Thursday, August 23, 2018

"Cowardice is stronger than common sense."


     How's your summer so far? Mine is going pretty good, thank you. Did you look at the calendar and think: last week of August? How did that happen? I sure did. I hope you got something done. Me ... I ... well ... not much in the way of fixing anything around our old house. The tomato garden was a total flop. I'm starting to suspect the ground is poisoned, that I need to dig up the earth and start again with fresh soil.
Anton Chekhov
     Though I am accomplishing something; I'm almost done working my way through all of Anton Chekhov's short stories—thank you Audible! With about 70 under my belt, some 20 hours' worth, I noticed something interesting: I'm both enjoying them immensely, yet couldn't name a single character. A lot of befuddled middle aged men. A number of solemn children. Some unfaithful wives. Maybe that's the fault of listening versus reading, while walking the dog or doing the dishes or taking the train. Maybe it's all the unfamiliar, polysyllabic Russian names. What makes it enjoyable is the specific descriptions of mundane Russian lives: the long thin noses, the money woes, cluttered homes, glistening meals. 
     Only one story made an impression on my enough for me to remember its title: "The Dependents." In the story, an impoverished peasant owns a skeletal horse and a gaunt dog—the "dependents" in the title. As the tale begins, the animals are hungry and our poor old man is cursing at them — he doesn't have bread for himself, never mind parasites! He goes to the neighbor, they drink tea, he asks the neighbor to borrow a bucket of oats. The neighbor says, sure, he'll give him oats. But, you're a poor man: how can you keep animals? You should bring them to the slaughterer. Otherwise, there's no end to it. The poor man makes a spot decision, decides to go to his niece's farm and live off her charity. He leaves the animals behind, with the gate open. They can fend for themselves. But a few miles into his trek, he hears footsteps, turns and sees the faithful horse and dog trudging after him.
     At this point I paused, to ask myself "You're a writer, Neil. What would you do in the story?" Why of course, I'd have the poor man lead the animals back to his hovel. Feed them off his neighbor's charity. Life continues as it is.
     A Chekhovian ending, and not what Chekhov does. Not at all. The poor man leads the animals to the slaughterer. The horse is promptly killed, the dog, snarling and leaping to his friend's defense, is killed too. The poor man sets his own head on the stunning block, in remorse the reader assumes, and the story ends. I cried.
     Which is why we're still reading Chekhov more than a century after his death.
     I'm more familiar with the plays, and toss lines around, "It's been a long time since we had noodles" when appropriate and sometimes when not. Only one sentence of the short stories burrowed into my consciousness, though its a good and apt one for this week, as the legal system draws attention to the criminality and corruption of our president. It's in a story called "Panic Fears," and the sentence, though six words, could be the heading in our chapter of American history: "Cowardice is stronger than common sense."
       Every farmer I talked to along I-55 from Chicago to Granite City said the same thing: "He's a businessman; I trust him." To which it took all my professional deportment not to grab them by the shoulders, give them a hard shake, and shriek, "Are you insane?"
     Agrarian types, judging by Chekhov, are known for their baseless folk beliefs. Still, at some point, by now, you'd think that some Republican leaders would begin cringing away. And the only reason I can explain their not doing so is fear—fear that his base will defeat them in a primary. Fear that Trump will tweet mean things to them, or the corporations that write fat checks to their campaign funds will pull back, hungry for the increased profits that Trump's environmental and business deregulation bring.
    People must know what is right, and just be too afraid to do it. "Cowardice is stronger than common sense."
     Or am I being too optimistic? Perhaps they don't even know anymore, can't differentiate right from wrong, true from false. That, alas, is also a possibility.


 
   

9 comments:

  1. The Grand Old Party's "ground is poisoned." They "need to dig up the earth and start again with fresh soil." Maybe the RNC will draft a sack of manure to run against Trump in 2020. Paul Ryan would be the most logical candidate.

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  2. The Bible does warn us about those who have seared their conscience and put their trust in leaders. As an evangelical, though I make no claim to be a saint, it just amazes me how many of my fellow believers seem oblivious to what Trump is doing as long as he gives them a seat at the table and one or two in the Supreme Court.

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  3. The Republican Party, as an entity, decided "common sense" was something to be avoided almost 40 years ago. I'm not sure if fear is what drove them away from it or if it was greed.

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  4. Of course cowardice is a large part of the equation, with Republicans still clinging to party loyalty, but IMO your line about people not knowing what is right or wrong, true or false anymore is very much in the equation.
    People are susceptible to any number of falsities, and as any psychologist would tell us, hearing them repeatedly can hinder our ability to discern fact from fiction, especially the already vulnerable.
    It’s the “fake news” era coming to full fruition.

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  5. The Chekov story reminds me of a wonderful film I don't think I would be up to seeing again, "Umberto D," by Vittorio de Sicca. About a dignified retired civil servant whose pension doesn't provide enough to support life and his faithful little dog. He contemplates suicide, but soldiers on in part because of concern for the dog. Heart rendering because the story is told without sentimentality. No happy ending except that life goes on.

    Tom

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  6. Republican In Name Only (RINO) is a pejorative term used by conservative members of the GOP to describe Republicans whose political views or actions they consider insufficiently conservative. The acronym emerged in the 1990s.

    How ironic, as the party itself is now Republican in name only. The party of Eisenhower, Nixon, Goldwater, Ford, even Reagan...is dead. These are not my father's Republicans, or even the ones I knew while growing up. A friend of mine began calling them the Christian Fascist Party. Seemed a little harsh then. Now? Not so much.

    Over the last three years, even Nixon and Reagan have begun to look better every day. Our current "long national nightmare", as Gerald Ford labeled Nixon's criminality, corruption, and paranoia, shows no signs of ending soon. Trumpolini spews and tweets, awaiting his fate, while Forty-and-Sixpence stands quietly in the wings, watching for his cue to enter from extreme stage right.

    Will someone like Handsome Joe Biden ride to the rescue and save Lady Liberty? The performance drones on and on, with no light at the end of the tunnel...just more tunnel.

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  7. The Chekhov short story that I remember most is "The Kiss." A lonely, schlubby cavalry officer takes a wrong turn in a mansion during a parry and is suddenly kissed by a woman who mistakes him for someone else. She immediately backs off with a shriek and nothing more comes of it, but he obsesses over the incident for years.

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  8. Sometimes a pathology is so malignant that you are no longer engaging a person, you are engaging a pathology. A friend recently lost his sister to an opioid overdose. At the end she did not behave as a person. There was no person left, her pathology was what she was.

    The same holds true with Trump. There is no person there. None of his behavior is the result of free will, it's simply a malignant pathology reacting to events.

    He is not a businessman - that is laughable. His pathology allows him a small measure of success in shady business practices - if he behaved ethically with his business acumen he would be destitute. He is the sum total of his malignant pathology's quirks - that's it. Expecting him to show some normal human qualities of wisdom and empathy and basement level competence is like expecting a toaster to walk the dog.

    Praise Trump and you are wonderful, criticize him and you are the devil. The script his pathology requires him to follow is written in granite. He is hardwired for malignant narcissism and self pity. That's it.

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  9. Family dinner this week, talking to a seventh grader about her classes and the Constitution comes up. The revered, sacred U. S. Constitution, which perfectly balanced power among the large and small, with the three legged stool of Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches. I had to stifle my opinions in deference to her parents but she will learn eventually that the Constitution is a seriously flawed document in need of amendment. The money in politics has tipped the balance to the small but less populated states, through gerrymandering and targeting by rich businessmen like the Kochs, Scaife, etc. I don't believe the Founding Fathers ever envisioned government by a perpetual minority, which could be in our future. The southern, civil war losing dead enders, who once decried outside agitators, now have no problem with Big Money influencing local elections in Bumfuck, Montana. Common sense is no where to be found, like the 2nd Amendment, which would be declared unconstitutional if passed as a law today, being at odds with any sense at all. Even preachers miss the immoral in our current president, seeing witchcraft in his detractors, while praying for him in Tiltonesgue gibberish. Don't know if this could have be written by Chekov, but it seems like something from a collaboration between Rod Serling and Mad Magazine.

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