Forces of Chaos and Anarchy

We Should Have Seen it Coming: From Reagan to Trump–A Front-Row Seat to a Political Revolution
Gerald Seib

I have gone missing but I have not stopped reading.

That, I suppose, is a statement always at risk of being true. If so, then it’s more true than ever lately as I find my free time diminished and my workday lengthened by an untimely staff death. Once again, the universe has unveiled a nasty streak of larceny aimed at my time.

That theft has not yet driven me to oxymoronic forms (i.e., audiobooks) but it has driven me to more than one “book” stored on my phone. As my dear departed colleague, herself an avid reader, liked to say,  “You spend so much time waiting you ought to at least have a book with you.” That notion, and a bargain-basement price, explain the present volume.

More than once I’ve referenced the role The Wall Street Journal played in my development as a young professional. Gerald Seib, the author of this book, is presently the Executive Washington Editor for the paper and for a long time penned a weekly column on doings in the capital city. He’s precisely the sort of person you meet riding the Acela corridor, where I literally once bumped into him.

Gerald Seib in the iconic WSJ dot illustration style.

Here Seib provides his version of our recent politics. Political journalists are always tossing off lengthier versions of the first draft of history and the longer form doesn’t necessarily improve things. How can I say this kindly? Journalists are concerned with a coherent storyline. The tale’s the thing. They often ask important questions. But the analysis is typically less satisfying than I like.

You could rightfully argue that they’re doing their job and if they find an expert willing to lend their interpretation then there’s no issue. I’m willing to accept that. It just strikes me as thin gruel. Maybe it’s why newspapers seem less vital to me now.

In any case, Seib essentially uses his own career as a frame for the transformation of Republican politics over the last 4 decades. That’s basically from the “Reagan revolution” to the age of “Make America Great Again.” I don’t want to pick fights, but anyone who sees these poles as two sides of the same coin, or as a story of mutation-free evolution, isn’t thinking clearly. They do, though, begin with a common impulse: throw the rascals out.

You could start a discussion of opposition and rage at the Contract With America.

The story Seib tells is, by now,  familiar. Mid-century Eisenhower/Country Club Republicans find themselves suddenly eclipsed by a group that so spectacularly lost the 1964 Presidential election that any sort of resurrection seemed beyond fanciful.  If you’d told anyone in 1964 that Republicans would be in control in less than 20 years you’d have been thought bonkers. Yet you might question that achievement when you consider what came next.

First, there was the rise of Newt Gingrich.  A would-be professor turned politician representing suburban Atlanta, Gingrich engineered a stunning Republican takeover of the House. That was just a prelude to turning himself into a legislative Icarus. But before immolating his political career Gingrich spurred real changes in legislation and in how the House operated.

Adding fuel to the fire. Homes lost. Dreams shattered. And bailouts for Wall Street.

Absent charismatic leadership those changes didn’t really stick in any meaningful way. One thing that fascinates me is cultural persistence. I’ve worked in at least two organizations that, in the name of self-preservation, decreed wholesale revolutions and overturned the majority of the staff. And yet years later self-defeating behaviors and policies remained in place. Why should the United States Congress be any different?

Yet the underlying anger kept simmering and exploded again in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis. There are many ways to understand that mess. I’m particularly fond of David Harvey‘s Marxist interpretation which manages to cram in every trope I learned from the red diaper baby brigade I studied with into 11 entertaining minutes. No matter the explanation, what’s indisputable was the outcome. The malefactors–the financial elites–got bailed out, collectively, by the little people.

As a business acquaintance from the southeast always says, “Tain’t right.” And so the Tea Party movement emerged. In Seib’s telling the electoral success of the TPM in the 2010 midterms should have awakened everyone. Here was a group that could be,  and has been,  defined in many ways. Yet I haven’t seen a lot of use of the word i believe best describes their outlook: nihilism.

The great professor.
Whatever it is, he’s against it. Click the image for the musical version.

Like Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, whatever it is, they’re against it.

It strikes me that this, too, is a persistent undercurrent in the United States. However well-intentioned the present-day punditry may be in describing what they’re observing, their framing is very often too limited to “It started with _________” fill in the blank. Sometimes you get a half-hearted nod towards wanting to return to some mythic golden age, maybe the 1920s, more often the 1880s.

Such attitudes are neither recent nor novel.

Long before the Silent Majority, the Regan Revolution,  the Gingrich years and the Tea Party there was the 80th Congress, in the infamous formulation of Harry Truman the “do nothing 80th Congress.”  Which is not entirely fair. What they spent an awful lot of time doing was passing laws and Constitutional amendments related to the Presidency. They actually did pass a lot of important national security acts, too. But domestically. Robert A. Taft and his colleagues would have executed a U-turn if they could have. And they certainly were going to change some rules after a 4-term Presidency.

All that is old is new again, right down to defacing the flag they profess to revere.
Photo Courtesy RSD Museum

None of what we’ve seen since 2010 (or 2016)  is new. Nativism? See the history of the 1840s, in particular the “Native American Party,” known more familiarly as the “Know-Nothings.” Isolationism? See Charles Lindbergh in the 1930s. Urban-rural conflict? See the 1890s. It’s not just the companies I’ve worked in and Congress: ideas and attitudes stick around and bad ideas appear particularly sticky, never completely disappearing. It’s more like they go dormant waiting to be discovered anew, Gresham’s law applied to intellectual matters.

Is there no hope? In the faith tradition of my forebears, hopelessness is a grave sin.  So I won’t go there. But I fret that my children will face as fraught a time as any this nation has faced.

And like the song says, that ain’t good.

Turning to Despair

Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism
Anne Case and Angus Deaton

Joseph Heller once said the effect he was striving for in his second novel, Something Happened, was for the reader to feel like a piece of metal banged into a new shape by the repeated blows of a ball-peen hammer.

I don’t recall feeling that way after reading the novel, but the far more than 400 blows delivered in this book Continue reading

I Had a Real Good Mother and Father

Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir
Christopher Buckley

When it comes to enshrining the obvious, you have to acknowledge the preeminence of the US Supreme Court. “Death is different,” they told us in 1976. The clarification hardly seems necessary.

Yet death, that most unwelcome of drop-by visitors, often seems to bring out the best in some writers, Continue reading

He’s Been Tensing Up His Arms and His Legs

The Best American Sportswriting 2009
Leigh Montville, Guest Editor; Glenn Sharp, Series Editor

I am hopelessly clumsy though not quite an oaf. If one of the seven intelligences is bodily-kinesthetic, that’s the one in which I came up short.

The basics–walking, for instance–I find manageable,  but much more than that presents a challenge. Even the sorts of things that supposedly benefit from drills Continue reading

He’s My Brother

Hardware
Linda Barnes

It’s a dead certainty that more than once I’ve sworn to read more “real” books and less, well, fluff.

Fluff keeps winning.

My hairshirt is at the cleaners so for now I’ll confine myself to the story at hand. Once again we find ourselves Continue reading

I’m Gonna Go Fishing

Surfcaster’s Quest
Roy Rowan

It’s just a fortnight or so past the Feast of St. Stephen,  with sub-zero wind chills and the remnants of a snowstorm lying about less than deep and crisp and even. So, what better time to turn one’s thoughts to fishing?

Allow me to cut to the chase. The present volume offers Continue reading

Lost in the Supermarket

Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America
Michael Ruhlman

Like the singer in Mick Jones‘ lyrics, I am quite capable of getting lost in a grocery store. I don’t even need a special offer to entice me. The Clash may have been commenting on consumer society. I just like to food shop.

That, I suppose, could be construed as evidence of just Continue reading

Teacher Teacher Teach Me More

That Day the Rabbi Left Town
Harry Kemelman

More than once in this space I’ve mentioned my teen-aged employment in the local library.

I was always on an alternate path, so alternate I couldn’t even get a typical part-time job. Civil service and exempt from the minimum wage law. In high school. Clearly, I was going places although it really was one of the better jobs I’ve had.

I’ve also mentioned the library’s abundance of crime fiction, a category so vast it warranted two aisles of hard-cover volumes. By the time I was introduced to that trove I was familiar with crime; The Hardy Boys played a large role in my youthful reading. But conceive of it as an adult genre? Sorry, that made no sense. I probably thought lesser of the patrons who made a beeline for that part of the building.

One thing that distinguished those shelves from the others was the presence of series. Publishers of these books took a lot of lessons from the world of fast-moving consumer goods. Packaging counted, especially an instantly recognizable cover layout.

A lot of effort went into titles. Seemingly, a premium was put on any approach that naturally proliferated. You still see these practices today, titles based on letters and numbers with endless variations on simple cover schemes abound. It all serves a purpose, to help the reader find (and purchase) the latest offering.

Packaged just like flavors of Cheerios.

Among the series I found myself shelving, the Rabbi Small books featured prominently. We even had multiple copies of each title.  I suppose that reflected a truth brought over the county line from the New York City boroughs: every ethnic group seems to need its own hero. My town had two synagogues and two Catholic churches. I’m sure there must have been a vaguely Catholic shamus lurking on the shelves, too.

Until Apple Books offered this title for 99 cents, I’d resisted the lure of Kemelman’s corpus. That was more the result of sloth than willfulness. It’s not as though I’d circumscribed crime fiction so as to exclude Jewish authors and tecs. Jake LeVine, Andrew Bergman‘s delicious noir knock-off, was as Jewish as his creator.

There is nothing noir about Rabbi David Small, who in this volume is retiring from his post with a congregation located in the fictional hamlet of Barnard’s Crossing, a town on Boston‘s North Shore. The rabbi is almost non-descript. Perhaps that’s by design. As these things go, about 4% of Massachusetts‘ population is Jewish. That’s roughly in the middle between New York, where nearly 1 in 10 residents is Jewish, and North Dakota, where Jewish residents are as rare as white elephants. (There were 400 in the state in 2020.)

Marblehead, Mass., a neat North Shore town.
Click the photo for a travelog item that  mentions Rabbi Small
Courtesy Jewish Week

Maybe the rabbi and his congregation are just trying to fit in. New England‘s commitment to maintaining its regional sub-culture is evident. So all the things amplified in, say, early Phillip Roth novels–the hondling1, the big machers, the crazy-character-filled mishpuchehs–are toned down here, like January in New Hampshire.

To illustrate just what that means, the imminent arrival of a new rabbi has the congregants in a twist. It’s more than the loss of a familiar face. The rabbi and his wife are a known quantity, members of the community enmeshed in the social life from after-service coffee to holiday dinners. In a close-knit community, they’re family.

The new rabbi, Dana Selig,  presents challenges. It’s not just that he’s young. It’s his behavior. He runs. For exercise. That can’t be a good look for a learned man. He dresses casually in the off-hours. And his wife! She’s a lawyer! With an office! How will that work? It’s not that a rebbitzen has official duties so much as there are expectations of her.

That’s before the dead man shows up at the foot of the driveway of the house the Seligs are renting.

Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. Kemelman is vague but I sort of see the Smalls living on a street like this one.

Meanwhile Rabbi Small is settling into the next chapter of his life. He’s teaching a class at Windmere College of Liberal Arts, in Boston. The Smalls are maintaining their home in Barnard’s Crossing, but they have also taken an apartment in town to reduce the pressures of the commute and enjoy a bit of urban stimulation.

That dead man I mentioned above? He just happens to be a faculty member at the same school. Ultimately, by application of vaguely Talmudic reasoning, the Rabbi identifies the killer of the dead professor.

Two things struck at me as I read this story. The first was the perspective. Without doing any real counting, my guess is that the first-person and omniscient viewpoints occur equally in crime tales. And yet even when the narration is in the third person as in, say, a Carl Hiaasen novel, the impression is nearly the same as if the main character was telling the tale.

Here the author feels much more removed. That may explain the other thing that stood out. There was a lot of explaining. And not about crime-solving either. One thing that makes crime fiction unique is that it breaks the cardinal rules of writers’ workshops. “Write what you know,” they say. “Show, don’t tell.”

These are freshmen at a Catholic college. But the school is in New England and a seminar room is a seminar room.

Most crime novelists do not commit murder. And all seem intent on explaining. They almost require a sidekick to share the details with.

Not Rabbi Small. His presence is quite, well, small, pun intended. And when explanation occurs it’s less about the crime or solving it and more about the differences between Jewish and Christain practice. That Rabbi Small is teaching a course entitled Judaic Thought leaves a lot of room for explication.

There are a number of scenes involving the temple board, the search committee and various congregants. For me, these were the best part of the book. If you’ve always wondered what lies behind the old joke “What do you get when you have two Jews on a desert island? Three synagogues!” you’ll relish these tidbits.

Showing, not telling, at its best.


1 . My go-to reference for real-world translations of Yiddish is the dictionary page at Bubbygram.com . I’m sure there are more formal references available. But Adrienne Guoff’s sensibility, to me, reflects the good-humored way I heard Yiddish used by friends and family-by-marriage, so I’m loyal.

 

 

Tell Me a Story

Floating Off the Page: The Best Stories from the Wall Street Journal’s
“Middle Column”

Ken Wells, ed.

By the time I found my first job in an advertising agency I knew I had to play catch-up. Fast.

Until then, I’d been treading water. A sales job. A low-level client-side job. Never really sure if I was making my way in the world or if anything I was doing was ever Continue reading

Do the Harlem Shuffle

The Real Cool Killers
(Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, A Library of America Volume,
Robert Polito, ed)
Chester Himes

Sometimes the work of the editorial hand is more apparent than others.

It’s taken me a while, okay, decades, to understand this. At first, I thought an editor’s job was to fix mistakes. Then I thought it was to just acquire writers. It’s only in recent years, driven mainly by my lazy-man’s habit of reading Continue reading