Sunday, December 27, 2015

AMERICA'S WILLING EXECUTIONERS

     In 1996 Daniel Jonah Goldhagen published a treatise entited Hitler's Willing Executioners that essentially blamed all the German people of the 1920s and onward through the Third Reich for the Nazi crimes. Without jumping too deeply into the controversy surrounding Goldhagen's argument let me suggest that, though the congenital antisemitism that pervaded Europe for centuries certainly was a factor in the acceptance of Hitler there might well have been another factor in the rise of the Nazis.
     Following the defeat of Imperial Germany in World War I, Germany experienced a number of debilitating shocks to the popular psyche, national pride and the actual national territory. East Prussia was cut off from Germany proper by the reestablished Baltic States and the ceding of Danzig to Poland, the inflation created in large part by the punitive reparations exacted at Versailles in 1919 impoverished large swaths of the German population and the Weimar Republic's good intentions were hampered by multiple entrenched factions including the Junkers, hereditary nobility, industrial plutocrats and the Protestant and Roman Catholic religions sects. A fractious nation that had only been strung together in the 1860s and 1870s by Bismark under the Prussian Hohenzollerns was not inclined or prepared for the roils and discomforts of democracy absent an imperial ruler. The complex disorder and rising of suppressed issues and groups to the surface in the Weimar Republic brought a nostalgic yearning for the certainties, veneer of morality and perceived simplicity of the old days. Not unexpectedly this nostalgia focused on the desire for a strong leader, a man perceived as up-right who would seep away the distressing aspects of the new society and restore the easy, certain regimentation of the old. The Germans found that strong leader in Adolph Hitler with the consequences that we all know too well.
     Having given the history lesson, I would suggest that something similar is at work amongst the American population of today, a similar yearning for greater certainty, strong leaders and the old-time religion. And just as the Germans let Hitler manipulate their basest instincts of fear, bigotry and anger hyper-activate their nostalgic yearnings so Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul are seeking to do the same with the help of Roger Ailes' Volkishe Beobachter, Fox News.
     Currently Trump, Carson and Cruz are riding highest in the polls among Republicans because they represent two aspects of the strong leader. Trump is the more obvious. His mindless rants peppered with empty assurances of how great everything will be if he just has all the power are right out of the Nazi mold. Substitute "Jews" for "Mexicans" or "Muslims" in any of Trump's diatribes and you'd be hard put to find the difference between Trump's and Hitler's speeches. The most shocking thing about Trump is that he probably believes about 10 or 29% of the noisome slurry that issues from the sewer of his mouth.
     Carson, already in decline, in his low-key to the point of somnolescence, presents the passive version of Trump's active fascist. To the fundamentalist evangelical CHRISTIAN crowd, Carson represents a sort of second coming. Like Herman Cain four years ago, Carson is the token trotted out to briefly demonstrate that The Republican Party may be the party of the rich, lunatics, religious fanatics, racists and other bigots is is not entirely white. All Carson needs is a nimbus to make him, for the mindless evangelical crowd, the next incarnation of his buddy, Jesus.
     Cruz is unquestionably the most dangerous of the crowd because he, like Donald Trump, actually believes in nothing but power for Ted Cruz. I rather doubt that Cruz actually has any core beliefs at all other than whatever aggrandizes Ted Cruz is the ultimate good. He's more dangerous that Trump because he actually has a political organization behind him. He's borrowed from Mike Huckabee the evangelical preacher style that allows him to rally the fundamentalist lunatics in ways that Carson can't largely due to racism. Cruz aligns himself with the lunatic fringe of "gun culture", racism and xenophobia in an "anything that whips up fear" strategy that out Trumps Trump. The thing that Cruz does not have is a single molecule of sincerity. He is all grandstanding without the grandstand or, to borrow the apt phrase from his home state, "all hat and no cattle".
     The reason that these neo-fascist con men are riding high at the moment has several explanations the first of which is the nature of the Republican Party itself. The Republicans have always been an aristocratic and plutocratic party. They have been run from the top down since Abraham Lincoln was elected president at least. The Republicans consolidated their power after the Civil War based on loyalty to the victorious Union cause and by spreading fear of "anarchists" who were equated with trade unionists, farmer activists in movements such as the Grange and any others who challenged the uncontrolled rights of the wealthy. During this period America grew as any Republican will tell you without mentioning that it grew in good part due to slavery succeeded by Jim Crow and largely unrestricted immigration. They will also not mention the financial panics and depressions that wrecked the economy for the lower and middle classes about once a decade.
     Once Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal rescued the nation and, ultimately the world, from the disaster that the Republican oligarchs had wrought, the Republican Party became mired in a policy of relying solely on fear and conflict to gain power. They did not have a majority of the voters. They opposed all the reforms that ameliorate their depredations so they fell back on fear. Fear of communists, fear of change, fear of new ideas, fear of facts became the stock in trade of the Republican Party. They cornered the market on the John Birchers, Human Events subscribers and other neo-fascists. Additionally, through political evangelicals, the Republicans nearly cornered the market on fundamentalist fanatics and lunatics with lip service to anti-abortion and the pretense of following the hard-line political Christian cultism promoted by the Christian fundamentalist madrasas like Bob Jones, Liberty Baptist and Regents Universities. Those fleeing from the largely false fears that the Republicans promoted and the lunatic fringe they recruited got the otherwise unelectable Richard Nixon to the White House and have poisoned our politics for over a half century. Add to that the accretion of the racists drawn to the Republican Party when the Democrats finally accepted that segregation and bigotry were a losing proposition and you have a mix of all the basest and most despicable attitudes of the worst among us gathered in one political party.
     Thus it's not any surprise that the lunatic fringe coalesced in the Republican Party now looks, as the Germans of the 1930s did, for a "strong leader" who tells them what they want to hear and gives them empty assurances of golden days ahead if only they will surrender all power to him. The primary salesmen of this snake oil are Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz but it's the snake oil offered by Carly Fiorina, Huckabee, Santorum, and all the lesser dwarves teeming around the possibility of a vice-presidency. It is also the offering in toned down versions of Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Jim Gilmore and John Kaisich though each of them knows what it means to govern and mixes strident rhetoric with the sense that the shouting only carries one so far before compromise is required.
     The sad irony is that most of the "willing executioners" drawn to demagogues Trump, Cruz and Carson are those who are "fed up" with "politicians". They see the strident rhetoric and insane behavior as indicators that these men are "different" when in fact they are not. Should the good sense of the majority fail and one of these scum win election as president he will be presented with a complex set of problems foreign and domestic without clear, ready solutions. The "I'll fix it and it will be great" nonsense will disappear as quickly as the latest celebrity gossip and all that their supporters will be left with is greater cynicism that "they're all the same". The "strong leader" will either, like Dubya, create an international mess whose consequences have mushroomed or be seen as weak and abandoned for the next Fuhrer or Duce spouting easy solutions to complex problems and manufacturing problems where none, in reality, exist.
     In my lifetime America has rejected fascism three times after flirting with it for periods of between eight and twelve years. Yet with each rejection the fascist clamor grows louder and more strident. All it took was for otherwise good Germans to let their prejudices reign and demand a "strong leader" after the weakness of the Weimar Republic. It can happen here. I hope ir does not.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

RED FLAGS

O. k. Let's not go too far overboard.

When my second marriage ended horribly in much nastiness and mutual distress, I went back to my albums of photographs. I was a fairly good amateur photographer so there were many photos of my now ex-wife. I could have scraped her face off of the photos or cut her whole image out of the pictures entirely. After much contemplation and beating down my anger I asked myself the question, "Can I remove her from my memory?" The answer was that I could not. The woman was part of my life for almost a decade. I had many good memories as well as the truly awful ones. Vandalizing my photographs of that decade was not going to wipe her from my memory, a memory which is widely known for being longer, broader and substantially more detailed than most. The photos are still intact. Her face remains in all in which she appeared. There is no photo on my walls in which her face appears where I could see it everyday but it remains in the seldom opened albums, the photographic museums of that era.

I bring that point up as I hear about the short sighted though well meaning movements on various college campuses to remove memorials to George Washington (University of Washington), Woodrow Wilson (Princeton), Cecil Rhodes (Oxford University) and others. All of these movements seem to be the step-children of the more justified movement to remove the Confederate battle flag from state capitols and state flags in the states of the old Confederacy.

Regardless of the revisionist attempts by now often closeted white supremacists to hide it, the American Civil War was fought over slavery. The issue of "states rights" only emerged as an issue because the economic system of the southern states was built on slavery. The flags of the Confederacy, the stars and bars or the battle flag, were from birth symbols of violent, rebellious support for enslaving black people. That is unquestionably true. Anyone arguing otherwise is either ignoring or ignorant of history and lying to himself and others.

By the time of the turn of the 20th Century politics required a knitting together of the nation and both suppression of minorities and willful romanticizing of the Civil War. This led to the Ku Klux Klan revival of the period from 1914 into the 1930s for which the Confederate battle flag was a primary symbol. As the movement for equal rights for African-Americans and other minorities gained momentum after World War II, breaking the racist consensus that had existed since the 1870s, the white supremacist bigots, racists and thugs of the American south revived the Confederate battle flag as their preferred symbol too. For the first time since 1865 that flag began finding its way as an expression of "heritage" into more state flags throughout the old Confederacy. That battle flag in state flags and on state capitol grounds was purely the expression of racism. As such the protests that have sent it to museums are entirely appropriate. The Confederate battle flag is a part of a sad history. Flying it is an assertion of racist bigotry and ignorance. Preserving that flag in museums dedicated to our lengthening history is an acknowledgment of our past and an inspiration toward a better future.

But now some well meaning people with too much time for abstract thought and too much desire to declare their anti-racist bona fides have extended the battle over the Confederate battle flag to individuals in history and muddied their objectives in the process.

Some students at the University of Washington want a central statue of George Washington removed because he was a slave owner. Let me suggest that the students who insist on that as the sole part of Washington's legacy worth remembering agree to be judged on the worst thing they have ever done in their lives. George Washington led colonial forces through a six year long war that insured the fact of the independence declared on paper in July of 1776. He was the overwhelming choice to become our nation's first president because of his high regard by all the many huge egos that brought us to independence and nationhood.He further established traditions of a popular and modest presidency which would hardly be recognized today. He held slaves. He was wrong in doing so. However, to focus narrowly on that as the sole matter of Washington's career is as nonsensical as insisting that he chopped down his father's cherry tree.

Similarly Woodrow Wilson, originally of Virginia, was raised in a racist, pro-Confederate household. He formally segregated the American armed forces and civil, service but he also created the Federal Reserve System that has served as the management of the American economy for nearly a century. He ultimately supported economic and labor reforms, women's suffrage and the wisdom of his vision for a World Court and League of Nations became clear after a second world war brought us to the brink of world-wide holocaust.

Cecil Rhodes was a colonialist, racist and plutocrat but the scholarships he provided to Oxford University have funded and sparked the careers of many world and national leaders who have worked mightily and effectively to undo the harm he did in life.

In short, it is one thing to judge a symbol on the irrevocable fact of the good or ill it symbolizes. Alternatively, if we would judge complex human beings as if they had only one aspect to their lives we deny something about ourselves. We deny that we are complicated creatures who do things in private which we would never do in public; who do things in our youth for which with a little age and maturity we are ourselves embarrassed and who do ill in one moment for which we subsequently spend much of our lives atoning. The honors to Washington, Wilson, Rhodes and others need to remain. Even the Edmund Pettis Bridge deserves to keep its name as appropriate to the violence unleashed on good people marching against the worst for which Pettis himself stood. If we entirely hide the worst of our history we can't adequately address the failings that led to that period of darkness. Similarly if we see only the darkness we are denying the unquestionable existence of even narrow bands of light or to wax Biblical, let us not judge other on their worst acts lest we be judge on the worst of our acts too.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

SHAD, AN EXULTATION

     Rereading after many years Justin Kaplan's biography of Walt Whitman I came upon the passage about Whitman's trips in springtime to the Delaware River for planked shad during the shad run on that river. That raised memories for me of the noblest fish of all. Yes, salmon were the property of English kings and, yes, living in the Northwest hard by the Canadian border where salmon is not just king but parsed and qualified by run and by river I recognize the delights of salmon but it is shad that holds the magic for me, shad for which I long, shad with which no other fish can properly compare. And it is particularly shad from the Connecticut River that enchants me so.

     According to the legends of the Algonquian peoples who lived along the lower Connecticut River we did not always have shad. So the story goes there was once a little porcupine, a lonely little creature who greatly wished to have friends amongst the other creatures of the great primeval forests. He approached his fellow creatures, the rabbit, the raccoon, the squirrel and offered his friendship but each time they agreed to be his friend the porcupine became so excited and overwhelmed with joy that instantly his new friends were a mass of quills and his friends no more. Alone and friendless this poor porcupine prayed to The Great Spirit who created all creatures to have this curse of quills taken from him that he might have friends. The porcupine prayed so hard, so long and so incessantly that at length The Great Spirit became annoyed with his constant importuning. Finally The Great Spirit, completely out of patience and in that way that divine beings have of answering our prayers in the most unforeseen and undesirable way possible, reached down, took the little porcupine, turned him inside out and tossed him into the Connecticut River where he and his ancestors are, to this day, the shad.

    That delightful legend accounts for the boniness of the shad which is actually a member of the mackerel family of fishes. It does not, hoever, account for its deliciousness.

     My mother was a New England cook taught by her own mother who'd grown up at the end of the 19th Century in Maine. That education in cookery was something of a cliche of meat and vegetables boiled until they were grey but not entirely. Mom could roast a delicious chicken, turkey or duck. Anything that required a stuffing required two New England essentials: Pepperidge Farm Stuffing Mix and Bell's Seasoning. They remain the foundations of any stuffing I make. When my mother baked shad filets they were stuffed with Pepperidge Farm Stuffing spiced with salt, pepper and Bell's Seasoning. To get the bones out of the flesh of a shad requires incisions toward the skin both above and below the backbone. When stuffing the filet those flaps of flesh were folded out, the stuffing laid down the centre of the filet heaped up and spread out to the sides. The flaps were then folded back over the stuffing and several strips of raw bacon laid over the whole which is next popped in the oven until the filet and bacon are cooked.

     Now pair that shad filet as my mother seldom did with lightly steamed fresh asparagus or fiddleheads and a lemony Hollandaise sauce and you have a meal that is a delight to you and as sublime, redolent of delightful, delicious scents and tastes and as evocative to me as Proust's madelaine dipped in tea. With that let me take you on a remembrance of things gone by.

     From the time I was a toddler some sixty-five years ago we made pilgrimages every spring to Spencer's Haddam Shad Shack. Perhaps it is still there. On my last trip almost twenty years ago it still stood on the east side of what is now Connecticut Route 154 beneath an ancient, high railroad embankment just south of the town of Haddam. If it exists only in memory now that is sad but in truth even on that last trip Spencer's was only the ghost of the place I remember. Even the Route number has changed. In the days that I recall Route 154 was Route 9. The new Route 9 is an expressway as efficient and uninteresting as a dumpster. Route 154, however, winds through the towns on the western bluffs above the broad river valley

     The shad run on the Connecticut River is short, starting late in April and running through May into the early part of June. On a weekend in May each year we would make the pilgrimage to Spencer's. Then not only was there no Route 9 expressway but neither was there a Route 8, 84 or 93. All those roads came later. We would set out from Waterbury on Route 69 to Prospect then turn onto Routes 68 and 70 past Blackie's Hot Dog stand and on into the centre of Cheshire. There was a succession of cars in which we rode. The first was a 1949 Packard hardtop Coupe. Later there was a Dodge with a push button transmission and a blue 1953 Chevrolet coupe. In Cheshire we jogged south through town on Route 10 until we'd turn east again onto Route 68 past Choate School and the Cheshire Cemetery following it to Wallingford. In Wallingford we'd pick up Route 157 to Middletown and then Route 9 (now Route 154) south following the broad river below and to the east through dogwoods and forsythia and magnolias, through Higganum, and Haddam, and several smaller groups of houses along the way to the more prosaic landscape in which Spencer's stood, a whitewashed shack with a hand-lettered sign set back from the road to accommodate parking on the dirt.

     Spencer's had a central door with a screen door on the outside and multi-light frame windows wrapping around the front half of the building. On the inside under those windows on either side of the door was a wooden shelf painted white and braced from underneath. At those shelves sat women in flower print dresses and white, blood bespattered aprons. There must have been at least four women though there could have been six or eight, that I do not precisely recall. Each woman had a complement of knives. On the shelf flanking each woman sat rectangular bins. On the floor on either side of each woman stood a pair of buckets. In one bucket were whole shad. In the other bucket lay the remains of the shad that had gone before: heads, bones, fins, guts. In the bins on the shelf beside them lay filets of shad in one and the occasional roe in the other. These women would haul up a shad from the whole fish bucket, knives would flash and, in a magically brief time probably longer in fact than in memory, the detritus of the fish would land in the offal bucket, two fillets would lie in the filet bin and, if they were in luck, a pair of roe would lie in the roe bin.

    As amazed as I was by these women frantically fileting shad after shad with a learned, artistic precision I never spoke to them nor do I recall anyone in my family speaking with them. For a small boy they were fearsome creatures, all bloody, smelling of fish and wielding exceptionally sharp knives. Venturing too close to one of them I might be mistaken for a shad and wind up fileted in some secret bin kept for the remains of too adventuresome boys. By the time I was old enough that nostalgia and confidence gave me the courage to speak with them, the women were gone. Spencer's was by then simply vending shad cleaned and fileted. That is not to say that Spencer's was not worth the trip but rather that some of the mystery and magic was gone along with those impressive women.

     When last I visited Spencer's the middle aged woman running the place told me that the last of those women had died a year or two before but she could still sell me several filets, a couple of smoked filets and two pair of roe.

Electric ells, I might add, do it,
Though it shocks them, I know.
Why ask if shad do it?
Waiter, bring me shad roe!
                      - Cole Porter, Let's Do It, 1928 from the musical Paris

     Shad roe is the Creamsicle orange, slightly crescent shaped egg sacs of the female shad. The countless eggs are covered in a thin, edible membrane that joins the two crescent halves and as Cole Porter knew it is delectably edible. The roe is the prize of the shad run even beyond the wonderfulness of the fish itself. Take that pair of roe, dredge it in flour mixed with a little salt and pepper then lightly fry it in butter until the color changes to a lighter, more pink shade. Then serve it with some asparagus or new peas and a couple wedges of lemon and you have a transcendent meal.

     Ultimately this, like all memories, is not about shad or Spencer's per se. I write to you about the taste of a great fish, the fragrant lusciousness of Pepperidge Farm Herb Stuffing Mix when laced with Bell's Poultry Seasoning, the tartness of a squeeze of lemon on the fish or roe, the delicate explosion of flavor when a bite of roe bursts into thousands of tiny, pearl-like eggs in the mouth, the beauty of the 18th Century villages along the Connecticut River in spring when adorned in Forsythia, magnolias and dogwood, the gabble of the brook in Seven Falls State Park during a picnic, the vast back seat of a 1949 Packard, those amazing women in bloodied aprons with flashing knives and a problematic family making a slow progress toward the tiny chapel of Spencer's to worship the minor god, Shad. Of that family, Like Job's servant and Melville's Ishmael, "I alone am come to tell thee." When a bite of stuffed shad enters my mouth the taste is sweet and bitter with all those memories, a history that extends from the middle of the 20th to the beginnings of the 21st Centuries and may or may not go on much longer. What I would tell you, even beg you, is that, in spring, when the shad are running in the Connecticut River, you pack a cooler and take a drive. Get to Middletown howsoever you will but then take Rt. 154 south. Enjoy the scenery, the scent of riotous, blossoming spring in the air. Find Spencer's or some place that sells shad. Buy a filet or two and some roe. Put them in your cooler on ice for the drive home. Then continue down toward Chester to the ferry landing and ride the ferry across with or without your car though regardless you should get out of the car and view the river. If you choose to take your car drive up to Gillette Castle. It won't be open until Memorial Day but you can still enjoy the view of the river from its high bluff. Maybe stop a while in the wilds of Devil's Hopyard State Park which the native tribes thought was the home of their trickster god, Hobbomocquo, and then continue back to the bridge a little to the north to the west side of the river. When you get home bake the filets however you please and then tell me how every sight and sound and smell of that trip resolves itself into each bite of shad. Make that trip and that meal of shad an annual ritual so that one day as an old man you can write to others and tell them of the sublimity of the fish suffused with the brilliant light of all those memories and how it still savors though you've not eaten a single bite in many years. Do that and you shall hold the beating heart of history in your hands.

     I hope that Spencer's Haddam Shad Shack is still there open, like Brigadoon, for its few weeks each year. Though the ominous magic of those fileting women has passed into memory it may still be a wonderful place to buy delicious fish each spring as worthy of historic preservation as the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry just a few miles south of Spencer's. If it is gone, Connecticut has lost something dear to me and, I'm sure dear to many more for whom spring along the Connecticut River means the short but eagerly awaited shad run.