Dining with dictators

Just to be clear, the world is not a safer place this morning — if anything, it’s more dangerous. As usual, with legerdemain of a thalidomide-damaged walrus trying to juggle meat cleavers, Trump lent legitimacy to one of the world’s most egregious human rights violators and lawless totalitarian dictators while insulting and dismissing the legitimate economic trade concerns of America’s usual allies, the liberal democracies of the west, all in the space of 48 hours. And all that for a photo op which means nothing. Our reading today is from Anne Applebaum’s Washington Post opinion piece about that photo op, published earlier this morning:

For Kim Jong Un, this moment is vindication. The wisdom of his nuclear policy has been confirmed: His tiny, poor, often hungry country, where hundreds of thousands have perished in concentration camps that differ little from those built by Stalin, has been treated as the equal of the United States of America. If Kim hadn’t continued the missile program, if he hadn’t enhanced his missile delivery capability, President Trump would not be there. …

In Singapore … Trump controlled the optics, even deliberately giving priority to a Singaporean television station rather than the White House pool. He reveled in that ability.  “Are you getting a nice photo,” he actually asked the camera operator, “So we look nice and handsome and beautiful and perfect?” As for the substance of the meeting, there wasn’t any. The paper signed reiterates previous vague agreements. It promises “denuclearization,” just as in the past, but without any substance, as in the past. It implies that there will now be further talks about talks, but there have been U.S.-North Korean talks before. Had any previous American president, Republican or Democrat, emerged from an event like this, in which so much was given away with so little to show for it, he would have been embarrassed and probably vilified.

But Trump and Kim are two men who survive, in politics, by insisting on their own versions of reality. Both have propaganda machines which will trumpet a great success. Both will be loudly applauded by their respective supporters. Both will gain personally, even if their countries don’t. In that sense, this was indeed, as Trump said, “a really fantastic meeting.”

Trump is choosing some curious bedfellows these days. To add insult to injury at the G7 conference, the reigning moron suggested that Russia, having been booted from the G7 group for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty with its 2014 annexation of Crimea and its continuing undeclared war in the eastern half of that country (never mind meddling in both U.S. and European electoral politics), be readmitted to the group. As a European diplomat said in response to Trump’s typically thoughtless comments, “We (have) always been clear we should engage with Russia where it is in our interests, but we need to remember why G8 became the G7, it was because Russia illegally annexed Crimea. Since then we have seen an increase in Russian misbehavior and attempts to undermine democracy in Europe. It is not appropriate for Russia to rejoin until we see it behaving responsibly. Putin should get nothing for free.”

Joseph Stalin and Joachim von Ribbentrop shaking hands after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on August 23, 1939.

Not that any of this matters to Trump supporters, who couldn’t care less about North Korea’s human rights record or Russia’s fascistic, expansionist tactics in Europe. Even among some Never Trumpers, the photo opportunity is being met with approval, even celebration, despite the fact that absolutely nothing of substance emerged from the summit, except the public legitimization of one of the world’s most violent dictators. It’s like celebrating the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and look how that turned out.

If anything, Trump’s continuing love fest with Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin, as he continues to undermine the very principles of western liberal democracy, pluralism and fair trade agreements by insulting Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron and other G7 leaders, should give us additional cause for worry and concern. And just last week, in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal of the Iran nuclear deal, Iran inaugurated a new nuclear enrichment facility “that will operate within the limits of the nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers” — for now, anyway.

Feel safer yet? There’s now no reason for Iran to maintain the terms of the agreement, not if it can one day provide another photo op for Trump and Hassan Rouhani. And on June 1, the Wall Street Journal reported that diplomats are now preparing a summit meeting for Trump and Vladimir Putin.

The metaphysical question of whether stupidity is just evil with an anti-intellectual tinge, or evil is just stupidity with a moral tinge, is one I’ll leave to the philosophers. On a practical level there’s little difference. Myself, I doubt that Donald Trump is evil, and even if he were, he’s too stupid to do anything about it. But I know enough about history to recognize the rise of a new Axis Power alliance when I see it.

Trump is “very proud of what took place” yesterday. As an American and a believer in a pluralistic western liberal democracy, I’m not. No American should be. It was an empty gesture that subverted the principles upon which this country was founded. And for the rest of you — well, bon appetit.

A few days ago, Timothy Snyder posted the latest in his series of short YouTube talks, “Timothy Snyder Speaks.” In it, he defines two of the central ideas he set out in The Road to Unfreedom, the Politics of Eternity and the Politics of Inevitability. I recommend your taking the brief 11 minutes to watch it.


Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018)

This week I admired a recent acquisition for the private gallery, learned a little about homegrown Central European wines, and tapped my foot to a country blues classic.

Television is good for two things and two things only: Shows about food and shows about travel. So I was sorry to hear of the death of Anthony Bourdain this morning, because Bourdain was a master of both. Possessed of a healthy skepticism about the human race, he nonetheless found much in our character to admire as he travelled around the world, even though, on balance, the bad may have outweighed the good. And he was as honest about himself as he was about the world he took his leave of too soon. “Maybe that’s enlightenment enough,” he once said; “To know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom is realising how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.” I’ll be raising a glass to his memory at Cafe Katja this afternoon. Brian Stelter’s obituary for CNN, Bourdain’s home network, can be found here.

Bourdain’s television career may be most remembered for a meal he shared with then-President Barack Obama in a small Vietnam restaurant in 2016. “He was funny, quick to laugh,” Bourdain wrote. “When I asked him if he ever missed being able to go out to a bar, sit down by himself and have a cold beer while listening to old songs on the juke, he smiled and said ‘in about six months.'” Bourdain went on:

When I asked him if it was OK that I get along with Ted Nugent, who has said many, many deeply offensive and hateful things about him personally, he responded “of course” — that that was exactly the sort of person we SHOULD be talking to: the people who disagree with us.

He was oddly resigned to and forgiving of his enemies. And when I asked him if — given the very likely ugly and frightening contents of the daily intelligence briefings to which he is privy — if it was “going to be OK” for my daughter as she grew up, he replied with confidence that on balance, it would.

And we all hope against hope that Obama was right. Until next week.

Lonnie Johnson: “Careless Love”

Lonnie Johnson playing in Chicago, 1941. Photo: Russell Lee.

Lonnie Johnson (1899-1970) had one of the longest careers of the early country blues musicians. Born in New Orleans, he was best known for his precise musicianship, his vocal talent, and the single-note guitar lines that became a staple of later blues, jazz, and rock-and-roll music. He sat in with Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five for several sides recorded in 1927; as Gunther Schuller noted in his book Early Jazz, “Armstrong is no longer outnumbered four to one but has a strong ally. Johnson’s swinging, rhythmic backing and his remarkable two-bar exchanges with Armstrong are certainly highlights of modern jazz.” He continued to work, performing with the likes of Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith, until just about a year before his death in relative obscurity in Toronto. In his memoir Music Is My Mistress, Ellington wrote, “[Johnson] must have must have been a good man, because he spoke only good about other people, and I never heard anyone speak anything but good of him. God bless Lonnie Johnson.”

Among his early successes was the below 1928 recording of “Careless Love.” Samuel Charters wrote about the recording in his seminal 1959 book The Country Blues, describing it as “one of [Johnson’s] finest achievements”:

“Careless Love” in successively bitter verses blamed love for an entire life of troubles; finally turning on the personified image of desire with:

… damn you, I’m going to shoot you,
Shoot you four — five times.
Then stand over you until you finish dying.

More information about Johnson can be found in this brief biographical/critical essay by John Cohassey.

Sparkling tenaciousness

It’s always a pleasure to drop in on our good friend Erwin Schröttner once in a while. In a new segment from his series Erwin Cooks, he heads to the lovely Finger Lakes in upstate New York to visit the Dr. Konstantin Frank winery, where he explores the history of these unique vineyards (planted in 1958, they’re among the oldest in the United States; a fourth generation of Franks now runs the place) in “Tenaciousness and Innovation: A Familiar Immigrant Story.”

Dr. Frank himself was a U.S. transplant from Ukraine, from which he emigrated at the age of 52, bringing with him the knowledge that made it possible to make such great Central European wines as riesling and grüner veltliner only a few hours north of New York City. And that sparkling riesling shown in the video already has me thirsty for more. Fortunately for me, Astor Wines & Spirits carries a few fine varieties.

Take it away, Erwin:

A short history of America

R. Crumb’s “A Short History of America” has always been on my short list of popcult-as-art masterpieces, so I was delighted to recently receive my very own, artist-approved giclée print of the work, now awaiting framing for prominent display. (A few are still available from Crumb Products, your official source for all things Crumb.) The new print differs from the 1979 original in that, in 1992, Crumb added three panels to the original 12-panel version, depicting possible future outcomes: Ecological Disaster; Techno Fix; and the Ecotopian Solution. I was even more delighted to share it with Goldie and Billie, my daughters, who are comics mavens too. In Goldie’s estimation, the most probable outcome will be that of the “Techno Fix.” “I like Ectopian Solution the best,” she said, “but I don’t think that’s going to happen.” We can only hope that Ecological Disaster can be avoided.

I first wrote about Crumb and “A Short History of America” last September. This gives me the welcome opportunity to republish that below; I also recommend Robert Hughes’ essay on Crumb in the March 7, 2005, issue of the Guardian. One of these days I’m going to get around to writing something more substantial on Crumb, Mark Twain, and early 20th-century American music, which I touch on below — and which led me to pick up the ol’ guitar myself recently — but for now, there’s this. At the end of the post, Crumb and the East River String Band play us out.

[“You just want to throw up your hands,” the original title of this post] is an appropriate response, I suppose, to so many things these days. But the quote comes from R. Crumb, as he attempted to explain the reaction to his enthusiasm for early 20th-century popular music:

You play old records for most people, and, if they listen at all, after the record’s over they turn to you and say, “So what is it you like about that old music?” You just want to throw up your hands.

Crumb may be best known as a cartoonist, of course, a prophet without honor in the land of his birth. His “A Short History of America” lithograph above says a great deal in a mere nine panels. A few years ago, Josh Jones wrote in a short essay about the lithograph: “Crumb’s love for simpler times is more than the passion of an aficionado. It is the flip side of his satire, a genre that cannot flourish as a critique of the present without a corresponding vision of a golden age. For Crumb, that age is pre-WWII, pre-industrial, rural — a time … when ‘people could still express themselves.'” And “A Short History of America” also suggests that, like Mark Twain, Crumb is a moralist as well.

Crumb moved to France in 1991. That country has been somewhat more hospitable; in 2012, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris offered the first full retrospective of Crumb’s 50-year-long career (the catalog for the show will finally be published in the US later this year). He’s also been the subject of a 2015 retrospective at the Museum Ludwig in Germany, as well as the notorious 1994 documentary by Terry Zwigoff, available from the Criterion Collection.

As a teenager I was a great enthusiast of not only Crumb’s comic work but also his excavations of early American popular music with his band the Cheap Suit Serenaders. Crumb continues to play old records for people, most recently for John Heneghan’s “John’s Old Time Radio Show,” a periodic podcast. Recently he’s been featuring early recorded world music from South America, Africa, and other regions. Go there and he’ll play them for you, too. And below, Crumb plays ukelele on “Coney Island Baby” with Eden Brower and John Heneghan’s East River String Band, recorded in France late last year. A new album by the same title is promised soon.