Week's End Thoughts & Reflections, December 15, 2018



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At Eternity's Gate is not a feel-good movie. Willem Dafoe portrays Vincent Van Gogh as a man who believes in himself despite public indifference, misunderstanding, and sometimes outright hostility because, well, what else is he going to do. Painting is all he knows how to do, and he paints the only way he is able to paint.

I am reasonably familiar with Van Gogh's art, not so much with his life, so cannot speak to accuracy of biographical details. On an aesthetic level the film is almost a wonder. Hard, unflinching, nothing prettified about it, yet there are moments of near transcendence that are almost mesmerizing. I loved the way music and light were used to evoke Van Gogh's sensibility. As Ezra Pound put it, "the beauty is not the madness" (Canto CXVI).

It is difficult to imagine anyone walking out of the theater thinking, "The artist's life is the life for me." I blinked back tears at the end. At Eternity's Gate is currently playing at Cinema 21 in Portland.

After purchasing my ticket, I walked inside, placed my backpack down on a counter, put away stocking cap and gloves, and switched from dark glasses to the regular ones. The ticket seller stepped out of his booth and said he noticed I had a backpack. He had brought socks to give away to homeless people and wondered if I would take some to pass out. What could I say? He gave me four pair. After the film I walked up NW 21st Avenue to my bus stop on Burnside, a distance of nine or ten blocks. At the first corner a fellow asked if I could spare a quarter. I asked if he could use some socks. His face brightened and he said, oh yeah, he doesn't take good care of his feet. I dug out a pair and handed them over. He thanked me. A few blocks farther along a fellow looked up from a garbage can he was rummaging through, caught my eye, and asked if I could spare a quarter. I asked if he could use some socks. He said he could. Both men were genuinely grateful. It was a good experience.

The week brought the announcement that the conservative journal The Weekly Standard is going out of business. The Weekly Standard is one of the few conservative voices that has been consistently critical of the current occupant of the White House, who crowed on Twitter:

The pathetic and dishonest Weekly Standard, run by failed prognosticator Bill Kristol (who, like many others, never had a clue), is flat broke and out of business. Too bad. May it rest in peace!

Founding editor Kristol is a prominent figure among Never Trump conservatives.

On yesterday's PBS NewsHour, David Brooks was asked if this is yet another sign of the implosion of the conservative party. Brooks's response was forthright: "Yes, I think so." Brooks himself was a founding member of the magazine, which he dubbed the greatest collection of talent he has ever been around, singling out Charles Krauthammer, P.J. O'Rourke, Tom Wolfe, and Robert Kagan. He went on to say "the thing that always defined it was, we were not team players. We don't — we're not just doing the party line."

Among the reasons given by Brooks for the magazine's demise:

...first because it wasn't a Trump organ, and that hurt it with subscribers and generally. Second, that the owner, Phil Anschutz, and his organization [Clarity Media Group, which owned Weekly Standard] didn't understand what an opinion magazine is. And they were trying to get it to hire AM radio jocks to be the writers because they wanted sensational dumbness. It would be like buying the "NewsHour" and say, you know, Ann Coulter is really good. She'd be great for your organization.

Brooks makes an effort to be inoffensive even when voicing disagreement. Here he concludes with what are for him harsh words indeed:

But the death of it is a blow to the idea that you go into this business not to be a party player and a cheerleader for a party, but but you go into because you value a set of ideas. So I find myself angry about it. And I think it's a great loss for America.

A recent by piece by Jonathan Last taking up the latest fallout from the Mueller investigation provides a good example of what is lost (What If Democrats Have to Impeach Trump?, The Weekly Standard, December 10, 2018). Last's thesis is that the picture Mueller and his team are assembling is bad news for both Trump and the Democrats:

If you’re a Trump defender and want to stay focused on the Steele Dossier and Peter Strzok, or you want say What About Obama! — well, that’s fine, I guess. But it’s getting harder and harder to muddy the waters here, and any way you slice it, having the president subject to possible indictment while his former campaign manager and personal fixer both go to jail is...not good.

But as a political matter, the Democrats are inching toward a difficult position, too. Because they don’t want to impeach Trump, but they’re slowly being pushed into a corner in which they may have no choice. And this could turn out badly for them.

Impeachment is for the Democrats at best risky and at worst politically suicidal. Even if the House were to vote for impeachment, the Democrats would need in the neighborhood of twenty Republican votes in the Senate to reach the two-thirds required for conviction and removal from office. No one can imagine where those Republican votes might be found. Trump and the Republican Party, which is to say, the Trump party, would pitch the failure to convict as exoneration, and it could work. The sixty-four dollar question is who would be hurt most by a failed impeachment. It could well be the Democrats. Last argues, and I agree, they will be better off investigating the heck out of Trump in the House and making the 2020 campaign their impeachment trial.

But, asks Last, what if Trump has to be impeached?

Yes, yes, yes. Impeachment is a political decision and no one ever has to impeach anyone. But we have a universe of possible outcomes for the Mueller investigation which range from "Trump is innocent as a lamb" to "Holy S#@!" And we appear to be sliding more toward the worst-case scenario end of that spectrum right now.

What happens if there is real evidence of serious crimes? That could put the Democrats in a position where they are damned if they do and damned if they don't, between the proverbial rock and a hard place, and any other appropriate cliche you want to trot out.

FiveThirtyEight reports that the educational divide among white voters remains a key element of the country's social and political divisions:

In 2016, educational divides emerged as one of the top explanations of voters’ choices: White voters without a bachelor’s degree made up the Republican base, while a coalition of nonwhite voters and white college graduates formed the Democratic base. The 2018 midterms seemed to continue what we saw in 2016: Districts with bigger black populations, Hispanic populations or college-educated non-Hispanic white populations tended to vote more Democratic, while non-college-educated white voters remained strongly loyal to the GOP. (Nathaniel Rakich and Julia Wolfe, White Voters Without A Degree Remained Staunchly Republican In 2018, December 11, 2018)

I imagine some conservatives will take this as further evidence that American higher education is dominated by radical elites who indoctrinate the nation's youth with leftist, liberal, Marxist, deconstructionist ideology...or something. Yeah. That's probably it.

Let's close on an upbeat note. Margaret Hoover's interview with Donna Brazile on last week's Firing Line was one of her best. At the end Hoover brought up Maryland governor Larry Hogan's success with black voters. Hogan, a white Republican, captured 30 percent of the African-American vote and was reelected running against Ben Jealous, former head of the NAACP. What accounts for his ability to attract a substantial segment of black voters? What should other Republicans mimic?

Brazile answered that Hogan was successful because he respected the leadership of African-American leaders in his state. He responded to the community's needs, whether it was transportation, education, or creating small businesses. He is, she says, a hands-on governor who serves everybody. Speaking more generally, she summed it up with this:

The majority of African-American seniors consider themselves conservative. There is a base within the African-American community that Republicans can appeal to, but you cannot appeal to them by looking back. You got to look forward. They want to hear about education. They want to hear about opportunities. They want to live in a society where they are no longer judged by the color of their skin. If you can run as a compassionate conservative—It’s not the conservatism that scares African-Americans. It’s the lack of compassion and empathy that scares African-Americans.

Keep the faith.

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