22 January 2018

The Trick is Finding Someone Whose Unusual Interest in Dwarfs Has Forced Them to Sell Their Art

From the early 1500s to early 1600s, the English destroyed a lot of art. Perhaps as much as 98% of their paintings and statues as part of their rejection of Catholicism and its rather worldly reliance on images. 

King Charles (the king who ruled until the Puritans cut off his head in 1649) revived an interest in art. An avid collector, at one point he was able to get a good deal on some great paintings (among them a Titian) because a certain Gonzaga family had fallen on hard times morally and financially; only interested in sex with dwarfs, they sold him paintings in order to get money to purchase a rather extraordinary Hungarian she-dwarf for a high price. (Yes. The actual woman. Not a painting of her.)

Had Shakespeare only lived a few more decades, he could have included accounts like this in his plays. As it is, we have only stories of passionate teens and mad kings.

[This is a story that was casually dropped into conversation on Andrew Marr's Start the Week podcast today. It struck me as remarkable.]

05 January 2018

The Real Culprits in the Trump Presidency

We've watched a year of extreme incompetence in Trump's presidency. Not only does he not understand trade or war or trade wars or any of a hundred other topics intrinsic to governing, he lacks interest in these topics or the cognitive ability to process any data or narratives with more subtlety than a bumper sticker. Since Twitter has allowed a doubling of character limits to 280, even his tweets have taken on a curiously rambling tone, becoming even less coherent. Every successful politician represents some serendipitous match of time and destiny; it may well be that one of the chief reasons for Trump's political success is that his thoughts and policies don't need to be packaged to fit into a 140-character limit but are actually birthed whole at no more than 140 characters. Twitter was the perfect medium for Trump, a medium serendipitously designed to the exact dimensions of his cognitive limits.  

Now that Wolff's book is revealing so much that - as James Fallows says - is an open secret, pundits are coming out critical of his staff for not outing him as grossly incompetent. Among the many open secrets about Trump is the fact that the man who was already prone to repeat stories in a thirty-minute cycle has reduced that cycle to about 10 minutes. This is a man bragging about the size of his nuclear bomb button, threatening nuclear war against the poor people of North Korea whose lives have already been ruined by one madman and could now be ended by another. He's easily distracted and apparently has little interest in consequences. 

The Republican Congress, too, has been criticized for worrying more about protecting Trump than the country. Ryan and McConnell haven't had courage enough to criticize Trump on any of his tweets, positions, or evidence of madness and incompetence. 

There is a group, though, that bears the most responsibility for Trump and has not been criticized at all: Republican voters.

Republican voters excitedly voted for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. These voters cheered on an invasion of Iraq and then screamed about a stream of refugees from Iraq and the rise of ISIS out of the chaos of that country. These voters cheered deregulation of financial markets and then screamed about the Great Recession that quickly destroyed a decade's worth of jobs in just a few years. Like moths to a flame, they want their hand on the burner but are mad about it hurting. These are not people who understand cause and effect that takes months or years to play out. These people are upset about the number of Muslim refugees who have come into Europe but don't see it as connected to their insistence that we literally bomb Iraqis to liberation. These people were upset about the number of unemployed but don't see it as connected to their cheering for deregulation, or in simpler terms, removing rules that made financial markets more fair and safe. ("Why do you make our kids wear helmets when they don't want to!" Games later, "How could you let our kids get these kinds of head injuries?")

Undeterred by how badly the Bush Cheney experiment went, Republican voters went all in on a vice presidential candidate who showed about as much understanding of policy as someone who distractedly listens to talk radio as if it were background music. Sarah Palin was simple minded but photogenic, a beautiful woman unafraid to speak like an internet meme and Republican voters fell in love with her.

Most recently, Republican voters have given us a man who repeatedly demonstrated his disdain for women, his ignorance of policy, his lack of morals and his disregard for truth, data, or experts.

Republican voters will excitedly support some new candidate once Trump is institutionalized (whether this institution is a home for those with Alzheimer's or criminal convictions is as yet uncertain). It would be best if they did not. At this point conservative voters are like that friend who has been thrice married to men who have each turned out to be abusive who is nonetheless convinced that she should marry again. Someone has to tell this woman that her judgement is bad and her husbands are worse, no matter how exciting she finds them.

Republican voters are the real culprits here. If not for them, Trump would be a comical figure, a TV star who took himself too seriously but was nonetheless amusing for that very reason, like a character on Seinfeld. Instead, Republican voters who cannot tell the difference between comedy and tragedy or lies and revelations have given him more power than anyone else on earth.