In the second century BCE, Liu An, king of Huainan, asked the scholars of his court to prepare a book that would outline everything a wise monarch should know about statecraft, philosophy, and general world knowledge. The result was the massive 'Huainanzi', which runs to nine hundred large pages in English translation. Here are some excerpts, based on the translation by Sarah A. Queen and John S. Major: If a ruler rejects those who work for the public good, and employs people according to friendship and factions, then those of bizarre talent and frivolous ability will be promoted out of turn, while conscientious officials will be hindered and will not advance. In this way, the customs of the people will fall into disorder throughout the state, and accomplished officials will struggle.
Donald Trump’s personal pathologies aside, it has become obvious that the worst possible leader of a self-styled democracy is the patriarch of an enormous family business, especially one that likes to slap its name in huge gold letters on every item, whether skyscraper or towel – and to whom people inexplicably pay money to paste the name on their own wares. A Trump employee is loyal to Mr Trump, as he’s always called, and one disagrees with the boss man, however mildly, at considerable risk. A federal employee, below the top-level appointments, is loyal to the government. A patriarch rules by fiat; a president has to deal with all those annoying existing laws and the courts that enforce them, agencies full of hundreds of thousands of recalcitrant bureaucrats, know-it-all pundits in the media, a loudmouth opposition party, and contentious factions within his own party. Everyone has an opinion.
The despair in the weeks following the election has now turned into constructive rage. Opposition – more precisely, oppositions – are forming, not only in the general population, but inside the government itself, as is evident from the cascade of leaks and rogue tweets. One can only speculate what is happening in the intelligence agencies and the Pentagon, but the reaction to Trump’s characterization of the CIA as 'Nazis' and his appalling speech about the size of his inauguration crowd in front of their memorial to fallen agents was plain. Moreover, in a move at first barely noticed in the general chaos, Trump removed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of National Intelligence from the Principals Circle of the National Security Council and replaced them with Steve Bannon, the white nationalist who has become Trump’s Cheney, co-wrote the 'America First' inauguration speech, and was the architect of the current Muslim ban. There is a probable impending major crisis with North Korea – probably graver than anything in the Middle East – and Trump’s fascination with nuclear weapons is well known. A military coup is no longer unimaginable in the USA: Trump calling for a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Pyongyang and the spooks and brass rising against him.
Sarah Palin – or someone pretending to be Sarah Palin – has tweeted that Salman Rushdie should invite Pamela Geller to the PEN gala dinner. She’s right. Geller is no pussy. She has courageously expressed her views that Muslims should be expelled from the US and Europe, that they pray five times a day for the deaths of Christians and Jews, that Obama is the love child of Malcolm X and frequents 'crack whores', that the State Department, the American media and Campbell’s Soup have been taken over by 'Islamic supremacists', and so on.
The frat-boy humour magazine Charlie Hebdo is unfortunately back in the news. Six writers who were scheduled to be 'table hosts' at the annual PEN American Center gala in New York – tickets start at $1250 – have refused to attend after it was announced that the surviving staff of Charlie was to be awarded the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award at the dinner. The response to the six has been almost uniformly negative. Salman Rushdie, for one, who has turned PEN American into his little fiefdom, charmingly tweeted that they are 'pussies'. Others have even accused the writers of being apologists for terrorism.
Last January, I predicted here that Mitt Romney would lose, based partially on the Curse of the E-Trochee: American presidential candidates whose last name is two syllables ending with a long e sound have always failed; they just can’t be taken seriously. It may seem ridiculous but, as Novalis said, 'Language is Delphi.' Closer to realpolitik, Mitt failed the Safety and Sincerity tests. Voters like to feel safe, to be assured that things will generally be all right, that there will be no bad surprises. I’ve always believed that Obama won in 2008 thanks to Sarah Palin. McCain – though he’s still with us – looked old and tired, and the possibility that the dim Northern Light might suddenly illuminate the Oval Office was scarier than a black man with a funny name. He at least seemed level-headed and intelligent.
Obama and Romney are each spending about a billion dollars to get elected – four times what Bush and Gore spent in 2000. When one adds the unregulated PACs (political action committees) and Congressional and gubernatorial races, the cost of this year’s election is around $6 billion. The reason, of course, is television advertising. As the election draws near, some 80,000 political advertisements are running every day on American televisions. The entire ecosystem of lobbyists and politicians dependent on donations from corporate and other interests is almost entirely due to television. Eliminate the ads, which are forbidden in many countries, and American politics would change overnight. The astonishing thing is the uselessness of this potlatch.
Mitt knows what it takes. At the second presidential debate, he said: ‘I know what it takes to get this economy going.’ ‘I know what it takes to create good jobs again.’ ‘I know what it takes to make sure that you have the kind of opportunity you deserve.’ ‘I know what it takes to bring them back.’ [jobs] ‘I know what it takes to balance budgets.’ ‘I know what it takes to make an economy work.’ ‘I know what it takes to get this to happen.’ Mitt knows what it takes, but he isn’t sharing. Once he gets elected, he’ll tell us, he says, how he’s going to cut taxes by $5 trillion, add $2 trillion to the military budget, and balance the budget while still having some sort of federal government, besides the Pentagon, left to run. He’ll tell us how he’s going to create 12 million jobs, even though he believes, as he said at the debate: ‘Government does not create jobs. Government does not create jobs.’ (A pause for fact-checking, a tedious necessity throughout the Tales of Mitt.
American political campaigns rely on what insiders call the ‘narrative’, though, like a Hollywood sales pitch, it’s a story that’s never more than a sentence long. One of the problems the Republicans have had this year is that they have three contradictory narratives for Obama. There is Obama in the dashiki: the Kenyan Muslim Socialist who ‘hates America’ (as Rush Limbaugh often says) and wants to turn the country into some sort of jihadi North Korea. There is Obama in the hoodie: the ruthless, corrupt gangsta, ‘Chicago-style sleaze’ (as John McCain said recently). And then there is the barefoot Obama, shirtless in ill-fitting overalls: an amiable but bumbling clown, ‘lazy’ and ‘not that bright’ (as Romney’s spokesman John Sununu said after the debate) who’s in over his head trying to run a government. Unfortunately for the Republicans, the images of Obama as simultaneously the blackface Scarface, Chairman Mao and Stepin Fetchit tend both to cancel each other out and bear no resemblance to the articulate, unflappable, professorial type and his seemingly perfect all-American, however unwhite, family.
In 2010, the Israeli novelist Nir Baram caused a small scandal at the International Writers’ Festival in Jerusalem by daring to point out that 'we are witness to the systematic violation of the rights of non-Jews in the State of Israel and the Occupied Territories.' Festival director Tal Kremer told Haaretz that 'in the end, his speech did no harm,' and she frequently cites it to persuade pro-Palestinian writers to attend. 'I don't think my job is to put up barriers and engage in censorship,' she said. However, 'in light of what happened with Nir Baram' – which she calls 'a production error on our part' – 'we asked this year's authors to give us the text of their speeches' in advance.