April Fool’s Day And The Cruelest Month

The contemporary comedic take on April Fool’s Day is that it is the one day of the year that we direct some skepticism at what we encounter on the Internet; it is the one day of the year that we exercise discretion and judgment over the content of the material we read and deign to ‘share’ with our ‘friends’ online. We are treated to news of disasters, absurd decisions, and perhaps even cosmic catastrophes; we hasten to spread the word, but our hands are stayed by a quick glance at the calendar, electronic or otherwise. If only we were so discriminating for the rest of the year–when we are busily and happily aiding rumors and conspiracy theories and even worse, destined-to-be-stale ‘hot takes’ go ‘viral.’

Comedy always being paired with tragedy it is but inevitable that we should peer at the dark side of such an understanding of April Fool’s Day. For it is on this day–thanks to the many faux news bulletins that make the rounds– that many, many of our hopes are raised, only to be cruelly dashed against the unforgiving rock of the cruelest month’s first day. We are told that corporations have acquired common sense and stopped polluting the world that contains their consumers, present and future; we are assured the substances we would most like to consume but which medicine claims are slowly killing us are actually harmless and might even be good for us; we learn of windfalls and literally unbelievable strokes of fortune; the list goes on. (The science fictionish April Fool’s announcement has its own pride of place here: we are informed that cold fusion will soon power our cellphones, perhaps setting us free from the onerous business of recharging batteries, or perhaps, as Google once claimed, we could even recall the emails we had sent.) Lies, all of them.

We smile ruefully when we learn we have been duped. We had dared to hope against hope, dared to believe that this promise-breaking world had changed its ways. All for vain. That little flight of fantasy, borne aloft on wings beating powerfully and hopefully, has been called back to earth; the gravity of the real world has proved irresistible. April Fool’s Day had animated it; it renders it moribund too.

April Fool’s Day is the perfect symbol of our civilization; it isn’t enough that we have been systematically duped into imagining salvation lies around the corner in some religious, political, or intellectual dispensation. No, we must also set aside a special day of the year when we can reenact, worldwide, a human simulation of the cosmic prank.  Ours is a species that dares to hope in the face of hopelessness; it is on this day that those hopes can be made to look even more forlorn.

Note: On this second day of April, residents of East Coast received their own particular notification from the cruelest month: a spring snowfall in the morning that snarled commutes and for a few hours made it clear that winter hadn’t gone anywhere just yet.

Childhood Crushes – II: Jennifer O’Neill In ‘Summer Of 42’

I wasn’t alone in wishing I was Hermie. Many teenage boys–American or otherwise-had the same thoughts on seeing Summer of 42, the cinematic adaptation of Herman Raucher‘s memoirish coming-of-age novel, a movie that made me laugh very, very hard during its screening and then left me silent and devastated as I walked back to my boarding school dormitory after a night out in town. (Summer of 42 was released with an ‘A’ (Adult) rating in India, which meant that schoolboys regarded it with more than the usual teen-aged salacious interest. I was able to sneak in to see it because it was showing in a small hill town where security was lax. My first reaction on watching the movie was fury at the Indian censors for their prudish heavy-handedness. Many years on, it’s clear why it got an ‘A’: the teen-aged discussions of sex and a widow having sex with a teenager would have been anathema in India.)

Like other teenage boys, I had enjoyed this story of boys trying, clumsily and hilariously, and succeeding in mixed fashion, to lose their virginity; there were cliches aplenty, but they were bawdy and crude and surprisingly tender too. Looming over it all, over this scene of wartime homefront innocence, where life struggled to carry on as usual in the face of impending catastrophe, there was the beautiful, gentle, affectionate, friendly yet inaccessible Dorothy–played by Jennifer O’Neill–waiting for her soldier husband to come home from the Second World War. Hermie has a crush on Dorothy, from a distance, one seemingly destined to remain as remote worship, but by the end of the movie, thanks to tragedy, they have drawn together, and consummated their relationship in an encounter never to be repeated. The final scene, when Hermie emerges from Dorothy’s bedroom to find her quietly smoking on the porch, where she bids him good night and farewell, established her as a forlorn figure, destined to be lonely and lost in a world suddenly made infinitely crueler. When Hermie informs us he never heard from her again, their ‘romance’ such as it was, further immortalized O’Neill for me.

For weeks afterward, I found myself morose and downcast, wondering what happened to Dorothy. I told myself again and again, she was only a character, but I could not bring myself to believe it. This sorrow, this melancholy, this painful longing I felt; this told me she was real. Surely, such real emotions could not have imaginary, fictional subjects? Somehow, I had become Hermie–without the satisfaction of ever having been kissed on the forehead or lips by Dorothy, having danced with her, or ever being lucky enough to offer some kind of comfort to her when she needed it. I was a teenaged boy–all of fourteen–so it was unsurprising, perhaps, that ‘Summer of 42’ affected me the way it did. But for all that, there was something fragile and tender about Dorothy, something about tragedy meeting longing, that cut through everything and went to the depths of my immature heart.

O’Neill, unlike the first subject of this series on childhood crushes, has devoted herself to an activist cause I cannot get behind; she is now a pro-life crusader. My nostalgia for the past finds no support in the present, a small blessing not to be discounted. In any case, in this story, the character dominates the actual person; I missed Dorothy, but I did not ‘transfer’ my crush to the actress. (Something that happened with Nafisa Ali, and accounted for the greater longevity of that crush.)

Ross Douthat Finds ‘Ascendant Social Liberalism’ Lurking Beneath His Bed

The New York Times’ Resident Sophist Laureate, Ross Douthat, has a long-running argumentative and rhetorical strategy of suggesting, through dark imprecations, that ‘liberalism’ and ‘godlessness’ are to blame for America’s social evils, for they they have produced them by provoking a reaction to their excesses. If only social and political movements didn’t engage in such vigorous protest, score legal victories in the Supreme Court, and influence the nation’s various discourses, they wouldn’t spark the reaction they do. There is no systemic social and political pathology to be combated; all is mere resentful pushing back, the rightful response of the righteous–and religious–to hectoring from the left. (This should sound familiar; remember David Brooks’ claim that anti-racism protests encourage racism?)

This highly remunerative schtick finds its latest expression in the following:

[T]he Democratic Party’s problem in the age of Trump isn’t really Jimmy Fallon. Its problem is Samantha Bee.

Not Bee alone, of course, but the entire phenomenon that she embodies: the rapid colonization of new cultural territory by an ascendant social liberalism.

In such a domain:

[Late night show hosts] are less comics than propagandists — liberal “explanatory journalists” with laugh lines.

As a result of which:

[O]utside the liberal tent, the feeling of being suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance is turning voting Republican into an act of cultural rebellion.

Douthat’s Op-Ed is sparked by the reaction to Jimmy Fallon’s recent I’ll-get-on-my-knees-if-you-say-so bootlicking reception of Donald Trump on his show recently. But his superficial understanding of ‘comics’ renders suspect the entire foundations of the sly ‘you asked for it’ screed that follows.

Comedy isn’t, and never has been, ‘apolitical.’ It either skewers the powerful or it reinforces existent patterns of power. To laugh at the powerful is a political act; so is laughing at the politically dispossessed.Comedians don’t get to stand out of the political fray. (Note that Douthat describes as an ‘apolitical shtick’ a show segment which normalized the behavior of a fascist; joking around with Bernie Sanders on the same show would have been considered further evidence of ‘the left’s cultural dominance.’)

Douthat correctly notes that his conjecture about national voting patterns is just that, in noting that this supposed cultural liberalism “may be one reason the Obama years, so good for liberalism in the culture, have seen sharp G.O.P. gains at every level of the country’s government.” He does so because presumably he does not want to make note of gerrymandering which locks in Republican power at the state level, or voter ID laws, which disenfranchise voters who might vote for the Democrats, or the continuance of neoliberal economic policies so beloved of national administrations, which have systematically immiserated large swathes of the American electorate.

Douthat also displays a remarkable cluelessness in his feverish ascriptions of cultural and political power to late-night comics. The dominance of the kind of humor that Douthant bemoans on television comes about because television executives determine, through marketing techniques, what brand works best with their audiences; comics don’t drive social change, social change drives comics’ lines. Moreover, late-night television is a small component of this nation’s cultural space where political contestation might take place; far more occurs in the twenty-three hours that precede those slots, in many other spaces: the streets, workplaces, classrooms. To be sure, those jokes may animate conversations outside the television studio, but despite the chuckles they engender on social media, there is little evidence that a single voter has had his or her mind changed by a comedian.

Lastly, Douthat conveniently ignores the presence of right-wing talk radio, which is remarkably humorless–except when it is cracking sexist and racist jokes, commands considerable time on the nation’s airwaves and which is committed to polemicizing and persuasion. They know something Douthat doesn’t want to acknowledge: if you want to effect political change, make sure folks know you are deadly serious.

Top Ten Reasons America Needs Taco Trucks On Every Corner

Marco Gutierrez, founder of the group Latinos for Trump, ‘warned’ the United States about an impending disaster in an interview with Joy Reid on MSNBC on Thursday night:

My culture is a very dominant culture, and it’s imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.

Mr. Guiterrez does not seem to have done his homework on this. Taco trucks on every corner are hardly a threat to America. Rather, they represent a golden opportunity for all kinds of invigoration of our increasingly moribund republic. Indeed, it is not too hard to think of several–to be precise, ten–reasons why they do. Without further ado, here they are. (The numbering of the list below does not indicate any prioritization of any kind; these reasons are equally important for the continued health and prosperity–in several dimensions–of great nation.)

10: Late-night revelers will wonder what old-timers are talking about when they speak of ‘hangovers;’ no drinker will go to bed hungry, an achievement every developed nation should be proud of.

9: Mongolian barbecue will never, ever, make a comeback. Unless the folks in the trucks start offering fusion specials.

8: As Spanish moves toward becoming the US’ first language, it is imperative American citizens acquire adequate proficiency in this language of our new colonizers; the unavoidable and indeed, almost obligatory, daily conversational encounter with taco vendors–who, we can be pretty sure, will not bother to learn English–will greatly facilitate this process. (Though our children will certainly never be able to appreciate the pleasures of asking, and receiving an answer to, that age-old question, “Donde puedo encontrar un camión de tacos?”)

7: America’s chronic constipation problem, which forces millions of young and old uptight Americans to force oversized bran muffins down their gullets every morning–washed down with a bitter brown water mysteriously referred to as ‘coffee’–will vanish overnight.

6: The irritating gluten-free craze, which has turned many of our friends and family members into aggravating proselytizers, will finally run out of steam; Americans will go back to eating, guilt-free, all the cake and bread and pizza they want, thus restoring America to its former glutinous greatness.

5: ‘Soft shell or hard shell?’ will soon morph to ‘soft or hard?’ thus providing endless entertainment for pre-teens, late-night talk-show hosts, and the occasional presidential candidate. (Sometimes bloggers too.)

4:  They’ve got your dietary disruption right here. And there. Come to think of it, everywhere.

3: Soccer fans will enjoy the opportunity to feast on tacos in lieu of corner kicks; players will appreciate the possibility of a quick chorizo or lengua taco special while they are writhing on the ground next to the corner flag.

2: Salsa will displace that abomination, ketchup, from grocery shelves; french fries will become American, thus obviating the need to forego them the next time France doesn’t sign on for a bombing campaign in the Middle East.

1: Remember the Alamo? Me neither. Bring on the taco trucks. I can’t be bothered to make dinner tonight.

The Undignified Business Of ‘Exercise’

In The Importance of Being Earnest Algernon reassures himself that he is “not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the West End.” Upon hearing that “the gaol itself is fashionable and well-aired; and there are ample opportunities of taking exercise at certain stated hours of the day,” Algernon is dismayed: “Exercise! Good God! No gentleman ever takes exercise.” Algernon was right. The popularity of exercise in our times–or, as it is now called, ‘the pursuit of fitness’–speaks to the fact that there are fewer gentlefolk among us now; very few gentlemen and very few ladies. (We can well imagine some dignified female counterpart of Algernon’s exclaiming “Exercise! Dear Lord! No lady ever takes exercise.)

Exercise is an undignified business.  Most descriptions of the indignities of exercise restrict themselves to wallowing in descriptions of the engendered sweat,  and sometimes the blood and tears, the body odor, the rumpled and stained clothes, the ungainly bodily contortions, the falls, the slips, the many losses of grace that engaging in exercise inevitably entails. These descriptions all too often elide the profoundly misanthropic nature of exercise, its ungraceful response to human adversity.There is nothing dignified about making explicit your painful anxiety about increasing infirmity, your insecurity and vanity about your personal appearance, your abiding fear of your inevitable fate; there is nothing dignified about a desperate, overt rejection of a fate shared by all humans, nothing dignified about this disavowal of community and commonality in the face of an advancing misery of body and mind.  To be exercising when others around you are not is a profoundly elitist and vain notion, an indulgence in a deadly sin. It is a pathetic grasping at the sublime when resting content with the sordid speaks so much more clearly and distinctly to our essential natures: being sedentary, resting in repose and grace.

Small wonder then that the reaction to exercise and all the frenetic rushing about it entails is already manifest: the injunction to do precisely nothing. Mindfulness bids us be calm and stationary; it urges us to count breaths rather than gulping down more of them in a minute than was ever thought to be a good idea; it bids us slow down and sit down; it tell us that the flat stomach is to be disdained in favor a flat surface on which we may lie down and make like a corpse (the popularity of the shavasnana, the yogic ‘corpse pose’ bears adequate testimony to this fact.) More than anything, the modern acolyte of mindfulness hears the message: stop rushing around (or pulling or pushing yourself up); take that weight off your shoulders and stop trying to stand up with it. Exercise puts a weight on our backs (and other parts of our body); it makes us run around in circles, hypnotized by ersatz indicators of ‘progress’; mindfulness bids us put our feet up (and to close our eyes.)

We should be surprised it took us so long to figure this simple preference out.

Boccaccio And Double Entendres In A Patriarchal Society

In his review of a new translation of Giovanni Boccaccio‘s The Decameron (by Wayne A. Rebhorn, Norton, 2015), Stephen Greenblatt writes:

Many of these stories are scandalously obscene, but the scandal has nothing to do with filthy words….circumlocutory words, or periphrases…have nothing to do with prudery. They are part of Boccaccio’s inexhaustible bag of metaphorical tricks, and they work because, except for the crudest and most tongue-tied of us, everyone resorts to such tricks constantly, if rarely with such inventiveness. As Boccaccio writes “The Author’s Conclusion,” “Men and women generally…go around all day long saying ‘hole’ and ‘rod’ and ‘mortar’ and ‘pestle’ and ‘sausage’ and ‘mortadella’ and lots of other things like that.” The point is not that such words should rightfully be innocent of double entendres but rather that we gleefully carry our sexual energy over into everyday language, and we love it. It is part of what it means to be healthy and alive.

As the unsurprising popularity and ubiquity of the ‘That’s what she said’ and ‘said the actress to the bishop’ formulations shows, our language is littered with ample opportunities for such ‘interventions.’ Quasi-hecklers and budding comedians especially delight in these: the innocent speaker launches forth, utters the fateful phrase–say, perhaps, “I kept pushing hard” or “there was no point in stopping” or “it had quickly hardened”–and the would-be Michael Scott, sensing an opportunity, steps in with his interjection. Titters and snickers follow. Easy pickings indeed. (I cannot tell a lie; I have indulged myself on occasion in precisely such a fashion.)

But we don’t all “love it” and we don’t all find the reminders of this “sexual energy” in our “everyday language” to be part of the meaning of “what it means to be healthy and alive.” There are times when the constant, knowing, deployment of double entendres or ‘That’s what she said’ interjections can, in certain social and conversational contexts, become occasions for discomfort, for displacement, for silencing, and thus even contribute to a form of harassment. As women have often complained in workplace settings, the deployment of double entendres in conversations by their male colleagues–with nods and winks at other accomplices–has often contributed to an uncomfortable work environment. (Sometimes their gentlemen colleagues–in the bad old days–would bring their “sexual energy” to the workplace by watching porn at their work desks, or by putting up pinups of scantily clad women on their desks.)

In a society riven by unequal gender relations and dynamics, by patriarchy and sexism, our carrying over of our “sexual energy” into our “everyday language” includes carrying over a great deal of that  same inequality and imbalance. The woman whose uttering of “it wasn’t as long as it could have been” is interrupted by a “that’s what she said” in the workplace is, in all likelihood, surrounded by men who make more than her, whose work is taken more seriously, who are listened to more carefully and respectfully.

Our “everyday language” does not just contribute to our politics, it also reflects it.

Heard The One About Fascists, Socialists, And Murderers?

In Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (W. W. Norton, New York, 2006, pp. 6-7), Amartya Sen, in the course of asserting how ‘our freedom to assert our personal identities can sometimes be extraordinarily limited in the eyes of others’, slips in the following:

[S]ometimes we may not even be fully aware how others identify us, which may differ from self-perception. There is an interesting lesson in an old Italian story–from the 1920s when support for fascist politics was spreading rapidly across Italy–concerning a political recruiter from the Fascist Party arguing with a rural socialist that he should join the Fascist Party instead. “How can I,” said the potential recruit, “join your party? My father was a socialist . My grandfather was a socialist. I cannot really join the Fascist Party.” “What kind of argument is this?” said the Fascist recruiter, reasonably enough. “What would you have done,” he asked the rural socialist, “if your father had been a murderer and your grandfather had also been a murderer? What would you have done then?” “Ah, then,” said the potential recruit, “then, of course, I would have joined the Fascist Party.”

Dunno about you, but when I read this, I chuckled long and hard. This is genuinely knee-slapping stuff.

Analyzing a ‘joke’ is a decidedly unfunny business, but I’m going to press on regardless.  There are three levels on which this story ‘works.’

First, of course, is the partisan one. We laugh because we think the Fascist recruiter, the representative of a murderous regime, received a rather effective and witty, even if perhaps unwitting, comeuppance from someone he might have considered his political and intellectual inferior. It’s good to laugh at Fascists–pompous, brownshirted, jackbooted types, all of them.

Second, the story conveys the impeccable logic of both interlocutors quite well. The Fascist recruiter, as Sen notes, picks apart the ‘fallacy’ of the socialist: Why should your ancestors’ political commitments be so determinative of your current political commitments? The socialist, in response, relies on a supposedly inductive extension of what seem to be his family’s predelictions in the counterfactual state just described for him: All members of this clan thus far indulge in activity X, therefore so will I (in the current political manifestation of X.)

Third, and this might be the reason for the story’s enduring appeal, we recognize within it an abstract formal schema that can be pressed into service across variations in time and space and political commitment. This may be easily demonstrated by my twist on the tale:

There is an interesting lesson in an old American folktale–from the early 2000s when support for Republican Party politics was spreading rapidly across the US–concerning a political recruiter from the Republican Party arguing with an urban progressive that he should join the Republican Party instead. “How can I,” said the potential recruit, “join your party? My father was a socialist . My grandfather was a socialist. I cannot really join the Republican Party.” “What kind of argument is this?” said the Republican Party recruiter, reasonably enough. “What would you have done,” he asked the urban progressive, “if your father had been a hypocritical sexist racist and your grandfather had also been a hypocritical sexist racist? What would you have done then?” “Ah, then,” said the potential recruit, “then, of course, I would have joined the Republican Party.”