Trump fatigue

Two years into his administration, Mr. Trump’s ability to evade responsibility for his behavior, his rhetoric, and his authoritarian gestures has left many of us in a state of exhaustion. Even the Democratic Party — itself deeply polarized and divided between progressive and centrist blocs, between those leaning towards impeachment and those who fear it — seem unable to determine a way forward. Other authoritarian projects, such as those recently attempting to undermine abortion rights, curtail efforts to confront a near-future environmental catastrophe, and engage in isolationist economic strategies fatally incompatible with the geoeconomics of a globalized world, create new headlines each day, as the 24-hour news and social media cycle churns out material designed to stoke fear, resentment, and a sense of fatalism. So we’ve all turned fearful, resentful, and fatalist, which is precisely where authoritarians — especially those in Russia, which is strongest when its enemies are most divided — want us to be. We are rendered, if not impotent, then pessimistic about the actions we can take to alleviate our situation.

During a recent Reddit AMA, historian Timothy Snyder, whose books Bloodlands, On Tyranny, and The Road to Unfreedom may be among the most useful for understanding today’s situation, wrote in regard to how we may respond to those defending Mr. Trump, his behaviors, and his policies (if they may be so generously described):

I think one has to be passionate without being shrill, and insistent without exaggerating. It’s hard because not everyone believes those rules mean anything. I say that I am a partisan for my country, that I am a partisan for my children having a future with everyone else’s children, etc. The “partisan” idea is a way that people tempt themselves into thinking that all that’s going on is an argument between two sides about a reality that is basically fine. Part of what one has to do is talk in ways that make it clear that we’re all in the future together, regardless of the buzzwords right now. I know it’s hard.

Mr. Snyder and his wife, Marci Shore (also an exemplary historian), likely have little in common with me except that we both have two young children growing up in a particularly frightening political and social landscape. Mr. Snyder seems to be suggesting that labelling oneself a “partisan” is to contribute to a rhetorical standoff certain to lead to paralysis, but what strikes me most is his sentiment that he is speaking for his “children having a future with everyone else’s children,” a future that, importantly, is not yet determined — and a future that we, as historical actors, can influence. The obvious corollary is that we abandon our responsibility for this future when we permit ourselves to be drowned in a sea of lies, however exhausting the effort to stay afloat and however narcotic the waves may be.

So it’s our children that I have in mind when I consider that we need to continually renew our dedication to confronting Mr. Trump’s attempts to cordon himself off from responsibility for his actions. Mr. Snyder’s On Tyranny offers twenty practical suggestions as to how we can do so, perhaps the most important of which is the last:

20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. [Written in 2016.] Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.

And the generations to come include, most immediately, my and my wife’s children as well as those of Mr. Snyder and Ms. Shore.

Mr. Snyder’s list seems to be fairly comprehensive, and of course one needn’t limit oneself to choosing just one of his suggestions. But with apologies to Mr. Snyder I take the liberty here to offer one more, which may be labelled 20a:

20a. Learn about America’s history and the principles and ideals under which it was founded. Bear in mind that the compromises that politics makes necessary does not render these principles and ideals any less valid; those compromises say more about politicians than about ideals. The better we can live up to those principles and ideals and put them into practice in our personal and social lives, the better for us and our children, however short we may fall.

In just a few weeks, we will celebrate the 243rd anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence — another document of protest against an authoritarian, tyrannical ruler. My family and I will be in Philadelphia then, And I hope to revisit the fine Museum of the American Revolution, Independence Hall, and the National Constitution Center (perhaps to follow up with a meal at City Tavern, surprisingly excellent for what might be construed as a “theme” restaurant and which I highly recommend). I was born in Philadelphia and spent a great deal of my youth there; it was hard to walk the streets of that city without being reminded of its history. The past was ever-present in the architecture of the neighborhood, a past which also contained the ideals of liberty, freedom, and communal responsibility for each other in its history. I’m hoping that some of my enthusiasm for this history rubs off on my daughters. (I’m unaware that Mr. Trump has ever visited any of these places.)

Our generation is fortunate in that there is a wealth of great historical writers about the early years of the republic, all of whom remain active: Gordon S. Wood, Pauline Maier, Joseph Ellis, and many others have in recent years contributed to a fuller understanding of the philosophical and historical basis of American liberal democracy, as well as the hypocrisies that accompanied the foundation of the republic — again, hypocrisies which say more about politics than about the ideals and ideas of the American Experience. As we slide into what will surely be an even more exhausting election period, I’ll try to write here about just why these ideals and ideas remain important, and that Mr. Trump’s and his supporters’ and enablers’ undermining of these ideals and ideas constitute a threat to our children’s future lives in the United States. Mr. Snyder’s history constitutes a warning; perhaps the history of American liberal democracy can constitute a brighter possibility.

Suggested reading: Tom Carson on Huckleberry Finn

Some critics believe that Mark Twain’s work took a turn towards misanthropy and pessimism with the 1889 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and the 1894 Pudd’nhead Wilson, but in a recent essay for The Baffler Tom Carson suggests that the darker edge of Twain’s satire had been there all along, specifically in the 1884/1885 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Writes Carson:

Huck moves us because of how tenaciously he’s working out the rudiments of becoming a grown-up, from his budding moral reckonings to his improving survival skills. With few exceptions, he’s learning that people are rotten. That’s bound to make navigating their — or even his — future rottenness the ultimate test of adulthood. …

… [Not] much about Huck’s formative life could reasonably be described as either lovable or beautiful. There was, to start with, the prolonged trauma of growing up in the care of vicious, drunken Pap Finn; then the killing of Buck Grangerford. (“I cried a little when I was covering up Buck’s face, for he was mighty good to me.”) Even coping with the King and the Duke’s rodomontades was an object lesson in the unreliable nature of even the most casual encounters with adults on the make. All in all, only the river and friendship with Jim qualify as genuine spurs to Huck’s youthful spirit, and the river isn’t always benign.

I’ve always been of the opinion that Tom Sawyer, Huck’s sunnier, more playful comrade, may have been among the very first and amoral con men in American literature — a quality evident not only in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but especially in the last third of Huckleberry Finn as well. It may have been this encounter with Tom’s true spirit that made Twain reluctant to run Tom and Huck through adulthood in other books, as he’d originally planned.

Carson goes on to examine the glorification of adolescence in American life through a properly jaundiced eye; you can read the entire essay here.

Remembering Scott Joplin

Joplin, who died penniless in an asylum on Wards Island, shares his grave with two others; the grave was unmarked for nearly 60 years. Credit: Adrienne Grunwald for The New York Times.

Ragtime composer Scott Joplin is buried at St. Michael’s Cemetery in Queens, and this Saturday, May 18, he’ll be remembered at his gravesite with a memorial concert and barbeque. The event, a 15-year tradition, begins at 2:00 p.m. and is free and open to the public. More information can be found in this flyer.

Joplin biographer Ed Berlin, who helps to organize the event, will give a pre-concert talk about the transition from ragtime to jazz in the St. Michael’s chapel on the cemetery grounds. Berlin was also present at last year’s memorial, which was covered by the New York Times.

 

A toast to … Cafe Katja

I spent this week in a nostalgic and musical frame of mind, looking back to a peculiar television personality of my childhood and listening to a bit of American musical history.

My usual Friday getaway is to the delightful Cafe Katja at 79 Orchard Street, only a few blocks from my home; I’ve been going there since its opening in 2007, when it was only a third of a size it is now. Blissfully free of big-screen televisions (except during World Cup finals) and jukeboxes, the bar/restaurant is formally a buschenschank, an Austrian-style bistro specializing in local food and alcohol offerings; owners Erwin Schröttner and Andrew Chase preside over a multiculti staff and offer new twists on traditional Austrian cuisine. The drinks — my main concern on Friday afternoons — are exquisite, the food even more so. So I lift my glass to my Friday regular today; that’ll be me down at the end of the bar. Prost!

Less than zero

Waiting for me at home: The Yamaha FG800.

Older forms of popular music never die; they just get festivals built around them. The 33rd annual Carolina Blues Festival, presented by the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society, kicks off in Greensboro, NC, on May 18, and the annual Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival will be held in just a few weeks in the birthplace of classical ragtime, Sedalia, MO, beginning on May 29. They also become enthusiasms for cranky individuals like myself. (See here and here, for example.) A few years ago Marilyn gave me an acoustic guitar, hoping to encourage me to take a more personal and practical interest in this music, and since then I’ve tried to get myself up to speed so that I could play at least some of it myself. It’s been hard to find the time to practice, alas, which I confess I regret.

Taking up the guitar in my mid-50s has been accompanied by a series of challenges, many of them time-oriented but some of them somewhat psychological as well. Cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus published Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning, a memoir of sorts about learning the guitar as an adult, in 2012. Marcus set out to discover whether the brain (specifically his own 38-year-old brain) remained plastic enough to acquire the knowledge necessary for developing musical or linguistic skills past childhood, the optimal age for beginning musical and foreign language education. I haven’t read the book, but it seems that, by the end of his project, he was unembarrassed enough to be able to play the guitar in public.

And good for him. But I’m 20 years older than Marcus was when he picked up a guitar again for the first time, as the saying goes. And I have my doubts that I’ll ever be able to play the Piedmont-style kind of ragtime guitar that I most enjoy. Piedmont blues grew out of ragtime; as the Wikipedia page for the music helpfully summarizes:

Piedmont blues (also known as East Coast, or Southeastern blues) refers primarily to a guitar style, the Piedmont fingerstyle, which is characterized by a fingerpicking approach in which a regular, alternating thumb bass string rhythmic pattern supports a syncopated melody using the treble strings generally picked with the fore-finger, occasionally others. The result is comparable in sound to ragtime or stride piano styles. … What was particular to the Piedmont was that a generation of players adapted these older, ragtime-based techniques to blues in a singular and popular fashion, influenced by guitarists such as Blind Blake and Gary Davis.

As much as I enjoy listening to this music, it’s also primarily a music to be enjoyed in live performance. Ragtime primarily circulated and was disseminated through sheet music and, less commonly, piano rolls; although the Piedmont blues became popular some years later via recordings and radio, it remained primarily acoustic in an age when musicians were increasingly going electric. This — and the fact that the music was often taught, performed, and shared in more intimate community venues, such as living rooms and front porches — meant that live performance is perhaps the best, and in some cases the only, way to enjoy this music, both in its performance and as an audience. All music creates particular soundworlds. Ragtime and Piedmont blues styles create a soundworld of plain elegance and often melancholy; of simple joys and more complex hesitations. Not a bad soundworld, these days, for someone like me to live in.

I don’t get to either Sedalia or Greensboro very often. Fortunately here in New York there’s the year-round offerings of Brooklyn’s Jalopy Theatre and School of Music. And I have lessons every once in a long while with an excellent teacher. But listening to more and more of this music these days inspires me to step up my game a little bit, and writing this post, too, is a way of encouraging me to learn the guitar with a little more attention and constancy. Malcolm Gladwell thinks I have to spend 10,000 hours before I become genuinely adept at playing this kind of music. But if I practice often enough, maybe I’ll be able to become a little better than zero. At least I’ll be trying.