Donald Trump: The Man in America’s Mirror

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i. Orwell, Again (Obviously)

Even before the Reality TV circus American politics and, by extension, American life, degenerated into late last year, George Orwell was the go-to guy for so many writers and thinkers. His observations on everything from class to work (and the inexorable connections between the two), to literature and, yes, politics, has often helped inform and explain how things could become, or how they’ve always been.

This has less to do with the critical laziness that declared him our ultimate quote machine and seer of modern existence (it’s amusing to think how many, particularly in the political sphere, have invoked him without reading much if any of his work; like with Shakespeare, why bother to read the books when the aphorisms are readymade?). Rather, it’s for the simplest and rarest of reasons: Orwell was the real deal, a peripatetic and curious theorist, a philosopher one could claim, never mind the color of their collar. Not content to report from afar, he needed to put himself in the mix, as a dishwasher, a soldier, an officer; a sort of restless cylinder distilling the truths and deceptions of the 20th Century. Simply put, there was never anyone quite like him, and this, above all, is why he matters. It’s why he’ll endure; his work is not timeless so much as incapable of aging. This, regrettably, is in no small part because humanity persistently proves the most cynical and saturnine prognosticators somehow uninspired. (Especially here in the United States.)

Still, for both indolent and obsessed, the embarrassment of riches contained in his last two works, Animal Farm and 1984, tends to suffice, sui generis source code. It’s somewhat ironic that of his writings, these two have arguably aged most poorly. Not because what he depicted was improbable, but history has shown them to be, remarkably, almost trivial. We look at the spectacles of Mr. Jones’ farm and our textbooks and think: Been there, done that. After the successive outrages of dictatorships beneath us and across the pond, the mendacity of totalitarian impulses inevitably worked its way west. Between The Patriot Act and color-coded terror alerts after 9/11, it was like life imitating artless farce. (Think about Hitler, in theory; in actuality: virtually everything he did and said is risible, ludicrous, embarrassing. The mistake we’ve made trying to get a handle on him is not what skills or charms he ostensibly brought to the table, but the fact that millions of angry, credulous citizens enabled it, clamored for it. His repellant genius was in knowing precisely what thirst he was quenching.)

 

ii. Are We Not Entertained?

Which brings us to Trumped in the U.S.A., circa 2017.

Just like the man with the funny mustache, a grandstanding, solipsistic and soulless imbecile like Donald Trump could never be taken seriously unless a country didn’t take itself seriously. That’s both diagnosis and epitaph for the circumstances making the improbability (the impossibility) of President Trump our unique national nightmare.

How can—or should—we grapple with the fact that the right wing has made its bacon for decades castigating virtually everything Trump represents? Hollywood, immorality, gambling, infidelity, insufficient fealty (and/or downright sacrilege) regarding all-things-military, wild and easily disprovable boasts (in this regard making him the anti-Al Gore). For starters.

And speaking of Al “Internet” Gore, perhaps it’s as simple as this: politics aside, he played well on T.V.

Something more is at play, obviously. Yes, white racial antipathy is a YUGE factor. To argue otherwise, at this point, is both delusional and dangerous. Scarily, thought, it goes far beyond folks being whipped into a self-abnegating fury by Fox News. It’s the 21st Century, and we’re obliged to wonder: are the better angels of these folks’ natures being corrupted or, at long last, did the right cult of personality disorder finally reinforce the things they want and need to hear?

The hollowness of the Christian right is now irrevocably laid bare, as they don their MAGA hats in support of a man representing practically everything Jesus denounced.

And yes, there’s no question that as actors, athletes and even “Fake Media” outlets print money at unprecedented rates while red states insist on electing people opposed to living wages, Trump can be seen as the symptom, not the disease.

Still, it’s a combination of resentment, rage and denial that make anyone, whoever they are and wherever they live, able to suspend disbelief to the extent that they still, after eight months, support President* Trump.

Sure, we could talk about the undeniable Russian collusion, the unconscionable decisions James Comey made, or the myriad mistakes the Clinton campaign is begrudgingly beginning to acknowledge—none of which should ever let the obstreperous Bernie Bros off the hook. We certainly must contemplate the havoc right-wing media has wrought, a decades-long work in progress which, in hindsight, makes Trump seem almost inevitable. And despite the imperfect storm of factors that contributed to Trump’s win*, the fact remains: it should never have been close. So, even if we come to discover every worst-case scenario and fear is true—that votes were rigged, Russians did their worst, that God Herself made it so—we must grapple with the depressing fact that even Trump probably never realized how incomparably he appealed to every horrific instinct simmering just beneath the surface of America’s cauldron.

Just because there are plentiful reasons to explain how and why Trump happened, it doesn’t mean we should accept it. Or worse, resign ourselves to it. Indeed, as more evidence of the mendacity, cynicism and malpractice (both political and journalistic) pours in, we are presented with an opportunity. And therein lies a sliver of hope for these very ominous times.

iii.                On Tramps and Trump

Revisiting Orwell’s first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, I wasn’t prepared for the shock of recognition that occurred in the latter pages. With his laudable compulsion to be involved in his reporting, the author spends several months as a dishwasher in Paris, and then living amongst the tramps in London. In a scene that could have been written today (In Paris, London or especially America), Orwell complains about the mindless waste of food he witnessed while working in one of the charity kitchens. His companion—a veteran of the rough roads—manages to astound a writer celebrated for not being easily astonished.

“They have to (throw away the extra food),” he said. “If they made these places too comfortable, you’d have all the scum of the country flocking to them. It’s only the bad food as keeps all that scum away. These here tramps are too lazy to work, that’s all that’s wrong with them. You don’t want to go encouraging them. They’re scum.”

I produced arguments to prove him wrong, but he would not listen. He kept repeating:

“You don’t want to have any pity on these here tramps—scum, they are. You don’t want to judge them by the same standards as men like you and me. They’re scum, just scum.”

…I imagine there are quite a lot of tramps who thank God they are not tramps.

Sound like sentiment we’ve heard once or twice these recent months, as unemployed “patriots” in opioid-infested states clamor for their “big, beautiful” wall?

The cynic might inquire: same as it ever was?

Maybe. But this passage serves as a necessary reminder: the cancer (which is, take your pick: anti-patriotic, anti-reason and most definitely anti-Christian, all three labels Republican branding has brazenly co-opted for decades) metastasized long before a slum lord scion became Tweeter-in-chief.

If there’s any silver lining in Trump’s curious and untenable ascendency, it’s that this monster of our making is no longer operating under cover of darkness, abetted by propaganda and innuendo. It’s out in the open and, for once, some of the (literally) torch-carrying villagers are chasing him, not because he’s a monster but rather a perverse Pied Piper.

Of course it’s depressing that, post-Katrina and Wall Street meltdown, this seemingly ceaseless reminder is even necessary. Race, resentment and political malpractice, again, aside, we are seeing how the GOP rolls when they’re obliged to do something aside from obstructing. Trump’s victory* proved we still hadn’t learned. Does this mean we are not capable of a course correction?

(Regarding malpractice, Obama in particular, and the Democratic party in general, own their fair share of the blame: they had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a forceful, irrefutable case for the efficacy of government and policies that used to be both uncontroversial and bipartisan. To insist that Obama counted on some collective accord just as Trump has instigated a cultural cacophony is at once accurate yet insufficient. Unreasonable hopes, naïveté and overconfidence allowed an imploded ideology to rise, and rally.

There’s plenty of tragedy and dark humor regarding what could have been. The pertinent issue is whether Democrats can, finally (for once?) organize, unify and convert this calamity into…change we can believe in? It’s hardly hyperbole to insist we’re at a threshold moment.)

Books and careers will be created describing how 2016 happened, but if we’re not able to excise this tumor, Trump will endure as preview instead of apotheosis.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings.

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Washing Dishes as Antidote for Apathy

Help wanted sign on the Mexican border.

Tom Sietsema, the excellent food critic for The Washington Post, wrote a fantastic piece about dishwashers (in general) and his experience, as a dishwasher, on 8/7/17.

I highly recommend this piece to anyone, but to be certain, anyone who has never worked in the service industry will be enlightened.

Long and short: Sietsema volunteered to go inside a busy restaurant to see, and feel, firsthand, what it’s like. Why?

Because I wanted to experience firsthand the job that CNN star Anthony Bourdain says taught him “every important lesson of my life,” the one New York chef Daniel Boulud calls “the best way to enter the business.”

There are several illuminating observations, and here’s a short history of why, inside successful restaurants, reliable dishwashers are not only appreciated, but celebrated:

The median annual wage for the 500,000 or so dishwashers in the United States is about $20,000, up only $4,000 or so from just over a decade ago. But a few restaurants, including the French Laundry, give cleaners the stature of sous chefs and extend titles that capture the broad range of responsibilities.

Without them, “everything would break down.”

“We don’t call them dishwashers, but porters,” says Keller, who got his start washing dishes in his mother’s restaurant, the late Bay & Surf in Laurel, Md. “We give them the same respect we give anyone else in the restaurant.” Indeed, the only difference between the embroidered uniforms worn by his chefs and his porters are the latter’s short sleeves.

When I start my shift at Caracol, an upscale Mexican seafood restaurant in Houston, Keller’s words are echoing in my head: “Everyone in the restaurant depends on you,” he told me. “If there are no glasses, drinks don’t get served. If there is no silverware, tables can’t get set. If there are no pots or pans, food doesn’t get cooked.”

I couldn’t help, reading this piece, hoping a handful of ignorant or apathetic folks might gain an otherwise unobtainable appreciation for how difficult this work is, how important, and how anonymous. With my own considerable experience in the service industry, I never need to be reminded that the most challenging job is done by those who are paid the least. That our restaurants and, not for nothing, our economy, rely on the efficiency of these folks, many millions of whom are casually derided as “illegal immigrants,” is one of the obscene ironies of a uniquely American cognitive dissonance, one that has been utilized to cynical effect by our current president and the imbeciles who support him.

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Why bring politics into it? Short answer, duh. Longer answer, courtesy of the ever-reliable (and prescient) George Orwell: “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Speaking of Orwell, it was his seminal memoir Down and Out in Paris and London that helped me understand, appreciate and articulate the historical and sociological interstices of injustice. As important, he was the first great writer I encountered who described the marginalized with both empathy and rigor. The typical authority of his observations satisfy on literal and artistic levels:

It was amusing to look round the filthy little scullery and think that only a double door was between us and the dining-room. There sat the customers in all their splendor –spotless table-cloths, bowls of flowers, mirrors and gilt cornices and painted cherubim; and here, just a few feet away, we in our disgusting filth…There was no time to sweep the floor till evening, and we slithered about in a compound of soapy water, lettuce-leaves, torn paper and trampled food…the room had a dirty, mixed smell of food and sweat…This washing up was a thoroughly odious job –not hard, but boring and silly beyond words. It is dreadful to think that some people spend their whole decades at such occupations. The woman whom I replaced was quite sixty years old, and she stood at the sink thirteen hours a day, six days a week, the year round.

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Check this out:

A dishwasher in a busy restaurant is a modern-day Sisyphus, sending his load of clean plates, cups, glasses and utensils steaming and shiny up the hill to hungry patrons, only to have a fresh batch of soiled work come back to him, over and over until that last cycle has gone through the long-suffering machine. And yet there’s a satisfaction in this. While it’s repetitious, by the end of the evening there’s an end, an immutable sense of accomplishment, having ensured all the dirty objects have become clean. There’s a cause and effect, a purpose served, that makes even the most demeaning and thankless work rewarding in its way. It’s an occupation everyone should be required to try at point or another, but a job no person should suffer through for more than a few years.

That’s an excerpt from my as-yet unpublished novel, The American Dream of Don Giovanni. Inspired in large part by actual events experienced by the author during his times in “the industry,” it presents, I hope, as accurate a portrayal as possible of this world.

More politics? Definitely.

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if you are a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right (and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is certain of either of those things is already a lost cause, intellectually and morally), reading a book like Down and Out in Paris and London changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology.

Put another way, even if you are open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you very little), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious nonidentification”. This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or ascomb from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes truths and facts (even if couched in fictional narratives) that are outside of time and agenda.

It is, therefore, easier then to make connections between Irish immigrants who worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the meatpacking plants in Chicago (Jurgis Rudkus, anyone?) and Mexican immigrants –especially the illegal ones– who labor in sweltering kitchens and frigid fields all across our country. It is impossible not to put human faces and real feelings alongside this suffering and start connecting the dots that define how exploitation works. All of a sudden, it’s less easy to espouse the impartial axioms of the Free Market and the immutable forces of commerce or especially the notion that (in America anyway) everyone starts out at the same place and those that work hard enough and say their prayers and drink their milk will attain vast fortunes without breaking laws, stepping on innocent faces and engaging in the oppressive pas de deux with Power (and the puny but influential people who possess it). Then, presumably, it goes from being merely disconcerting to outrageous that the weasels of Wall Street are back in business with billion dollar bonuses (thanks tax-payers!) and unionized public school teacher pensions (and the immigrants providing so much of this industry, and revenue) are being blamed for America’s current deficits.

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Here’s, well, an excerpt from an excerpt. My short story, “No Tengo a Nadie“, is an excerpt of sorts from the novel. (I’ll embed the link to the published piece, below.)

Washing dishes, for instance, is a good job, particularly in light of the alternative options, such as the uncertainties involved with construction work, or moving furniture, or washing windows two hundred feet above the ground, all outdoors, all day, in summer and winter.

Two jobs, the same job. The same work at two workplaces. A necessary and normal routine, because none of the employers are interested in paying overtime. The better jobs, in the better restaurants (where they will provide you with plastic gloves, apron and a free meal each shift) do not come easily. Even if you are fortunate enough to find one, or make the connections necessary to get considered for one, there is always the fear of being replaced: you are easily expendable since the supply considerably outweighs the demand. So, you work.

***

From his cramped corner in the sweltering kitchen, he grabs another steel pan—the same one might get scrubbed clean thirty times in a single evening—and gently places it in the sanitizing solution, always a numbing, not unpleasant sensation after the steaming mess of filthy water. It does not take long for the feeling to leave your hands if you left them too long in the cold, deceptively soothing water, as he discovered once while emptying a drain clogged with broken glass. He didn’t feel a thing until he pulled his shredded hands out into the warm air and saw the blood bubbling through the holes in his rubber gloves.

 

 Read the rest, via the link below.

No Tengo a Nadie (Pushcart Prize Nominated Fiction)

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