Monday, May 29, 2017

Trump Abroad

Reviving the Boorish American

            The spectacle of Donald Trump abroad last week reminded me of the portraits of Americans abroad in the late 19th-century novels of Henry James. James consistently contrasts the naive optimism, the crass commercialism, and the clueless social behavior of his countrymen and women with the sophisticated, culturally rooted, class-conscious societies of Europe where the American nouveau riche was regarded as vulgar, unmannered boors with an uncanny ability to destroy their personal reputations.
Henry James
            The problem with that: The Europeans needed the excessive wealth these American boors were looking to invest because their own exhausted economy was buckling under centuries of war.
            Not much has changed since that gilded age, except that the boorish American has become President and is now toasted and feted among oppressive regimes who appreciate his nihilistic vision of arms for dictators and nothing for the people, ignoring existing western democratic values in favor of a militarized,  authoritarian regime—the Trump Regime.
            Meanwhile, in Europe, they see that kind of a Trump Regime as a dangerous threat to the world order which America has led since the end of World War II. The Trump Regime will spend billions for arms in the Mid-east but will significantly cut what it spends to defend our democratic allies in Europe and elsewhere.
            The New World (Democratic) Order of the alliance between Europe and the U.S. is over, it seems, or greatly modified.
The American World Order
            I’ve lived all my life under that American world order. It’s not utopian by any means, but it’s based upon democratic principles developed in the eighteenth century by European philosophers and the American revolutionaries who took the emerging Enlightenment ideas and ran with them to found the USA, soon to become one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, thanks to free enterprise, including slavery.
            That untethered freedom to pursue wealth became part of the unwritten understanding of what American democracy meant. In Europe old aristocratic families were the arbiters of social relations. Everyone learned the aristocratic way of holding a knife and fork. But in America there were no old families to govern taste. There were just wealthy families, who were the first to claw their way to a generous helping of the newly developing American Dream. They were the ones who went abroad, offending the delicate tastes of the Europeans at every turn.
            Jala and I encountered that phenomenon when we traveled in Europe during the summer of 1964. At that time the New (Euro-American) World Order was just beginning to take off as thousands—probably millions—of young Americans traveled abroad and got the taste of other cultures. For us it was a transforming experience, simply because, as unrealized artistic souls ourselves, we were blown away by the art and architecture everywhere on display and available to the public.
            Our life together as artists and writers and dabblers in ancient wisdom began that summer of 1964 when the consciousness of our distinct identities woke up. We ditched the American clothes we brought with us, picked up some European styles in an Italian open-air market, and hitch-hiked our way from outside Naples to Calais, stopping at every site where great art was on display. It was a tremendously illuminating liberation from the bourgeois consciousness of practical survival which permeated our backgrounds. With my college French retrieved from memory and Jala’s pidgin Italian picked up from her elderly relatives, we obscured our identities as Americans and were greeted in many places as international citizens whose country-of-origin was not immediately apparent. Like the man who sold us tickets to the carnival rides in Calais, where we were enjoying ourselves exceedingly:
            “Quell nationalité,” he asked.
            “Americain,” I said.
            “Americain!” he cried, as if astonished.
            “Oui,” I said, proud of not being recognized as an ugly American.
            We saw one of those in real life on our Channel crossing from France to England on the very day after we’d enjoyed ourselves at the carnival.
            We were on the deck of the ferry watching the weather and the water when our attention was drawn to a guy sitting on one of the deck chairs—tipsy if not drunk—who announced to all assembled that he was an American enjoying himself immensely here in Europe. He wore a semi-conservative, green-and-gray checked sport jacket—collar open-no tie—and was about forty-five. He had his left arm around a pretty young blonde in a mini-skirt, who sat on his knee, and in his right hand—God’s truth, I swear—he held up a fat wad of American bills. “It’s easy to get along here in Europe,” he said—indicating his blonde trophy, who smiled on command—“when you’ve got enough of these,” holding up his wad of American money.
            So the boorish American still existed in 1964. We saw others, but that guy won first prize.
Cultural Shock
            The cultural shock came home more vividly, however, right after we returned to America after twelve weeks abroad. Before heading back to graduate school we stayed briefly with my in-laws on Long Island, giving us the opportunity to see Michelangelo’s Pieta at the New York World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows. We’d seen his other three in Europe and wanted to complete our experience of the series.
Pieta del Duoma
            Our favorite, which we went back to nearly every day of the total two weeks we spent in Florence, was the Pieta del Duomo di Firenze, the Pieta housed in the spectacular Duomo cathedral, which dominates the cityscape of Florence, Italy, like a huge watch tower.  Also called The Deposition and sometimes Christ Lowered into the Tomb, this masterpiece sat not far from inside the main entrance of the cathedral. There may have been a rope or chain holding the public back from touching the sculpture, but otherwise we were able to get close enough to see the chisel marks Michelangelo left in the marble. It’s awesome to stand that close to such a work of artistic genius and admire it at your leisure. 
Vatican (and New York) Pieta

            The fourth Pieta, transported to New York from the Vatican that summer, is the critics’ choice for world favorite. The poignantly realistic sculpture portrays a limp, very dead Jesus lying over the lap of his mother, whose face, with closed eyes, expresses a serenity so subtly combined with grief that one stands transfixed at how life-like cold stone can be made to seem. But I can’t say I got close enough to the Pieta in New York to have seen that.
            To view the American display we stood on a conveyor belt which took us into an enclosed, chapel-like environment bathed in blue lights with sacred music—think Mormon Chapel Choir—piped in from above. Twelve or fifteen yards in front of us, at an angle of perhaps twenty degrees below our level, the Pieta was displayed as if it were a sacred object in a Hollywood vision. Giving us perhaps a minute to spend with the sculpture, the belt then spit us out into the crowd again at the other end of the display.
            And did I mention the solid pane of bullet-proof glass mounted between the Pieta and we who passed by on the conveyor belt?
World's Fair Pieta
Viewed from conveyor belt

            (For the record, the Florentine Pieta is no longer in full public view but has been moved to the adjoining Duomo Museum, where it may be seen, along with other timeless art and objets d’arts, for a small fee.)
            It seemed to Jala and me that we were in a sense forced to leave behind our new perceptions and perspectives on this enormously wider world we’d discovered just so we could assimilate back into American life. And we never were entirely successful in accomplishing that. Fortunately, though, American life has transformed in the decades since 1964. Diversity, globalism, expanded civil rights to groups once not only excluded but despised, have especially advanced citizen sophistication in many areas.
Repealing the 20th Century
            But with Trump we see a backlash to an age before any of this happened. The Trump Regime is working to create a new gilded age which, in a way, seeks to reverse the entire twentieth century, at least when it comes to equitable distribution of the world’s resources. The idea that the Earth belongs to everyone who lives here is some sort of heresy that enrages the regime’s supporters. The supposition that personal freedom needs restraint to achieve the greatest societal good evokes disturbing outbreaks of red-faced rage. The suggestion that the Trump Regime is the worst of an uncivilized rogue element in the American character—descendants of the criminals who poured over here en masse to make a fortune from stolen land—is not welcome in our current dominating political environment.
            But it’s all true. All that’s missing is the realization, not that America is at a critical choice between full democracy and some sort of oligarchy or authoritarian hybrid, which it is, but that America is about to lose its claim as the hope of the world because the foundations of our much-vaunted and admired system are rotting and collapsing under the weight of every person’s inalienable right to get rich, as Ronald Reagan so transparently articulated.
Trump at NATO last week
            Trump is the personification of America’s love affair with wealth, as our European allies look on with varying degrees of pity and fear, not because wealth puts them off but because Trump is vulgar, crude, and hostile in his display of it. As others have pointed out, his admiration for the Saudi princes, Netanyahu, Erdogan, the despicable Duterte, and of course Putin and Xi Jinping is striking compared to his tense relations with our allies in the one-world international order we’ve been committed to protecting and pursuing in agreements supposedly cemented fifty, sixty, and seventy years ago.
Is Democracy Sacred?
            It’s fair to ask, “So what? Is Democracy sacred, a best of all possible societies? Why should any of us be worried if it changes into a dictatorship?”
            I worry because it seems to me that Democracy, particularly a liberal Democracy such as America became, despite increasing counter-pressures, between the late 1950s and the election of 2016, provides an opportunity for all souls to grow and develop according to their own lights. And that, it seems to me, is in accordance with a Divine Plan, if there is such a thing, to evolve life forms with increasing ability to live in harmony with each other rather than in a state of Nature which the predatory and ostentatious capitalism of the Trump Regime is pushing as a social philosophy.
            We couldn’t be more out of step with loftier principles of human activity than we are with Trump, whose regime glorifies cash over character, popularity over substance, and who is greeted everywhere with false smiles currying favor in the hope that the rich, boorish American will drop a bundle of those coveted American dollars before he leaves for his next stop on his historical tour of our allies, European and Mid-eastern.
            By the time he comes home we understand that American interests have shifted. Our rulers are no longer interested in preserving and carrying forward an historical tradition dating back at least 5,000 years. Like the radical groups that blow up cultural icons of competing religions, we as a society have given permission to a rogue regime to explode the democratic ideals I’ve seen growing over a lifetime.
            The underlying vision directing history after the disaster of World War II was toward cooperative unity among nations. One day--perhaps we might even live to see it--humanity would become one race of many cultures connected to everything we are, from the single cells that emerged from “nothing” to the greatest souls who ever walked the planet and taught us how to cope with our single-most common problem which we share with everything that lives on Earth—mortality.
            That illusion of unity is gone with the Trump Regime. But what are we replacing it with? So far, amidst all the bluster and noise about fake news and pity for poor picked-on Donald who’s way too terrific for the jealous to endure, all we’ve got now is an inferior culture with a huge arsenal of deadly weapons to blast anyone who tries to contradict us in the claim that we are still the best country in the world.
            Seems like we’re not in the mood to play with our old friends. We’re tired of them. We like the idea of a strong man. Maybe a King. Or an Emperor? Why not a competition among dictators for the role of Emperor of Earth? We could hold televised auditions, online voting, and pick the Ruler of the World like we pick winners on the Amateur Hour by who gets the highest reading on the virtual applause meter.
            Donald Trump would win. Believe me. And it’ll be terrific.
            But the art! What will happen to the art when boorish wealth takes over the world? Will it disappear into private collections, even in Europe?
            Sometimes I feel most grateful for living in a prosperous, cultured time, which I realize is rare in history. Sometimes I want to weep to think that this era of privilege for others like me is ending, when the treasures of culture were readily available to any student who could afford a $250 round-trip plane ticket to Brussels. Sometimes I want to fight against the wave of cultural ignorance that has gathered like a tsunami bearing down upon the Age of Enlightenment, which enemies call a failure.
            Maybe they’re right. Maybe history moves in circles, not in a line. Maybe there’s no culture, however beautifully portrayed in art, which compensates for human weakness and stupidity. Maybe life is a matter of a few winners, who we admire, and many losers, who we dismiss with contempt. Maybe we live, after all, in a state of Nature and Man is just a successful species of primate whose time on the planet is short. Maybe we shouldn’t defend people who don’t pay us for it. That’s what any minimally rational animal in the jungle would decide.
            Or maybe we’re just passing through “the Trump Hump,” as Jala named it, when progress toward an interdependent world must pause, must wait for those who don’t yet accept global inclusion to get over their anger and insecurity, change their minds, and come along willingly. If the Trump Regime falls under its own weight of inefficiency, corruption, nepotism, lies, and dictatorial tendencies, we’ll have another chance to rethink what we’ve done to our Democracy by electing this shrewd but Ugly American as our President.
            But if the Regime somehow survives and succeeds, in its own terms, we’ll be in a new era where Democracy loses ground to authoritarian control and a huge majority of us become serfs in a new feudalism.
            It’s too early to tell which way, if either, it’s going. But if I had to choose another place to live to escape an ugly regime, I’d choose southern Europe for the weather and for the art. 
            In the meantime, welcome home to America, Donald, where culture has yet to fully penetrate. I know you don’t feel it quite as we did back in 1964, but, as someone once said, it takes a lot of history to make a great civilization. We’re obviously not there yet. Hopefully you’re a wake-up call, not a trumpet sounding Taps.


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