joys in so many of these less well-funded films forefront their crudities and can't smooth over the mistakes. Maybe we're tourists, admiring those brilliant artists who aren't as rich as we are. Or they're just looking at the centers, evolving in their own ways.

Blau uses Karaman's argument to define the development of the Green Horsehoe, a giant stretch of two long greens surrounded by major museums, public buildings, and the city's major train station that occupies Lower Zagreb. a construction that imitates Vienna's Ringstrasse. The Green Horseshoe was developed over decades, essentially from the bottom up by clever city planners who added suggestions that would allow the plan to emerge seemingly organically. The Ringstrasse was created from the top down. I think her argument is strong.

In film studies, however, we have come to consider analogous ideas to the "freedom of the periphery" unfortunate, unduly romantic, outright insulting. It's hard not to see the silly romanticism in their argument. Karaman's claim can be applied to artistic creation of minority cultures that exist within power centers. I mean, isn't this the Croatian version of "Jim Crow gave us the blues"?  Still, it's a beautiful fiction, one that will persist for cinephiles outside academia even as cinephiles within academia reject it. And to be honest, even as we reject it, our subconscious demands that we accept it. Whether we like it or not, there's a part of us that falls in love with these films based on our love for the primitive, the authentic, that which we have lost but somehow exists in these faroff exotic lands...

We're idiots.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

On Morristown, New Jersey

As far as I'm concerned, Morristown, New Jersey, my birthplace, is significant for three reasons, listed here in increasing levels of importance:

1. George Washington kept his headquarters in Morristown during the Revolutionary War.
2. Peter Dinklage was born in Morristown in 1969.
3. Philip Roth set part of American Pastoral in a town near Morristown.

I have no memory of Morristown. After my father's death, my family moved from New Jersey to Potomac, Maryland when I was two years and eight months old.

I won't go through the ways the absence of a father may have affected my way of being, for good or for ill, other than to say that if given the choice I would have preferred to have grown up with my father than otherwise, but that I also would have preferred to have grown up with no father than with some of my friends' fathers.

I probably would not have grown up in Potomac, Maryland, or the Washington, D.C.-area if my father had lived. There's a good chance I would have grown up in New Jersey.

That would have meant a different school system -- one that might not have had the amenities necessary for me to thrive -- a different group of friends with whom I may have developed stronger lifelong bonds, an environment that may have been less competitive but more bigoted and socially conservative, different libraries, different music, different museums, different parks, a different house with a different layout, different roads, different street signs, different creeks, different backyards through which to trespass, different congresspeople, different movie theaters, different ice-cream parlors, different levels of access to different relatives and family friends. It would have meant a different definition of "the city."

It would have meant an alternative life. I have no idea whether it would have been a happier or healthier one.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

On One Other Thing My Father Doesn't Know

At the end of 1982, the year my father died, Time named the personal computer its Machine of the Year, as opposed to its Man of the Year. In 1987, my family became one of the first in my neighborhood to obtain a personal computer, and we bought a new one approximately every three years after that. In 1992, I played a Sierra game at a friend's house, the only house I knew of equipped with the Internet, which was then a painfully slow America Online. I wrote my first email in 1997 when I was 16 years old. Most of my mail were chain letters and long diatribes about Israel and arch-libertarianism sent by a fanatic in my high school class. When I was 18, during my senior year in high school, we were sharing homework notes via email. Later that year, I wrote my first email to a professor at college. I started reading the newspaper regularly, as it was easier to glance through the New York Times online than in print form. I set up an online profile on a dating site in 2003 when I was 22. I emailed all of my resumes when I applied for my first job out of college. In September 2006, when I applied for a Fulbright, I filled out the form online, printed it out, and then DHLed it from Latvia to the U.S. for fifty dollars. In November 2006, I joined Facebook. I had gotten my first cell phone when I was 16. My mother gave it to me to keep in my car at all times in case I needed to reach her. In my sophomore year of college I got my second cell phone which was so big, I had to get a special holder for it which I attached to my belt. In 2011, I got an iPhone for my birthday. I check my email incessantly, and now primarily communicate with people via text messaging, blogging, and Facebook. When I applied for another Fulbright last September, I did everything online. I didn't have to pay to mail anything. I have more access to music than my father could ever hope to have, and it's all free.

I know people who lost their virginities to people they met online. When I was in Bulgaria in 2005, I met a man who made his living stripping live on webcam for an audience in the West. I saw a near-revolution conducted in a Middle Eastern country driven by Twitter. I saw a presidential campaign won on Twitter. I saw a new sexual revolution come alive on the Internet. I saw the Internet drive a resurgence of anti-Semitism and white supremacy. When I give my students breaks in the middle of classes so they can walk around and stretch their legs, they choose instead to whip out their smartphones.

My father saw the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, Watergate, and the first sexual revolution, but this technological shift is far greater than anything he lived through.

Friday, December 16, 2016

On My Father

This is one of the very few photographs of my father and me. He would have turned 70 last month. The above was taken when he was either a late 34 or an early 35. I turn 36 today.

To him I was a hypothesis. To me he is an unfinished book based on research that I have conducted off-and-on with little discipline for the past 30 years. Some sources are reliable. Some are not. He was an avid camper, runner, cyclist, and hiker, an amateur ornithologist and photographer. He was an engineer for Exxon. He wasn’t much of a novel-reader, but from one of his letters I know he was a fan of Philip Roth. He would have lived long enough to have read Portnoy’s Complaint, My Life as a Man, and The Ghost Writer. If he had lived, I’m sure we would have had an interesting conversation about American Pastoral and would have avoided at all costs any discussion of Sabbath’s Theater. We have hours of amazing footage of various parts of Southeast Asia during the two years my family lived in Malaysia in the 1970s. He loved Joe and Eddie. He liked to do what he liked to do, and he cared not for social capital. Unlike me, he didn’t think all that much about other people’s opinions of him. He was the kind of even-keeled dude who would leave a party when he got bored whether or not it was appropriate. From the picture above, the only thing about my life that wouldn’t have surprised him would have been my attendance at his alma mater, where he played on the fencing team. From what I can guess, he had the same mixed feelings about his classmates who engaged in protest -- I heard he took a lot of photos of the 1968 demonstrations, but I don't think we have them -- as I have of mine. He met my mom, a student at City College, when they were 18 on the green in front of Butler Library. They married two years later. He had a wry sense of humor which most people liked. His funeral was well-attended.

In a piece for The New Yorker a few years back, Robert Angell catalogued the many things his lost loved ones didn’t know. Following Angell’s lead, I can say that my father knows nothing of my world. He does not know that Reagan was re-elected or that the Cold War ended. He doesn’t know about the AIDS epidemic, let alone gay marriage. He doesn’t know that a Baby Boomer was elected about 10 years after his death, or about the oral sex that Baby Boomer received in the Oval Office. He doesn’t know about our idiot president, the black president whose middle name is Hussein, or the tyrant. He doesn’t know about September 11, 2001, the Iraq War or the forever war in Afghanistan. He doesn’t know about E.T. (Steven Spielberg, 1982), Ewoks, Thriller (John Landis, 1983), hip-hop, Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993), G.I. Joe, He-Man, Sierra games, Nintendo, Tetris, Ian McKellen's Gandalf, Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), The Simpsons (1989-), and South Park (1997-). He doesn’t know that his two sons are looking forward to an environmental catastrophe of biblical proportions, or that they refer to the Exxon and Shell gas stations a mile away from their childhood home in the Washington-area as the “devil and his brother.” It would have stunned him to know that his younger son has spent a year of his life in Vietnam and that he studies animation -- “Animation, really? Animation,” he says with interest and amusement – in the former Yugoslavia. He doesn’t know about the birth of his brother’s two daughters.  

His favorite movie was The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962). But it’s my birthday, not his, so I get to pick what we watch. Hey, dad, I get the sense that you didn't take full advantage of the '60s. Let's make up for it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

On Losing Weight

In high school I was 30 pounds underweight and I remained underweight to some degree until I was 25. Over the next 10 years, I gained weight. At the end of July, I weighed 200 pounds. At 5'11'', that put me at about 20 pounds above a healthy BMI. As of two days ago, I weigh 175 pounds. I had lost 25 pounds by the beginning of November. My weight has remained stable since.

It was hard and then it was easy. I got the MyFitnessPal app and started calorie counting. I ate breakfast between 7 and 8: two pieces of whole wheat toast with lox; an apple, an orange, or a banana. I ate lunch between 11 and 12:30 and dinner between 5 and 6:30. For each meal I had a quarter to a third a pound of some kind of meat, which could be baked skinless chicken breast doused in lemon and sprinkled with pepper, baked salmon sprinkled with dill and doused with lemon juice, or tilapia cooked in olive oil; whole wheat pasta with butter or olive oil; and vegetables, which could be a sweet potato baked in olive oil, broccoli, or green peas. After each lunch and dinner I would have a small piece of dark chocolate, the purer and bitterer the better. I ate a snack in the mid-afternoon, which would be an apple or a banana, and another snack at 10 pm, usually whole wheat toast with butter.

I would work from home in the morning, which would allow me to prepare a healthy meal for lunch. On the days when I couldn't be home at lunchtime, I would eat a piece of baked chicken I had cooked the previous night, along with some bread, and an apple, an orange, or a banana. Sometimes I treated myself to sushi. I would eat less healthily if I was out with friends, but would try to steer my group to a particularly nice place. I figured if I was going to break my hard-earned good habits I might as well make it worthwhile. But for the most part it was salmon and tilapia and chicken and butter and olive oil and pepper and dill and apples and oranges and bananas and broccoli and green peas and sweet potatoes and sweet potatoes and sweet potatoes and lox. I only drank specialty teas I bought at my favorite hangout in Ballard and club soda I bought by the case at QFC.

I did hot hatha yoga about twice a week. I jogged three miles for thirty minutes three or four times a week, usually around Green Lake.

I weighed myself every morning and kept track of my progress on my app. Then I found the constant checking had a terrible affect on my psyche. So I stopped. I saved approximately 350 dollars a month from eating healthy and almost never eating out. I put 200 dollars each month into a savings account.

I used to get cravings at night. For the first four weeks those cravings were unbearable. I don't get those cravings anymore. In the end it wasn't that hard for me as it must be for so many others. I could probably lose a little more weight if I tried, but I don't know if I will. I didn't go on a diet. I changed my lifestyle.

I was able to lose weight because I had no responsibilities to anyone but myself and my career as a graduate student/TA gives me mostly flexible hours. I have the right to design my own schedule, to run out and get fruit at 9:30 at night if I realize that I need fruit for the next day. I don't have to worry about finding time to pack a lunch in the morning as I prepare my kids for school. And if I don't pack that lunch, I am free to take a little extra time looking for the one semi-healthy food option in the area where I'm working. I have time to take an hour out of my day to exercise. I can afford to pay for my yoga class. I don't live in a food desert.

You become less lovable as you get older, and in our society, you become more hateful as you get fatter. If you say unkind words about black people, women, or gay people you are a terrible person. If you say unkind words about fat people you are essentially declaring your preference for what you or what society has taught you to find attractive, so who can blame you for following the dictates of your libido? I can't see myself dating a fat man. I'm a little happier than I was five months ago, but I'm just as shallow and morally degenerate.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

On Indoctrination

A siege mentality can lead to dishonesty. If you feel that you and your cohorts are attacked unfairly and that your way of living or way of being is under existential threat, you will fight not only illegitimate criticisms directed at you, but also legitimate ones that you have taught yourself not to believe. And this is the logic of...Why am I even bothering? This is obvious.

Of all the criticisms of the humanities, the one that stings the most is the accusation that our departments are dedicated to indoctrination. We don't teach our students the methods that will allow them to come up with good theses on their own. We tell our students what to think and if they disagree with us, then they will receive a lower grade. "You think that white supremacy should maintain a relatively narrow definition confined to conscious KKK-level racists and not be applied to systemic racism? F." I use this example because I think it's instructive. I personally believe the term "white supremacy" can be applied to the prison industrial complex and redlining, that it should have a wide definition, but I would be willing to hear an argument from a student about why the term "white supremacy" should retain a narrow definition. If that student could back that argument with evidence while also acknowledging the arguments against it, I would consider giving that student an A.

The truth is a lot of what I do could be called indoctrination, if of a relatively benign sort. In a class I used to teach, I opened by having the students read Spider-Man comics from the 1960s.  I ask the students to focus on a formalist analysis of the comics and to develop an argument of what Spider-Man represents a character. Later I teach Daniel Clowes's Ghost World, a portrait of teenage girls suffering through their ennui in a strange, lonely suburban world. If I maintain a focus on form and character analysis, slightly divorced from social milieu, while not exploring some of the harder questions of feminism or gender roles, I am leading the students in a specific direction. Now, if I have a student who wants to apply a feminist reading to either of these comics for her paper, I allow him or her to do so. But I will admit that the design of my class has determined much of how my students will read these texts. You may not like my approach and you may have a good argument against it. Still, I allow the students to go in their own directions if they ask. I allow them to say "no." 

I don't want to shut down my colleagues. I don't want to tell them what they should and shouldn't teach. The discourses on various strands of lefty politics are diverse and difficult and are worth hearing and teaching. And despite the stereotype, I will say that nowhere near the majority of my colleagues are seeking to indoctrinate their students in the classic sense. 

Still, here are some rules for teachers:

1. If for every 500 words in a paper, your student repeats three or four sentences you have used in class, your immediate reaction should not be, "This is brilliant." It should be, "I don't need a stenographer."

2. If more than a quarter of your students complain on the student evals, "The teacher only wanted us to agree with him," your reaction should not be, "What do they know!" It should be, "Well, let me go over some of what I have done in the past." Your answer might end up being "What do they know!" and you may still be in the right. But if you absolutely refuse to consider that criticism, there may be a problem.

3. If a student complains, "Are we allowed to say anything?" your immediate reaction should be, "What do you want to say that you feel you can't say?"

4. If you ever read accounts of trials of dissidents in the former Soviet Union and you think the prosecutors had a point, you should find a new job.

5. Don't ever stop asking yourself the question, "Am I teaching them how to think or what to think?" Don't. Ever. Stop. Asking. That. Question.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

On the Life of President Morton

In 2016, the year tyranny came to America, Paul Morton was living in Seattle. He was 35 years old at the time, enjoying a humble existence as a Ph.D. student, a teacher, and a writer for various web sites. In the previous years, he had grown weary of the political discourse on the left. The battles over microaggressions -- battles that seemed as bizarre to Morton and most of his contemporaries as they do to us -- had a stultifying effect on debate. He often wondered at what he perceived as the joylessness of his colleagues who dissected the ugly politics of so much work that he loved, utilizing a terrible interpretation of otherwise good theory to make their arguments. He was glad to see the gay marriage issue settled. Now he feared for his livelihood in a university system that was on the verge of collapse.

As for so many others, the election of Donald Trump to the presidency on November 8, 2016 was for Morton a transformational moment for his vision of the country, of world affairs, of what mattered and what did not matter. He grew convinced that the human race had maybe two generations left, and wrote about his fears on Facebook, a technological means by which one seventh of the human race communicated in the early years of the twenty-first century. He became radicalized. He gave money to various causes and joked that he was like a bourgeois who joins the revolution in an agitprop play.

He was one of the members of the revolutionary generation, the generation who led the Green Army in the civil war that engulfed the United States of America -- as it was then called -- throughout the 2020s and 2030s as the sea levels rose and destroyed the coastal regions of the nation. Resources were depleted. Millions died of starvation, disease, and bloodletting. But Morton's contemporaries won. When the war finally ended in 2037, Morton was 56, grey, ten pounds thinner than he had been 20 years before. He became the Minister of Culture of a country now simply called America, which recognized the states that had still survived through a new central authority set up in the coastal city of Chicago.

Morton was a democratic socialist, a self-identification that placed him at odds with the leader of the new administration, a younger, charismatic, athletic figure who often poked fun of Morton's habit during the previous war to avoid the battlefield at all costs, of his decision to spend so many hours in the office of his newspaper churning out propaganda through the print medium, a technology that had to be revived after the destruction of the internet. Morton's anti-charisma was its own kind of charisma and he had his friends, but they were slowly disappearing as the tensions between him and the dear leader grew.

The dear leader could no longer afford the presence of Morton in his administration. Morton was placed on trial and humiliated. Luckily, he was not sent to a camp. He was too well-known a figure abroad, and his death in a camp would have affected America's standing on the world stage. Morton was placed under house arrest for six years. He spent much of the time composing essays that would revive the writers he admired in his youth that few people read anymore, like Philip Roth and J.M. Coetzee. He pulled out his notes from his dissertation on the Zagreb School of Animation. He had still managed to hold onto the old films after 30 years. He was in fact the sole holder of several of the shorts as the archive in Croatia that held them had long been destroyed. As a matter of kindness, perhaps a lingering sentimental feeling for their long-lost comradery, the leader allowed him to publish the dissertation in book form. Thanks to Morton's status, the book was widely read abroad for clues that would reveal the inner workings of the regime in America.

The regime fell within a few years of Morton's release from prison. The transition was peaceful, and thanks to the celebrity Morton enjoyed abroad among liberals and conservatives alike, he was unanimously elected as the first president -- a largely ceremonial position -- of New America. "The last American democracy lasted 240 years. This democracy will last until the end of humanity," he said at his inaugration. He was 70 years old.

Morton was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech he ruefully noted that he would have preferred the Literature Prize, but he understood what his role had to be. He said that he would wish for a time when the Nobel Peace Prize was no longer necessary, but he knew that such a wish would be for a utopia, and wishes for utopias had destroyed so many democracies.

He stepped down from the presidency five years later and died of a terrible lung illness a few years after that. He asked that his remains be cremated and spread along the spot of the Atlantic Ocean that now covered his birthplace of Morristown, New Jersey.

-- Bot 6, Ro. The Annals of Human Civilization on Planet Earth. Crater 2071, Jupiter: University of
Europa Press. 2678.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

On King Charles III

I saw the Seattle Rep's new production of King Charles III, which played in London and Broadway. It's written in iambic pentameter, includes monologues, and riffs on Shakespeare's succession plays. It's a "future history." The plot: Upon the death of the beloved Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles becomes king. Although the position has become ceremonial, Charles finds that his conscience does not allow him to sit still and remain a neutral symbol of his nation. The Labour Party wants to pass a law reigning in the abuses of an out-of-control tabloid press. Despite the pain the press has caused his family, he is a believer in freedom of speech and can't bring himself to sign the law.

I wish I had the play in front of me, so that I could quote some of the clever Shakespearean turns, the combination of the comic and the tragic, the puns which make individual words so ambiguous. When Charles III realizes that he is expected to sign into law something he doesn't believe in, placing his name on every document given to him, he realizes that he loses his "name."

It wasn't a great production, but it was a good one. Robert Joy plays Charles with the appropriate combination of impotence, good humor, and sweetness. When he appears dressed in regalia at the end of Act I, he understands the comedy of royal pageantry in the modern age. He's a man-child playing dress up, but -- the play's irony -- it's not clear how much his clothes are actually a costume. And his vulnerability is constant. As most critics have pointed out, he's playing Richard II wearing a "hollow crown / That rounds the mortal temples of a king / Keeps death his court and there the antic sits, / Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp." Jeanne Paulsen had few lines as Camilla, but her role was tragic, always so close to what she thinks is power just out of reach. Christopher McLinden discovers the cannons that lie underneath Prince William, a man whose entire vocation demands that he be boring. Harry Smith's Prince Harry doesn't quite reach the Prince Hal the play intends.

The play is more timely than it was in 2014, when it was first produced. We now live in an age when the value of democracy is being questioned by mainstream forces, both in the U.S., where the population elected what may be our last president, and in the U.K., where the population elected to leave and likely destroy one of the most promising institutions for peace and economic stability in Europe and the world at large. A good-hearted but silly monarch who makes impulsive decisions doesn't look so bad compared to the current president-elect of the U.S. Charles III, in some respects, is an unelected Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939), who, it should be noted, exercises the filibuster, one of the most undemocratic mechanisms of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. government as a whole, to stop a bad law from passing.

A couple of years ago, the Seattle Rep put on Robert Schenkkan's All the Way and The Great Society, a pair of plays about the rise and fall of Lyndon Johnson. (HBO adapted the former in a production starring Bryan Cranston.) The play presents Johnson as a mad, enraged president, whose desires to push through civil rights, need to maintain power, love of dominane, need of affection, and fear of humiliation are inextricable. By rooting the play's form in Shakespeare's history plays, Schenkkan captures the ability, on some primal level, to divorce the nature of leaders from the historical specificity of the political systems that put them in place. Schenkkan's Johnson is a flawed king sandwiched in succession between two other kings, each of whom meet a separate, unique tragic end.

Perhaps these productions reflect a desire inherent in the American democracy. George W. Bush was the idiot elder son of a decent president/monarch. Hillary Clinton who would have been elected if not for the Electoral College, is the wife of another previous monarch. Beyond the literal, I think it's fair to say that Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign came across as an elegant fine prince more than a studied president, although his presidency tweaked that persona. John Kennedy was more of a Prince Arthur than a King Arthur. The succession between these administrations makes sense in retrospect. Perhaps, on a subconscious level, we imagine Obama as the son of George W. Bush, who is in turn is the son of Clinton, who is the son of the elder Bush, who is the son of Reagan. History has a way of turning into a sensible narrative. Maybe we can think of various periods of American history as separate dynasties, the Founding Fathers from Washington to Monroe, the second generation from John Quincy Adams to Lincoln, the damn fools from Andrew Johnson to William McKinley, the imperial presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Obama. Perhaps Trump is just the beginning of a new, terrible monarchical line. Whether or not he is the product of a democracy may be irrelevant at this point.