Saturday, April 23, 2011

Donald Trump: America’s Übermensch?

Is Donald Trump an idiot?

Wait! Don’t answer yet. Try not to blurt out the one-word response that is no doubt poised on the tip of your tongue. I believe we should consider this question from multiple angles before we arrive at a definite conclusion.

First, let’s look at the birther argument that Trump has now made his own. Entertaining the belief that Barack Obama was not born in the US can get a person labeled as something less than a sharp thinker. But maybe the Donald is just one of those poor trusting souls who believe what they hear on Fox News. This kind of misplaced trust has led many otherwise intelligent people into dumb, birther-type beliefs. Or, it could be that Trump doesn’t really believe the birther nonsense at all; he may just be using it to get attention, in which case he would not be so much an idiot as a shyster, and by no means the first shyster to attract a large following.

Secondly, there is the Hair. The two things everyone knows about the Donald are that he is rich and his hair looks like some kind of mossy lid that seems to be hinged to the back end of his head.

Incidentally, the Hair is the reason that I believe Trump will not actually run for president. As of today he has successfully avoided environments where unpredictable winds and such could threaten the stability of his hair flap. But as a candidate, he would be obligated to appear at airports and other venues where a gust of wind might cause it to fly up into a vertical posture exposing his baldness to all the world, and thus creating an image that would haunt Youtube till the end of time. Fear of such an embarrassment will be enough to keep him out of a real presidential race, IMHO.

But wait -- we’re talking about Donald Trump here, a man who sees himself as superior in every regard. Could it be that he imagines others to be envious of his hair? Is that why he is willing to go on combing it over the top of his head, unconcerned with the commentary it attracts? Could he consider it a secret attention-getting weapon of some sort?

Or -- could the entire Trump persona be a put on? Could he actually be acting out a world-as-stage, post-modern performance in which, at the end, he reveals himself to be steeped in self knowledge?

Imagine if, at some point later this year, he were to make an eloquent speech in which he tells us all what dupes we are for believing that such a self-absorbed, self-deluded, self-appreciating character could actually exist in real life. And he would have a point. I mean, would, say, Don DeLillo create a persona like this in his fiction? Of course not; it wouldn’t be believable. So perhaps the joke is on us. Could the Donald be performing the role of a shallow-minded, ego-maniacal narcissist as a way of making an ironic statement on the gullibility of the American public?


I grant that the gullibility of the American public is a rich vein, but I don’t believe any actor is skillful enough to perform the role of an un-self-aware blowhard so convincingly. Therefore, Trump must actually be the un-self-aware blowhard he appears to be.

Born a rich, white male in a well connected family, with the self-confidence of an Olympian god, he imagines himself to be rich and famous because of what he refers to as his “genius.” Of course, his real gifts are the privileges he was born with, and the Olympian gall that has allowed him to bully his way through a number of bankruptcies and back again to being rich and famous once more.

Devilish thought: I believe it would be kind of fun, though unkind, to mail Trump a copy of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra on the Übermensch or "superman," and to write in it an inscription like, “Mr. Trump, you are America’s Superman!”

Nietzsche as "Übermensch"

It’s all too easy to envision the Donald regarding himself as a Nietzschean superman (assuming he would bother to read at least part of the book, or have someone explain it to him).

Nietzsche was an interesting thinker and a brilliant writer, famous for his pithy quotations. What would the Donald make of Nietzsche's aphorisms? I suppose he would do what he always does: Re-interpret them to fit his own view of the world.

For example, Nietzsche, in praise of independent thinking, once said this: “What? You seek something? You wish to multiply yourself tenfold, a hundredfold? You seek followers? Seek zeros!”

But Trump, on reading this, would be more likely to take it as an injunction against everyone but himself. “The rest of you, Seek zeros! For me, I’m gonna get me a zillion followers.”

Nietzsche: “In heaven, all the interesting people are missing.”

The Donald: “In heaven, all the interesting people are missing, but that’ll change when I get there!”

Finally, there may be those Nietzschean quotations that would require no editing, e.g., “Egoism is the very essence of a noble soul.”

Trump: “Suck on that, all youse out there that wish you had a noble soul like mine!”

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Here's to Zora. And Ashley. And the Good Brothers of Florida Tile

Last week I talked about Zora Neale Hurston in Ashley Kistler’s linguistics class where she had invited me to do a guest lecture. As I explained to the class, I’m an unlikely person to talk about the great Zora since I grew up in a small southern town where all the public schools were segregated. And like a lot of people, I had not even heard of Zora until around 1980-something.

In class I talked a bit about her work as an anthropologist/folklorist in Polk County (!) and Ashley mentioned the Signifyin’ Monkey tradition in African-American folklore.

This opened the floodgates of memory for me.

Signifiyin’ Monkey.

I distinctly remember Brother Sammy introducing me to this character back in the summer of 1965 when we both worked loading up trucks with tile in a Florida Tile warehouse on the north side of Lakeland. Sammy was a Florida A&M student and I was preparing to go off to college in August, so, being the youngsters on the crew, we felt we had a lot in common. Not too much in common, though, since, unlike Sammy and all the other truck loaders, I was white.

Sammy was incredulous when he mentioned the Signifyin’ Monkey and I allowed I had never heard of the chap. I got a brief lesson right there, but I pretty much forgot about this wily trickster from African-American culture until a few years later when I picked up Roger Abrahams’ Deep Down in the Jungle, a fascinating study of street lore from south Philly. Outrageously obscene that book, but that wasn’t the only interesting thing about it. Lots of cool folklore in it, some quite subversive in tone.

It was while working at Florida Tile that I should have realized I was destined to become an anthropologist. I was learning about a world I hadn't known existed from Sammy and a couple of the other brothers who had a thing or two to teach me. There was a very sharp forklift driver named Bobby who was hoping to organize a union but who was suddenly fired when a palette of dropped and ruined tile was blamed on him.

The guys all told me in serious and earnest voices that if Bobby had busted the tile, he would have owned up to it. They said he was framed by management who probably wrecked the tile themselves to create an excuse to fire him. I have no reason to doubt that the brothers were right, and, in fact, I feel sure they were.

A heavily used phrase on the crew that summer was “Are you ready?” which was taken from the popular Barbara Mason “sweet on you” song of that title which repeats the phrase “I don’t even know how to love you (kiss you, etc.), but I’m ready to learn.”

The phrase was used by the guys to reference the recently passed Civil Rights Bill with the idea of “Are you ready for Civil Rights?” A variation of it was often used when someone screwed a job up and his buddies would start in with, “Looks like Clarence ain’t ready…no, he definitely ain’t ready…” and so on.

Since I had never met any African Americans in my “separate but equal” school, I was really getting off on learning about this utterly unfamiliar culture. One day, Ben, one of the guys who was probably 25 years old or so, invited me to go with him to Tampa on Saturday night. I would never have been allowed to do such a thing had my parents been home, but they were gone for the weekend, so…yeah. Risky Business/road trip style.

I had no idea what the hell I would be getting into when I headed to the north side of Lakeland to pick Ben up that Saturday, but I had stashed a fifth of Dad’s scotch under the seat since it just seemed like it might come in handy. It did.

When Ben and I got to Tampa he directed me to the apartment where his girlfriend and her roommate lived. Ben had brought a fifth of – can’t remember if it was vodka or gin – but at any rate, the roommate told us, “Well, I only drink red whiskey.” So I said, “You mean scotch? Because I have some of that under the seat.” Score one for us.

We sampled our booty at the apartment for a while and then went over to a local club where, as I recall, we were allowed to sit at our table drinking from our byob stash. I say, as I recall, because as the night progressed my recollections grew fuzzy. I definitely remember dancing with the roommate and then, late into the night, Ben suggesting I could use some chitlins to clear my head.

At that point we said good-bye to the lasses, who got a ride home, and Ben took me to a joint near the club where, in fact, the deep fried chitlins did succeed in clearing my head some little bit. Afterwards we hit the sidewalk and started back for the car. As we were walking, Ben, who was a good-sized bear of a guy, threw his arm around my shoulder and said, “You know, some of these guys are looking like they don’t like you, Bob, but don’t you worry. As long as you’re with me, you’re all right.”

This was good news and bad news to me. I was actually too zonked to realize that anyone was throwing hostile stares at me, but since they were, I was glad to be with my protective friend.

I couldn’t possibly drive back to Lakeland, so Ben took the wheel and we made it without incident. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but what kind of shitstorm would there have been had we been stopped by the cops? Particularly dangerous for Ben. Headline: “Negro Debauches LHS Youth” or some such.

As it happened, Ben got us home without incident and invited me to join the gang at their picnic next weekend, which, as it turned out, I wasn’t able to do. The only glitch (again, shades of Risky Business) was that the warehouse boss, who was our next door neighbor (that’s how I got the job in the first place) found out about my adventure and from him my parents found out.

Dad was pretty upset. “Good God, Bob! You took our car to Tampa’s colored neighborhood? What would you have done if it was stolen?”

I could have said, “No worries, Dad. If anyone had messed with our car, Ben would have kicked his ass!” I don’t think that would have helped, though, so I just took the scolding. I had been careful to get Ben to buy a bottle of my Dad’s brand of scotch so I could replenish his supply, consequently I faced no tongue lashing on that count.

Really, I have to be grateful to Ashley and her class for helping me dredge up these sweet memories. And to Zora. And, most of all, to Ben.


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Protecting the Truth from the Powerful

I just finished Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle, which was recommended to me by America's leading library science student. It's a graphic memoir, and by graphic I don't mean it's full of sex and violence, but rather that it's written in comic-book-like format with words and pictures. It follows, in other words, the great tradition made famous by Art Spiegelman's Maus.

North Korea, it turns out, is an entirely free and open country, the kind of paradise we Americans could only hope to someday experience.

Psych. It's actually a hellhole, albeit a rather clean and tidy one, according to Delisle. But most of us have already have gathered that from our own mainstream media coverage.

What is so bizarre about the place is the way so many people actually seem to accept that their Great Leader, the deceased Kim Il-sung, was truly one of the world's most amazing presidents ever. Also worshiped is his son, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, who, at 5' 2" is referred to by Bill Maher as Lil' Kim. Not, ahem, that there's anything wrong with being short.

North Koreans all seem to wear pins with the likenesses of one or both of these Kims, and the country has built a series of monumental statues, museums and other structures designed to glorify these two characters. And people are expected to bow to their images at appropriate times. I mean, come on, aren't these guys supposed to be communists? If, as Marx says, religion is the opiate of the people, the North Koreans seem to have OD'd on their own homegrown Kimotheism.

The Great Leader surrounded by adoring school children

Foreigners in NK are not allowed to go anywhere except when accompanied by guides, or minders, and life for ordinary Koreans is exceptionally tightly ordered.

From Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle

One thing I'm sure they don't have in North Korea is tenure. Delisle doesn't mention this, but I'm only bringing it up because I've been having a mini-debate with my dear niece, Ms. Tracy, who doesn't believe that tenure for educators is a good thing.

I do, of course, and for this reason: powerful people cannot be counted on to let scholars and educators seek and teach the truth in accordance with the precepts of science and reason. If a truth (e.g., tobacco causes cancer or using fossil fuels contributes to global warming) contradicts the interests of powerful people, these powerful ones will inevitably attempt to stifle or silence those educators who bring it to light. In the bad old days, before tenure, it was all too easy for some big shot millionaire to get a teacher or professor fired for saying things Mr. Big Shot objected to.

Stripping educators of tenure will not turn us into North Korea, of course, but it would be a big step toward that kind of society: the kind where people with power, not those with knowledge, get to decide what "the truth" is.

In North Korea, "the truth" is that Kim Il-sung led Korea to a glorious victory over Japan in World War II (the U.S. had no role in this) and Kim Jong-il was born on the sacred slopes of Mount Paektu under a shining star and a double rainbow. I'm not kidding.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

CAGW - CItizens Who Want You to Hate China

There’s an organization that calls itself “Citizens Against Government Waste” that, in fact, is trying to fool us by calling itself by that name. I’m sure they don’t like to see the government being wasteful, but then, who does? Which is to say, their organization’s name is meaningless. They might as well call themselves “Citizens Against Bad Stuff.”

What CAGW is really against is people who are not multi-millionaires. In fact, if they were honest, they would rename themselves “Citizens With Questionable Ethical Standards Who Want to Make Life Even Easier for the Privileged Few.”

I say this because CAGW has recently been rerunning an old ad, one whose messages are that (1) America has lost its way by letting government get too big, (2) America, having let government get too big, will soon be dominated by China (a country, we should note, whose government is as big as they get), and (3) Chinese professors and their students are malicious schemers who will gloat fiendishly as soon as they have us where they want us.

Let’s start with this last point, the one based on CAGW’s bigotry against the Chinese. In their ad, a gloating Chinese professor from the year 2030, laughs with satisfaction at the way Americans have been forced to work for the Chinese. His laughter triggers a similarly gloating response from the students in his class. The reason for America’s downfall is said to be its heavy burden of debt, much of which is owed to the People’s Republic of China.

The portrayal of both the Chinese professor and his students is a gross misrepresentation of what most Chinese professors and students are like, and seems designed to conjure up racial hostility against Chinese in general. I think CAGW has tried to provoke this bigotry in its viewers because it believes that the fear and resentment this entails will encourage viewers to accept its message about how America went wrong. CAGW, in other words, is not racist for no reason at all. Rather, it is racist because it believes promoting racism will help sell its message.

Let me say at this point that my work over the past three decades has brought me into contact with dozens of Chinese professors. And let me also say there is not a single one among these colleagues who resembles the cartoonish villain portrayed by CAGW. For example, in the summer of 2000, while I was living on a university campus in Beijing, one of my Chinese colleagues, whom I will call Professor Lin, described to me the anger he felt toward his own government as a consequence of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Dr. Lin told me how, on the day following the massacre, he went from hospital to hospital in Beijing trying to determine just how many citizens had been killed by the troops who rolled into the square the night before. He concluded that probably about 300 fatalities resulted from that action, and his attitude toward his own government remains bitter because of it.

Being a man who believes deeply in democracy, Dr. Lin has freely criticized his own government for its failure to implement liberal reforms. Nor is he reluctant to criticize our government for its failings. He was not favorably impressed, for example, when we invaded Iraq. He would never, however, stand in front of a class and sneer mockingly to his students about the helplessness and stupidity of Americans.

And Dr. Lin is typical of the Chinese scholars I have known. I have spent about a year and a half living on various campuses in the People’s Republic of China, including one year (1993-94) when I was a visiting professor at Qingdao University.

Not only have I met and worked beside dozens of decent and forthright Chinese professors, I’ve also met and lectured to hundreds of Chinese students. The CAGW ad would have us believe that just as Chinese professors are scheming villains who look forward to subverting American interests, Chinese students act the part of the villain’s weak and dimwitted sidekicks: They laugh gloatingly once the professor clues them in to how helpless they have made the United States.

The Chinese students I have taught have been generally patriotic in the sense that they would like to see China grow strong enough to earn the respect of the world and provide its citizens with a middle class standard of living. Some of them have even expressed a measure of envy toward the status and influence enjoyed by the United States. But no class of Chinese students would laugh like a gaggle of villainous sidekicks at the comments made by CAGW's Chinese professor. If one of their professors were to indulge in such an outburst of gloating, the students I know would most likely sit in stunned silence wondering whether their mentor had downed too many shots of baijiu before coming to class.

CAGW sees a problem with our government’s endless borrowing and so do most of us. But the problem with our government’s borrowing is not that it represents an opportunity for evil scheming by malicious Chinese; the problem is that that the massive debt will have to be paid back by future generations of Americans and thereby undermines our children’s and grandchildren’s futures. It was not necessary for CAGW to resort to racism to make this point.

In addition to expressing a racist tone, the ad is fundamentally dishonest. For example, it presents taxation as contributing to national debt when it was the drastic tax cuts of the Bush administration that broke the back of our once balanced budget.

Since the “against government waste” line is obviously bogus, why won’t CAGW explain what truly sets it apart from the rest of us? From their “Chinese Professor” ad, I would suggest it is a bias in favor of giving corporations more tax breaks combined with a willingness to disregard ordinary standards of fairness and decency in promoting their agenda.

Naive young American being subverted by scheming Chinese student?