What’s a Midlife Crisis?

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“I used to think, before I had one, that the midlife crisis was something that happened to weak-minded chumps who didn’t have backbone. Now I believe that midlife crises are structural: they’re to do with your whole life. They’re to do with facing things that haven’t been faced before. And what gets them going is a hysterical overreaction to the certainty that you’re going to die.

One of the definitions of youth is that you think death and decay are things that happen to other people; some part of you thinks, funnily enough, in my case it’s not going to happen. Though you’re intellectually persuaded that it will, a bit of you goes on believing it’s just a rumor as far as you’re concerned.

Milan Kundera said that ‘we’re children throughout our lives because every 10 years we have to learn a new set of rules.’ I think that’s a good remark, and I think it’s spectacularly true of the mid-life. When I was 40, I thought I knew everything. I was even almost bored by the transparency of everything and how clear life was to me. Then suddenly, I was pitched up on the shore of the mid-life, and I thought, ‘I don’t know anything anymore! I’ve got to learn all this stuff anew.’ And that’s a frightening thought, but it’s an exciting thought, too. And you do pick up these sort of hints and pointers about how you can live the next period of your life.”

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Martin Amis, speaking in a 1995 interview with Charlie Rose.

Later in the conversation, Charlie remarks, “You’ve said you’re happy about all this but also, in some ways, saddened.” Amis’s reply: “Well, I’m sad about the sunderings that proved necessary, or at any rate have happened in my life. Friends. Family. Wife. It all feels unknown out there now.”

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The Powerful Have the Gift of Knowing Who Their True Enemies Are

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“Gathered together and finally free, with a dim hope of promised lands, they were as if drunk. They stormed through villages and cities, taking everything… and they killed all the Jews they came upon here and there and stripped them of their possessions.

‘Why the Jews?’ I asked Salvatore. He answered, ‘And why not?’ He explained to me that all his life preachers had told him the Jews were the enemies of Christianity and accumulated possessions that had been denied the Christian poor. I asked him, however, whether it was not also true that lords and bishops accumulated possessions through tithes, so that the Shepherds were not fighting their true enemies. He replied that when your true enemies are too strong, you have to choose weaker enemies. I reflected that this is why the simple are so called. Only the powerful always know with great clarity who their true enemies are. The lords did not want the Shepherds to jeopardize their possessions, and it was a great good fortune for them that the Shepherds’ leaders spread the notion that the greatest wealth belonged to the Jews.

I asked him who had put into the crowd’s head the idea of attacking the Jews. Salvatore could not remember. I believe that when such crowds collect, lured by a promise and immediately demanding something, there his never any knowing who among them speaks.”

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Pulled from chapter eight of Umberto Eco’s 1995 novel The Name of the Rose. One should note that the “Shepherds” here are the Pastoreaux, Salvatore’s gang of crusaders, not guys who look out for livestock for a living.

Image: Wikicommons

Yoni

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“Yoni loathed war and fighting. To kill horrified him… Because he had to fight to save his nation’s life, he made himself into a great fighting man. But he knew, as all men of sense know, that war today is an empty and dangerous lunacy, not a practical political technique. He was philosopher enough to understand this truth… and he was man enough to know… that if he had to, he would die fighting for the Return and for peace. So consecrated, he flew off to Entebbe, and to his great hour.

Like one of Michelangelo’s unfinished sketches in stone, his letters are a work of rough suggestive art. The mysterious figure only half-emerges from the native rock. And yet the figure is there. When we close the book, we know nothing of Yoni’s secret exploits, little of his magic with women, little of his terrific labors in his army assignments, little of his intense family relationships. Yet we know the man; all we have to know, and all we will know. He inspires and ennobles us, and he gives us hope. That is enough. That is the best art can do.

Shelley wrote of the dead Keats that his soul

… like a star
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.

I wanted to close this introduction by applying those words to Yoni. But I cannot. I see him in my mind’s eye shaking his head, with a grin and a deprecatory farewell wave. And I hear his last words, like a distant marching song on the wind, יהיה בסדר — ‘It’ll be okay.'”

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The closing to Herman Wouk’s introduction to The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu.

The Kushner Dilemma

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“I was in a coffee shop a few days after the election and someone I knew from childhood recognized me. She put her hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Tell me everything’s going to be okay.’

A lot of us who study politics have the impulse to give an answer to that person that will make her feel better. So we create a story wherein Steve Bannon is the source of all the irregularities and anomalies in the White House, and if only someone nicer, someone like Jared Kushner, would take over, things would be okay.

They’re not going to be okay.

With Jared Kushner you get a different set of problems than you do with Steve Bannon. Obviously he’s way less ideological. He’s not connected to Breitbart. But he doesn’t know anything. And even more than that, the problems of public integrity that have stalked this White House become worse the more power the Kushner family has.

It was the Kushner family that negotiated this $400 million payout from a Chinese state-influenced bank. Although that deal had to be dropped in the face of pressure from Congress, presumably everyday, people in the Kushner family circle are thinking of similar transactions.

And, look, 35-years-old: [he and Ivanka] are not children. That’s half your life on this planet. And they haven’t bothered to learn anything about the roles they now have.

If Jared Kushner were a truly public-spirited person, what he would do is separate himself much more fully from his business interests, and say to the president, ‘Dad, it’s clear you need an A-team here. And what I’d like to do for you is run a staffing process, whereby instead of giving your China portfolio to me, and giving your Middle East portfolio to me, and giving your Reinventing Government portfolio to me, we’ll bring in people who actually have known about these issues before November of last year. And, while we’re at it, let’s get the State Department staffed, too.’ […]

Anyone who has worked in government knows that administrations run through a deputy system. Deputies prepare information that is then handed over to principles. And, a third of the way into the first year of this presidency: no deputies.

Donald Trump may feel like a winner. I’m sure he’s a much richer man than he was on election day. But the rest of us, I think we’re all losers.”

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David Frum, speaking in an interview on Charlie Rose last month.

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The Problem with Fighting Angry

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“Anger provides the number one difference between a fist-fight and a boxing bout.

Anger is an unwelcome guest in any department of boxing. From the first time a chap draws on gloves as a beginner, he is taught to ‘keep his temper’ — never to ‘lose his head.’ When a boxer gives way to anger, he becomes a ‘natural’ fighter who tosses science into the bucket. When that occurs in the amateur or professional ring, the lost-head fighter leaves himself open and becomes an easy target for a sharpshooting opponent. Because an angry fighter usually is a helpless fighter in the ring, many prominent professionals — like Abe Attell and the late Kid McCoy — tried to taunt fiery opponents into losing their heads and ‘opening up.’ Anger rarely flares in a boxing match.

Different, indeed, is the mental condition governing a fist-fight. In that brand of combat, anger invariably is the fuel propelling one or both contestants. And when an angry, berserk chap is whaling away in a fist-fight, he usually forgets all about rules — if he ever knew any…

Let me suggest that any time you are about to be drawn into a fight, keep your head and make a split-second survey of your surroundings… In 99 out of 100 cases you can force the other guy to move to an open spot by challenging his courage to do so. Don’t let the action start in a crowded subway car, in a theater aisle, in a restaurant, office, saloon or the like. Keep your head and arrange the shift, so that you’ll be able to knock his head off when you get him where you can fight without footing handicaps…

In connection with that danger, never forget: The longer the fight lasts, the longer you are exposed to danger… When you square off, you hope to beat your opponent into submission in a hurry… it is imperative that you end the brawl as quickly as possible; and the best way to do that is by a knockout.”

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Some advice for boxing, and life, pulled from Jack Dempsey’s 1950 book Championship Fighting.

As my trainer tells me, be more composed than your opponent; “if you can make him miss, you can make him pay.”

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An American Brother

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Cheese, I say to George A., borrowing the camera.

So, you see, he’s happy when I snap him and sticking it to the cameraman a little. I can take it, though. The truth is, when it comes to us, I want to crush him in the dust, but when it comes to anybody else, to the whole outside, other world, I want George A. to win. I want that for us both. And on this day I still feel no less sure of him than of myself.

In the photo you can tell the boy’s an athlete of some kind. Six-foot-seven and 210 or 215, he’s lean-waisted, broad across the shoulders and chest, more man than boy, though there’s still a spindly coltish something in his legs that marks him at the tremble point. From hoisting those heavy cans all summer, he has thick, good arms as ‘good’ was then, in a more casual time… George A.’s proud of the body he’s achieved. In the way his arms fall at his sides, there’s a tad of the gunslinger pose. He’s like someone with a new suit he paid a lot of money for and doesn’t want to wrinkle in the wearing, or a cherry car he parks at the far edge of the lot to ward off dings.

I thought my brother was the best-looking boy I ever knew, among the best-looking I ever saw. As I study this old photo, though, I think perhaps it isn’t Gable that I’m searching for, but those clean-cut all-American boys on lawns and beaches, posing for the camera with their girls and paste-waxed cars, before they went away to World War II. George A.’s smile extends a friendly confidence like theirs, but a little further back, I see something that’s prepared for disappointment, and it strikes me that George A., too, this day in 1975, is going off to war, an inward war no less real. It will last twenty-five years and the rest of his short life, and George A. won’t return from it.  This picture is the last glimpse I’ll ever have of him, which I guess is why I kept it and put it out in every place I ever lived in.”

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Pulled from David Payne’s memoir about growing up in North Carolina, published last year, Barefoot to Avalon.

Earlier in the book, he offers this description of his brother, referenced above, “He reminded me of young Clark Gable, only the confidence in Gable that flirted with conceit and smugness was in George A. nuanced, sly and sweet.” You can see David Payne talk to Charlie Rose, a longtime family friend of the Paynes, here.

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The Story of Your Era

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Questioner: Looking at our political lives today, how do you talk to young people about the future?

Will Self: I think a lot about how the world was when I was in my early 20s, when I was finishing university…

And what strikes me is how much more anxious young people are now than we were, and this despite the fact that when I left university there was major unemployment, we were losing manufacturing jobs hand over fist. Our foreign policy was unstable; we were still living under the shadow of the mushroom cloud and a dispensation of mutually assured destruction. There were legitimate fears about Soviet aggression. A lot of these things you would imagine hit some of the same buttons in some of the same combinations, and yet… and yet… and yet… we weren’t as anxious as a lot of people are now.

And you know what, I think people are right to be more anxious now, oddly. Obviously that’s offered with the benefit of hindsight, but my suspicion is they are right to be more anxious…

I honestly think if I were a young person now I would concentrate, not selfishly on my own life; I think it’s very important in life to have compassion toward others and to do things for other people. But I would not place any expectation or faith in political change. I’m sorry: that’s not the story of your era.

The story of your era is going to need to be stoical. Perform, as the great Zen poet Bashō says, random acts of senseless generosity. Engage with your work. Enjoy the spectacle of life. But I wouldn’t place any great expectations on the idea society or political systems are in some way evolving or progressing, and that if you can just figure out how to get your shoulder to the wheel in the right way, and encourage some other people to do the same, that the whole thing is going to move. I’m sorry, but I really would abandon that idea. I think you’ll have a much happier and productive life, incidentally, and probably end up doing more good.

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Comments adapted from Will Self’s recent interview at his office at Brunel University. I like his answer, but can’t bring myself to agree.

I’m sorry: that’s not the story of your era…

Image courtesy of Pin Drop Studio.

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The Last Wild Cheyenne

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Wooden Leg Cheyenne Indian

“I was baptized by the priest at the Tongue river mission when I was almost fifty years old. My wife and our two daughters were baptized too… I do not go often to the church, but I go sometimes. I think the white church people are good, but I do not trust many of the stories they tell about what happened a long time ago. I have made many friendships with the church people and am glad to have the white man churches among us, but I feel more satisfied in my prayers when I make them in the way I was taught. My heart is much more contented when I walk alone with my medicine pipe and talk with God about whatever may be troubling me. […]

Both of my daughters went to school at the Tongue river mission. They lived there during the school months. Each Sunday we were allowed to take them to our home… Later, I built a house only a quarter of a mile from the Mission, and on a sloping hillside above it. We could look from our front door and see the children at any time when they might be outside of the school buildings. My wife and I were pleased at their situation in life. ‘They will have more of comfort and happiness than we have had,’ we said to each other. […]

It is comfortable to live in peace on the reservation. It is pleasant to be situated where I can sleep soundly every night, without fear that my horses may be stolen or that myself or my friends may be crept upon and killed. But I like to think about the old times, when every man had to be brave. I wish I could live again through some of the past days when it was the first thought of every prospering Indian to send out the call:

‘Hoh-oh-oh-oh, friends: Come. Come. Come. I have plenty of buffalo meat. I have coffee. I have sugar. I have tobacco. Come, friends, feast and smoke with me.’”

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Pulled from the ending of Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer by Wooden Leg and Thomas B. Marquis.

Wooden Leg (1858-1940) was one of the thousand or so Cheyenne warriors who joined up with the Lakotas during the Battle of Little Bighorn. As book’s title suggests, that fight makes up the center of his story, though the before and after of WL’s life, including his sober and remarkably evenhanded reflections on Custer’s last stand, are the most interesting parts of the story. This excerpt makes a fitting end to it, not only because it captures the nuance of WL’s temperament, but also because it strikes a tranquil tone in finishing a story that’s in many ways wild.

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Photo: Wikicommons

The Purpose of Bold Political Lies

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hannah-arendt

“The result of this system is that the gullibility of sympathizers makes lies credible to the outside world, while at the same time the graduated cynicism of membership and elite formations eliminates the danger that the Leader will ever be forced by the weight of his own propaganda to make good his own statements and feigned respectability. It has been one of the chief handicaps of the outside world in dealing with totalitarian systems that it ignored this system and therefore trusted that, on one hand, the very enormity of totalitarian lies would be their undoing and that, on the other, it would be possible to take the Leader at his word and force him, regardless of his original intentions, to make it good. The totalitarian system, unfortunately, is foolproof against such normal consequences; its ingeniousness rests precisely on the elimination of that reality which either unmasks the liar or forces him to live up to his pretense.

While the membership does not believe statements made for public consumption, it believes all the more fervently the standard clichés… In contrast to the movements’ tactical lies which change literally from day to day, these ideological lies are supposed to be believed like sacred untouchable truths…

[I]ts members’ whole education is aimed at abolishing their capacity for distinguishing between truth and falsehood, between reality and fiction. Their superiority consists in their ability immediately to dissolve every statement of fact into a declaration of purpose. In distinction to the mass membership which, for instance, needs some demonstration of the inferiority of the Jewish race before it can safely be asked to kill Jews, the elite formations understand that the statement, all Jews are inferior, means, all Jews should be killed; they know that when they are told that only Moscow has a subway, the real meaning of the statement is that all subways should be destroyed…”

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Pulled from part three of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.

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Image: the-philosophy.com

The Lives and Deaths of Third Parties in America

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Richard Hofstadter

“[T]hird-party leaders in the United States must look for success in terms different from those that apply to the major parties, for in those terms third parties always fail. No third party has ever won possession of the government or replaced one of the major parties. (Even the Republican Party came into existence as a new major party, created out of sections of the old ones, not as a third party grown to major-party strength.) Third parties have often played an important role in our politics, but it is different in kind from the role of governing parties. Major parties have lived more for patronage than for principles; their goal has been to bind together a sufficiently large coalition of diverse interests to get into power; and once in power, to arrange sufficiently satisfactory compromises of interests to remain there. Minor parties have been attached to some special idea or interest, and they have generally expressed their positions through firm and identifiable programs and principles. Their function has not been to win or govern, but to agitate, educate, generate new ideas, and supply the dynamic element in our political life. When a third party’s demands become popular enough, they are appropriated by one or both of the major parties and the third party disappears. Third parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die.”

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Pulled from chapter three of The Age of Reform by Richard Hofstadter.

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Foreseeing a President Trump in 1998

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Richard Rorty

“[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once a such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion… All the sadism which the academic Left tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”

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Excerpted from Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving Our Country.