Forward into the past

Early this summer, Newt Gingrich’s call to revive the House Un-American Activities Committee received scant attention, but now that Gingrich himself is likely to experience somewhat of a revival in the shadow of Donald Trump, the idea is likely to get additional play.

The kind of paranoia and xenophobia that led to HUAC’s abuses in the 1940s and 1950s, as well as such shameful political misadventures as the Army-McCarthy hearings, is also on the renascence. And I’ve been thinking these days of what Joseph Welch, an Army-McCarthy committee member, told Senator Joseph McCarthy when McCarthy attempted to smear one of Welch’s junior colleagues. Let Wikipedia set it up:

On June 9, 1954, the 30th day of the Army–McCarthy hearings, Welch challenged Roy Cohn to provide U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. with McCarthy’s list of 130 Communists or subversives in defense plants “before the sun goes down.” McCarthy stepped in and said that if Welch was so concerned about persons aiding the Communist Party, he should check on a man in his Boston law office named Fred Fisher, who had once belonged to the National Lawyers Guild, which Brownell had called “the legal mouthpiece of the Communist Party.” Welch had privately discussed the matter with Fisher beforehand and the two agreed Fisher should not participate in the hearings. Welch dismissed Fisher’s association with the NLG as a youthful indiscretion and attacked McCarthy for naming the young man before a nationwide television audience without prior warning or previous agreement to do so.

Recognizing that McCarthy’s statement about Fisher had stained Fisher’s reputation and most likely his future, Welch had this to say:

Perhaps if anyone had accused Donald Trump of shamelessness and indecency face-to-face, in the eyes of millions of television viewers, the results of the election might have been different. Probably not (though watch McCarthy’s face as Welch castigates him in the second half of the video, and note also the applause that breaks out following Welch’s statement). Welch would go on to some fame, and even a movie role (he played the judge in Otto Preminger’s courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder five years later), before his death in 1960.

A similar witch-hunt seems now to be underway, with Muslims rather than Communists as the scapegoat, but not only them, either. We may ask how it happened; in March 1954, a few months before the McCarthy-Welch confrontation, Edward R. Murrow had a few thoughts on how McCarthy happened, and his conclusions were far from cheerful. They’re not only relevant in 2016, they’re essential listening. You can hear them below (and a text version appears below the YouTube video); I’ll be raising a glass to the memories of both of these brave gentlemen this afternoon at Cafe Katja. And so it goes.

Text of Murrow’s concluding statement:

Earlier, the Senator asked, “Upon what meat does this, our Caesar, feed?” Had he looked three lines earlier in Shakespeare’s Caesar, he would have found this line, which is not altogether inappropriate: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind as between the internal and the external threats of communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Good night, and good luck.

The gravest threat to our republic

While the threats of a Trump administration to American democracy are great — xenophobic authoritarianism, a poisoned public political discourse — few have observed that perhaps the greatest threat to the nation in the wake of last Tuesday’s election is the likelihood of an explosion of bad political art to be presented on the stages, in the galleries, and in the concert halls of this great country.

Of course, there has been no lack of bad political art over the past four years, but this will be as nothing to the smug, contrived self-righteousness calling itself artistic endeavor that may be the result of Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the White House. I think you will agree with me that we all hope that this will not be so — that artists will be able to take a deep breath and restrain themselves from creating more extreme expressions of a simplistic political progressivism. And we can’t blame Trump for our current situation; he does not appear to be an artist himself. But his election has now given some artists (and I must point out that not all artists are smug and untalented any more than all Mexicans are rapists; and not all political art is bad, though there’s very, very little that is good) carte blanche to shamelessly present mawkish, facile sentiments of multicultural unity as representative of the human spirit when all historical and contemporary evidence is to the contrary; to offer canvases and sculptures of amateurish caricature, pasted over with words and slogans like “resist” or “hope,” as visual art; to choreograph sloppy, abstract dance works celebrating some impossible utopian vision of inclusion; to perform loud, repetitive sound as music (most accurately resembling the wails of two cats trapped in a clothes drier) which inflicts more aural pain than it expresses; and, most terribly (and news reports indicate that this is already happening, incredible as it may seem in our purportedly enlightened age), government- and privately-funded urban artists fanning out into smaller communities to condescendingly pester ordinary Americans who have better things to do with questions about how they feel about their economic, political, and personal struggles, the results to be turned into theatre works to be presented at the Public Theater with ticket prices beginning at $95.00 — plus fees — which these ordinary Americans could probably not afford. preferring to feed their families of four for a week instead.

A dystopian vision to be sure. But we must work to understand these artists, not ridicule them. We must find compassion for them in our hearts. For years they have been subsisting from one measly foundation grant to another, making up the shortfall with grueling, exhausting university instructor positions that may not even provide them with adequate health insurance, let alone cover their Starbucks tab; they are the product of an educational system which has most cruelly encouraged artistic creativity rather than aesthetic discretion and self-criticism. They live within a self-created community — a “bubble,” if you will — that encourages them to congratulate each other for their clearly inadequate, poorly conceived work, instead of honestly discussing its inadequacy and emptiness.

They are not entirely to blame for this; they deserve our pity, not our derision. As gallery habitués, audience members, and critics, we ourselves must look inward to understand how we got into this position. We must acknowledge our own failures of nerve, observation, and attention. When the New York Times has run 5,000-word profiles of patently fraudulent performance and visual artists, we have not laughed but have purchased tickets to their exhibitions, nodding sagely at our own adjustment to the zeitgeist despite the artists’ obvious fatuity. We believe that we have learned significant insights about the political world when we sit quietly in an auditorium and open ourselves to the harangues of self-satisfied witless monologuists for 75 minutes or more. We must understand that we’re not even acting in our own economic self-interest. For the price of a good newspaper or a book, we can absorb far more thoroughly documented and nuanced insights into the world in which we live for a fraction of what we pay for a theatre ticket or museum admission.

One lesson that we should take away from the events of the past week is that this is not the time to despair — we must rededicate ourselves to protest, to hope, to understanding those with whom we disagree and attempt to have them reconsider their prejudices as we must reconsider our own. We must protest against the creation and dissemination of bad political art. We must hope that artists — and their audiences — will learn that art can be more than self-congratulatory assertions of our own misplaced, illusory virtue. We must understand that all of the bad political art of the past four years has not been able to prevent the election of a disgraceful incompetent to the highest office in the land.

We must take action; now is the time. The future of the nation — and the world — is at stake.

Erwin’s lagers

I won’t be able to get to my corner seat at the Cafe Katja bar today — and lord knows, after this week, I need it — but I can enjoy dreaming of some of the lovely beers on tap there. Katja’s beer and food guru Erwin Schröttner leads us down the rosy path of lagers in an excerpt from his new television show Erwin Cooks. I raise a glass to all of you, until next week. (And enjoy how the “Harry Lime Theme” from The Third Man, one of my favorite movies, rocks out at the end!)

Four Quartets


To get through a few recent events, I turn today once again to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. It seems an appropriate time to close the door, close the eyes, and listen carefully to Eliot’s attempt to find meaning in a fallen world.

Eliot’s own recording of the poems is rather flat and not the most convincing, but in January 2014 BBC Radio Four offered Jeremy Irons’ reading of these poems on their Saturday Drama series. You can listen to that recording below, following a worthwhile introduction by Michael Symmons Roberts, Lord David Alton, and Gail McDonald.