Yes, This Is The Face Of A Tyrant

And a competent one at that.

Andrew Sullivan in the Weekly Dish, September, 2020

If there’s one enduring theme about tyrants in myth, literature, and history it is that, for a long time, no one takes them seriously. And there are few better examples of this than Shakespeare’s fictional Richard III. He’s a preposterous figure in many ways, an unsightly hunchback, far down the line of royal accession, socially outcast, riven with resentment, utterly dismissible — until he serially dismisses and/or murders everyone between him and the throne. What makes the play so riveting and often darkly funny is the sheer unlikelihood of the plot, the previously inconceivable ascent to the Crown of this indelibly absurd figure, as Stephen Greenblatt recently explored in his brilliant monograph, Tyrant.

I’ll never forget watching a performance by Antony Sher of Richard decades ago — playing him as a spider, instinctually scuttling on two legs and two black canes, to trap, murder, and ingest his foes. The role is, of course, a fictional portrait, designed to buttress the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty that followed Richard III and that Shakespeare lived under. But as an analysis of the psychology of tyranny, it’s genius. Like Plato and Aristotle, Shakespeare saw this question not merely as political, but as wrapped up in the darker folds of the human soul, individual and collective.

The background of the drama is England’s “War of the Roses”, the civil war between two regional dynasties from which Richard emerged. And that’s often key in tyrant narratives: it’s when societies are already fractured into tribes, and divisions have become insurmountable, that tyrants tend to emerge, exploiting and fomenting chaos, to reign, however briefly, over the aftermath.

The war seems resolved when the victorious Edward, Richard’s older brother, succeeds to the throne: “For here I hope begins our lasting joy!” And no one thinks the deformed, bitter sibling, of all people, would be a threat. It seems preposterous. But it’s true. And at each unimaginable power grab by Richard — murdering one brother, killing the late king Edward’s young heirs, killing his own wife, and then trying to marry his niece to secure the dynasty — Richard’s peers keep telling themselves that it isn’t really happening. Greenblatt notes: “The principal weapon Richard has is the very absurdity of his ambition. No one in his right mind would suspect that he seriously aspires to the throne.” 

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But he has one key skill, Greenblatt notes, the ability to lie shamelessly: “‘Why, I can smile and murder whiles I smile, And cry ‘Content!’ to that which grieves my heart, And wet my cheeks with artificial tears, And frame my face to all occasions.’” It’s a skill that serves him well — and there seems no limit to the number of those eager to believe him. His older brother George, Duke of Clarence, told by thugs that Richard wants him dead, exclaims: “Oh no, he loves me, and he holds me dear. Go you to him from me.” At which point the hired goons reply — “Ay, so we will” — and merrily murder him, taking him to Richard as a corpse. (In a good production, that can get a laugh.) One of Clarence’s young sons, told that his own uncle hates him, declares, “I cannot think it.” Others witness obvious depravity but can’t quite call it out. One official receives clearly illegal orders from Richard, and follows them, asking no questions: “I will not reason what is meant hereby, Because I will be guiltless from the meaning.” 

Denial. Avoidance. Distraction. Willful ignorance. These are all essential to enabling a tyrant’s rise. And keeping this pattern going is Richard’s profound grasp of the power of shock. He does and says the unexpected and unthinkable in order to stun his opponents into a kind of dazed passivity. It’s this capacity to keep you on your heels, to keep disorienting you with the unacceptable (which is then somehow accepted), that marks a tyrant’s relentless drive. He does this by instinct. He craves chaos, lies, suspense, surprises — not because he’s a genius, but because stability threatens his psyche. He cannot rest. He is not in control of himself. And whenever the dust settles, as it were, he has to disturb it again. 

This is what we’ve been dealing with in the figure of Donald Trump now for five years, and it is absurd to believe that a duly conducted election is going to end it. I know, I know. I’m hysterical and over-the-top and a victim of “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” Trump is simply too incompetent and too lazy to be an actual tyrant, I’m constantly scolded. He’s just baiting me again. And so on. But what I think this otherwise salient critique misses is that tyranny is not, in its essence, about the authoritarian and administrative skills required to run a country effectively for a long time. Tyrants, after all, are often terrible at this. It is rather about a mindset, as the ancient philosophers understood, with obvious political consequences. It’s a pathology. It requires no expertise in anything other than itself.

You need competence if you want to run an effective government, or plan a regular campaign, or master policy with a view to persuading people, or hold power for the sake of something else. You need competence to create and sustain something. But you do not need much competence to destroy things. You just need the will. And this is what tyrants do: they destroy things. Richard III ruled for two short years, ending in his own death in battle, and a ruined country.

This is Trump’s threat. Not the construction of a viable one-party state, but the destruction of practices, norms, civility, laws, customs and procedures that constitute liberal democracy’s non-zero-sum genius. He doesn’t need to be competent to destroy our system of government. He merely needs to be himself: an out-of-control, trust-free, malignant narcissist, with inexhaustible resources of psychic compulsion, in a pluralist system designed for the opposite. All you need is an insatiable pathological drive to avoid any constraint on your own behavior, and the demagogic genius to carry a critical mass of people with you, and our system, designed as the antidote to tyranny, is soon unspooling into incoherence, deadlock, and collapse.

I’m told he’s been ineffective even as a tyrant, so no worries. To which I can only say: really? Once you realize he doesn’t give a shit about any actual policies, apart from doing all he can to wipe the legacy of Barack Obama from planet earth, he’s been pretty competent. Note how he turned Congressional subpoenas into toilet paper; how he crippled and muzzled the Mueller inquiry; how he installed a crony at the Department of Justice to pursue his political enemies and shield him from the law; how effectively he stymied impeachment; how he cucked every previous Republican opponent; how he helped destroy the credibility of news sources that oppose him; how he filled his cabinet with acting secretaries and flunkies; how he declared fake emergencies to claim the power of the purse assigned to the Congress; and how he has reshaped the Supreme Court with potentially three new Justices, whom he sees solely as his loyal stooges if he comes up against the rule of law.

And gotten away with all of it! 

In protecting his own power over others, he has been as competent as hell. Imagine where we’d be in four more years. Despite a mountain of criticism, he has not conceded a single error, withdrawn a single statement, or acknowledged a single lie. His party lost the mid-terms, but seriously, what difference did that make? His control of the Republican party, and his cult-like grip on the base, has never been greater than now. Yes, he has said and done racially polarizing things — but the joke is he may yet have more support from blacks and Latinos in 2020 than he did in 2016. Think of his greatest policy failures: the appalling loss of life in the Covid epidemic and the collapse of law and order in the cities. Now recall that on February 1 of this year, Trump was at 43.4 percent approval; 200,000 deaths later, and the wreckage from Seattle to Portland to Minneapolis, and his approval today is at 43.1 percent

This is, of course, not enough to win re-election. And Trump has no interest in broadening his appeal, because it would dilute the tribalism he feeds off. So he has made it abundantly clear that if the results of the election show him the loser, he will not accept them. Simple, really. He said this in 2016, of course, refusing to honor the result in advance. But this year, he has stumbled upon something quite marvelous for his purposes. Because of Covid19, it is likely that mail-in ballots will be far higher in number than before, and, as Barton Gellman has shown in this essential new piece, this gives Trump an opportunity he has instinctively seized. He has been saying for months now that: “MAIL-IN VOTING WILL LEAD TO MASSIVE FRAUD AND ABUSE … WE CAN NEVER LET THIS TRAGEDY BEFALL OUR GREAT NATION.” In late summer, Gellman noted, Trump was making this argument four times a day: “Very dangerous for our country.” “A catastrophe.” “The greatest rigged election in history.” He is telling us loud and clear that, if he has anything to do with it, this election will not be decided at the ballot box, but at the Supreme Court, which he expects to control.

If you haven’t, read Gellman’s piece closely. It seems inevitable to me that, unless it’s a Biden landslide, Trump will declare himself the winner on election night, regardless of the actual results. Because most mail-in ballots will take more time to count, and several swing states have not changed their laws to allow for counting before election day, and mail-ins are easily challenged, it is quite likely that much of Biden’s vote will remain uncounted or contested — and could remain so for a long time. And after declaring victory within hours of polls closing, Trump will follow the script he used for Florida in 2018: “The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged,” he tweeted, making shit up as usual. “An honest vote count is no longer possible — ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!”

I’ve no doubt this bullshit will be challenged by the networks, the press, and many of the states, and other sane people, who will urge patience. I’ve also no doubt that many states will do their best not to pervert the process. But I fear the result will be close (I’m underwhelmed by Biden’s near-invisible campaign), which will give Trump a chance. The fanaticism and alternate reality of a base already addicted to conspiracy theories means a hefty chunk of the country will back him. And it’s perfectly possible that Trump’s pre-emptive strike on the election result could prompt a massive revolt across the country from those who want to defend our democracy. (I will be marching in such a scenario myself). Most presidents would balk at anything close to this kind of scenario. Trump can’t wait. Violence? You can almost feel Trump’s hankering for it.

All he wants is chaos, because in chaos, the strong leader wins. Would he incite violence on his behalf if the votes seem to be drifting away from him? You bet he would. Would he urge his supporters to physically prevent ballot-counting? He already has. Would he try to corral Republican state legislators to back him in electing electors? Gellman has sources. Would he take this country to the brink of civil conflict? Way past it. Will anyone in the GOP do anything to stop him? We know the answer to that already. If they cannot condemn him this week, when would they? And he will do all this not out of some strategic calculation or tactical skill but because he cannot do anything else. He is psychologically incapable of conceding anything. And he has no understanding of collateral damage because his narcissism precludes it.

In every Shakespeare play about tyranny — from Richard III to Coriolanus to Macbeth — the tyrant loses in the end, and often quite quickly. They’re not that competent at governing, or even interested in it. The forces they unleash come back to wipe them from the stage, sooner or later. They flame out. Richard III lasted a mere couple of years on the throne.

But in every case, they leave a wrecked and reeling society in their wake. Look around you now and see the damage already done. Now imagine what we face in the next few months. We are tethered to Trump at this point because he is the legitimate president: the man who cannot control himself is in control of all the rest of us. And that’s why I desperately want to appeal to right-of-center readers at this point in the campaign to do everything they can to vote and to vote for Biden. This is not about left or right. This is about the integrity of a system that can give us such a choice. It really is an existential moment for liberal democracy, and its future, not just here but across the world. The next few months are critical.

It fills me with inexpressible rage that we have been brought to this. But there is no way out now other than through. This was always going to be the moment of maximal danger. And we cannot lose our focus now.

Liberté, egalité, fraternité


This is the tagline of my blog, the origin of which seems to be the French Revolution. And in fact are there these, plus other aspects of our lives so important that we would give up our lives rather than be without? Now there are moments of course when you might be ready to do that, gi ve up your life inorder to be free for example. ” Live free or Die, ” isn’t that what they say in New Hampshire?

I’ve always wondered just how real was this expression. Do people in NH actually do this? Or was it just another one of those countless mantras, words of phrases, that we hide behind inorder not be found, or rather not to be found out?

Now take the three of them, freedom, equality and fraternity? I would say no , they are not of equal import (my personal choice going to fraternity) and they might be better off if we separated them in our hearts and minds, as it were, the ones from the others, in order that the truths and lies of the ones not be confused with the untruths, the lies, with the truths of the other. Because all three are both true and false as just about everything else in this world. All three have their own Bell Curves.

Take the one, equality, the one about which perhaps the most scholarly treatises have been written. From all that I’ve read no one seems to know what the word means, not even Thomas Jefferson who did write mysteriously in 1776, that all men were created equal. Yeah sure.

There are of course many equalities, there are the equality of this or that or the other thing Also inequality, not equality, has been pretty much the norm since the onset of civlization some tens of thousands of years ago. Even today what to do about inequality still baffles us. The greatest failing of the Founding Fathers was to have run away from this subject as fast as they could. They were all slave holders, that is those who considered slaves, people, as their own. Also they probably sensed that there was nothing they could do, unless they happened to be followers of Christ and gave up their shirt to the poor. I don’t think anyone of them did, but I could be wrong about that.

Now this is not a book I’ m writing, just beginning (again) to put down on “paper” a few of my thoughts. I take much of the following thinking from an article by Andrew Sullivan (long a “see you next Friday’ writer from New York Magazine), The Logic Of Bell Curve Leftism.

And if there ever was a truth teller it’s Andrew. In this article, he’s telling us th e truth about equality of intelligence (there isn’t any), a subject this has been mostly avoided in my life time by writers to keep themselves from being struck down and banished from the guest list of New York, the Hampshires, and Washington DC social gatherings, from all those who seem to want to go on believing that intelligence no less than wealth can be evenly distributed among the population. It can’t.

Is democracy dead


The United States has deepening political and cultural cleavages—possibly too many to repair soon, or, perhaps, at all.

By Robin Wright

The United States feels like it is unravelling. It’s not just because of a toxic election season, a national crisis over race, unemployment and hunger in the land of opportunity, or a pandemic that’s killing tens of thousands every month. The foundation of our nation has deepening cracks—possibly too many to repair anytime soon, or, perhaps, at all. The ideas and imagery of America face existential challenges—some with reason, some without—that no longer come only from the fringes. Rage consumes many in America. And it may only get worse after the election, and for the next four years, no matter who wins. Our political and cultural fissures have generated growing doubt about the stability of a country that long considered itself an anchor, a model, and an exception to the rest of the world. Scholars, political scientists, and historians even posit that trying to unite disparate states, cultures, ethnic groups, and religions was always illusory.

“The idea that America has a shared past going back into the colonial period is a myth,” Colin Woodard, the author of “Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood,” told me. “We are very different Americas, each with different origin stories and value sets, many of which are incompatible. They led to a Civil War in the past and are a potentially incendiary force in the future.”

The crisis today reflects the nation’s history. Not much, it turns out, has changed. The country was settled by diverse cultures—the Puritans in New England, the Dutch around New York City, the Scots-Irish dominating Appalachia, and English slave lords from Barbados and the West Indies in the Deep South. They were often rivals, Woodard noted: “They were by no means thinking of themselves belonging to a protean American country-in-waiting.” The United States was “an accident of history,” he said, largely because distinct cultures shared an external threat from the British. They formed the Continental Army to stage a revolution and form the Continental Congress, with delegates from thirteen colonies. Almost two hundred and fifty years later, a country six times its original size claims to be a melting pot that has produced an “American” culture and a political system that vows to provide “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Too often, it hasn’t.

Centuries later, the cultural divide and cleavages are still deep. Three hundred and thirty million people may identify as Americans, but they define what that means—and what rights and responsibilities are involved—in vastly different ways. The American promise has not delivered for many Blacks, Jews, Latinos, Asian-Americans, myriad immigrant groups, and even some whites as well. Hate crimes—acts of violence against people or property based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or gender identity—are a growing problem. A bipartisan group in the House warned in August that, “as uncertainty rises, we have seen hatred unleashed.”

When Athens and Sparta went to war, in the fifth century B.C., the Greek general and historian Thucydides observed, “The Greeks did not understand each other any longer, though they spoke the same language.” In the twenty-first century, the same thing is happening among Americans. Our political discourse has become “civil war by other means—we sound as if we do not really want to continue to be members of one country,” Richard Kreitner wrote, in the recently released book “Break It Up: Secession, Division and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union.” At different times in America’s history, the Union’s survival was produced as much by “chance and contingency” as by flag-waving and political will. “At nearly every step it required morally indefensible compromises that only pushed problems further into the future.”

The attempt to reckon with our unjust past has produced more questions—and new divisions—about our future. In Washington, D.C., last week, a group commissioned by the city’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, recommended, in a report, that her office ask the federal government to “remove, relocate, or contextualize” the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, and statues to Benjamin Franklin and Christopher Columbus, among others. The committee compiled a list of people who should not have public works named after them, including Presidents James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson, the inventor Alexander Graham Bell, and Francis Scott Key, who wrote the national anthem. After a deluge of criticism, Bowser said on Friday that the report was being misinterpreted and that the city would not do anything about the monuments and memorials. But a question remains, not just because we live in the era of Black Lives Matter: What is America about today? And is it any different from its deeply flawed past?

There was always an ambiguity about what the United States was supposed to be, Woodard said. Was it supposed to be an alliance of states (as the European Union, with twenty-seven distinct governments, is today), or a confederation (like Switzerland, with its three languages and twenty-six cantons), or a nation-state (like post-revolutionary France), or even a treaty mechanism, to prevent intra-state conflict? After the American Revolution, the “ad-hoc solution” was to celebrate the shared victory against the British; core differences were not addressed. Today, America is still conflicted about its values, whether over the social contract, the means of educating its children, the right to bear or ban arms, the protection of its vast lands, lakes, and air, or the relationship between the states and the federal government.

Last week, President Donald Trump threatened to withhold federal funds to four major cities—New York, Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Portland—because of “anarchist” activities during weeks of protests. “My Administration will not allow Federal tax dollars to fund cities that allow themselves to deteriorate into lawless zones,” the President’s five-page memo said. It was the latest of many acts by Trump that have further divided the nation, although the trend did not start with him. ça to

Since the eighteen-thirties, the United States has gone through cycles of crises that threatened its cohesion. The idea of a revolutionary republic committed to equality (at the time, only for white men) started to erode as regional differences surfaced and the first generation of revolutionaries died out. States or territories have repeatedly pushed for independence—Vermont formally joined the Union in 1791, after spending fourteen years as an independent republic. The State of Muskogee, a multicultural republic of Native Americans, escaped slaves, and white settlers around Tallahassee, lasted from 1799 until 1803. In 1810, a small group of settlers captured a Spanish fort in Baton Rouge and declared the creation of an independent Republic of West Florida; their capital was St. Francisville, Louisiana. They elected a president, wrote a constitution, and designed a flag (a white star on blue); the movement died after President Monroe annexed the region. There were others, including the Republic of Fredonia, in Texas, the California Republic, and the Indian Stream Republic, in New England. The biggest rupture, of course, was in the eighteen-sixties, when eleven states—Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia—seceded to form the Confederacy.

In his new book, Kreitner argues that, with its politics irrevocably broken, America is running out of time. The potential for physical and political separation is now real, even though the polarization of America does not have neat geographic borders. No red state is entirely red; no blue state is entirely blue. “The twenty-first century has seen an unmistakable resurgence of the idea of leaving or breaking up the United States—a kaleidoscopic array of separatist movements shaped by the conflicts and divisions of the past but manifested in new and potentially destabilizing ways,” he writes. Unlike in the past, the current separatist impulses have emerged in multiple places at the same time. “Often dismissed as unserious or quixotic, a throwback to the Confederacy, the new secessionism reveals divisions in American life possibly no less intractable than the ones that led to the first Civil War,” Kreitner warns.

In the years to come, the appeal of pulling the plug on the American experiment is likely to grow, even among faithful adherents to the idea of federal power. And, if the Union dissolves again, Kreitner writes, it will not be along a clean line but “everywhere and all at once.” In some ways, the election, now only eight weeks away, will be a temporary relief, at least in ending the current agonizing uncertainty. But it will play only one part in deciding what ultimately will happen to our nation. “Are we a myth? Well, yes, in the deep sense. Always have been,” Blight said. To survive, America must move beyond the myth.

my Blogging

We’re just over the halfway point of the year. Now this year, 2020 has been much on our minds because it will give us, we trust, on November 3rd, the long awaited presidential election. Assuming that Trump doesn’t succeed with his efforts to sabotage the election in his own favor, mainly by lowering the numbers of anti-Trump eligible voters, President Trump will turn into Mr. Trump from one day to the next.

And Mr. Trump will become the most favored target of any number of state attorney Generals and prosecutors, all in line to pursue Mr. Trump for any number of corruption charges , not the least of which being the charge of treating the United States government as his own private playground subject to no laws or limits other than those of his own invention.

Now I have a number of WordPress blogs, 8 of them altogether, of which 6 are kept hidden. The other two, Quatrevingtans and My-Journal, are not hidden, are public. The latter two are the principal carriers of my own thoughts, along with the thoughts of a multitude of others who probably like me are out of school, but still my teachers.

My blogs contain my own thoughts which are and have been for most of my adult life, the “things,” mostly the words, that I hold most dear. There are countless ideas contained therein, hundreds, thousands, of the ideas of others, with frequently a few of my own. Although I might ask how many of us has ever had an idea that has not been usually better expressed by others, probably many others at another and earlier, or much earlier time?

There are many men and women whom I admire, for their words which are usually within my reach, but also for their actions not so much within my reach. There are a large number of these individuals and I won’t try now to list them, but there are a few at the top of my list, two of these being Hannah Arendt whom I call the teller of truths so terribly needed in this untruth time of Donald Trump and his enablers, and Nelson Mandela no less a truth teller but also throughout his life a man of action.

Mandela was arrested and imprisoned in 1962, and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment for conspiring to overthrow the state. He went on to serve 27 years in prison on Robben Island, Pollsmoor and Victor Verster Prisons.

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) was one of the most influential political philosophers of the twentieth

Hannah Arendt orn into a German-Jewish family, Hannah was forced to leave Germany in 1933 and first lived in Paris for the next eight years, before moving to New York. To learn more go to Richard Bernstein. “Why read Hannah Arendt Now?”

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela
Photo: Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

Number two on my list is Nelson Mandela who lived his whole life, in South Africa, almost by himself making the country that had been an area home to 10 or more tribes, in the process. Now he is admired throughout the world, no less than M LK and Mahatma Ghandi, admired as a man of action, an anti-apartheid revolutionary, a political leader and philanthropist, and who served , following his release from Robbin Island, as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999.

Angela Merkel

And what about this person, Angela Merkel, a truth teller and woman of action, also another person whom I greatly admire,

Angela Merkel, present Chancellor of Germany since 2005. Born in Hamburg in july of 1954.

Angela Dorothea Merkel is a German politician who has been Chancellor of Germany since 2005. She served as the Leader of the Christian Democratic Union from 2000 to 2018. She has been widely described as the de facto leader of the European Union and the most powerful woman in the world.

What I remember about Chancellor Merkel is her decision, alone of the Western democracies, including the United States, to keep country’s borders open thereby allowing some 1 million+ mostly Syrian refugees to freely enter Germany.

Angela Merkel with migrant
Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

A mmigrant takes a photo with Angela Markel outside a refugee camp in Berlin in September 2015.

Was she right to do so? I would say yes, much as we have been right to allow millions of migrants and refugees to freely enter our country. Old countries, like Germany and now ourselves are always in need of new people with new ideas. We also need leaders like Angela Merkel but in my life time there have been far too few. There have been Nelson Mandela and Angela Merkel.

Jean-Claude Juncker kissing Angela Merkel (picture-alliance/AP Images/Y. Herman)
Jean-Claude Juncker has praised Angela Merkel for her controversial decision to let in nearly 1 million refugees in the autumn of 2015.

The EU’s Juncker says that History will prove Chancellor Merkel right on refugees. I would say that History will prove our president wrong on this and on just about everything else.

more from Charlie

This is a life-changing election that will determine America’s future for a very long time. Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy. They are all on the ballot.

Charles P. Pierce, August 20, 2020

The fact is that none of those three things should be on a ballot. We should not have to vote ourselves decent. We should not have to subject scientific truth to a plebiscite. We should never have even the slimmest chance to vote down democracy. But here T are. And here we stay, for two more months, at least.

Charlie of course is Charles P. Pierce who writes occasional pieces for Esquire Magazine (I’m familiar with about one a week, but there may be more.)
This week’s piece is particularly interesting (well, last week’s too). It begins with Patrick Henry’s of Give me Liberty or Death. “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” (a quotation attributed to Patrick Henry from a speech he made to the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775, in Richmond, Virginia.) It was at the very least a call to arms against the armies of the King. Something had to be done and right away.

Charlie then juxtaposes Henry’s words and action in 1775 with Barack Obama’s speech on Day 3 of the Democratic Convention. Once again our Constitutional government as Obama makes clear was teetering on the brink, perhaps more seriously than ever before, and now, right now in the words of President Obama something had to be done. There followed a “something”on Day 4, the last day of the Democratic Convention. This was Joe Biden’s acceptance speech that in its essence might be considered a translation of Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death.” Then the tyrant was the English King, George III, now the would be tyrant is Donald Trump.

notes from my journal

There are things that go right by. We don’t record them if we see them, which we most often do not.. But in too many instances the things that go right by are close to what I am. to what we are, to what you are. Does that mean we’re leaving parts of us behind all the time? Well yes, everybody is.

What do I do about them now, the parts destined to be left behind? Some of them, a tiny number of them given the huge numbers of them, I collect them, small part of me that I hold onto, and I’ve always done that. These parts of me are of course my lived experiences. The major difference between now and earlier times in my life is that we have gone digital. That at once allows me to collect many more of the things that do go by, in my case ideas and images, articles and recordings, many more than I ever could in my hard copy life of long ago.

But of course I collect very few of those that are there, of the books published hardly any as evidenced by the few recently published books now on my shelves . If there were not so much happening all the time about us wouldn’t we constantly be trying to write our own histories of at least the wee little bit that we know best.

But for the most part we cannot do that. There is just too much happening, and the little we’re aware of ourselves is still too much. Yes, life is far too overwhelming. What do we do?

Some of us will readily abandon any attempt to make order of what amounts to chaos and simply drop out. Others, more courageous perhaps, will still try to stay on top of what is happening, knowing all the time that they can’t.

How about what’s happening just today? What if I were off the top of my head, to list just a first few of the things that are happening to us and about us?

* There are the tragic movements of peoples, some 70 million of those who have abandoned their own homes to go where, wherever there is a road or way, meaning where there is an opening for themselves. Of these there are fewer and fewer who succeed in reaching their destinations as we erect walls and other obstacles in their paths. We find them today in their millions in temporary/permanent refugee camps.

* There is the devastation of our planet earth, a devastation among other things amounting to extinctions of millions of plant and animal species, (why? well often to enable a relatively few of us, along with one president, to go on stuffing ourselves “à volonté” with burgers and cokes and our cars with gasoline).

* There are the schools that were meant to occupy the children while setting the parents free. But while setting the parents free the schools did little to free the children themselves to become what they were meant to be, such being the real end of all education. As if this could be accomplished over some 12 years of listening to a teacher in a classroom. Yes, the public schools while they did free the parents made it that the majority of the children, following their for the most part asted years in school, had to begin again, in most cases ironically having to go back to school in order this time around to learn something useful.

* Thee are the principal ways of amusing ourselves, our own bread and circuses, at best these being our school and professional athletic competitions, and perhaps at worst and much more prevalent, these being the sex and violence laden products of the film and television industries, really now the same thing.

* And today of course there is our little black death or Covid-19 pandemic that is currently dropping us, homo sapiens, much like we drop the musca domestica or fly, both without rhyme or reason.

And my list could go and on. And I haven’t even mentioned what would be for me the most important item on my list, the rise of authoritarian and fascistic movements throughout the nations of the world, that which is threatening to destroy, (yes, even in America if our president were to have his way) the West’s greatest achievement up until now, liberal democracy.

herodotus and thucycides

Each of these subject areas or stories that I mention in the previous post could be told by our own historians in hundreds, thousands of different ways, while always leaving much more still to be said. For as I would say the information available to us today online may be infinite and the historians among us who would describe what is happening would have to at least consider the infinite quantity of material available to them, without ever being able to take into account more than a tiny fraction of what’s our there. So what does the historian do? They write their own histories, and they compete with the hundreds of others writing no less their own histories often of the same controversy or war time battle for the reader’s attention.

Imagine now the existence of thousands of world voyagers much like Herodotus, writing about what they are observing in their travels. You don’t have to imagine it for it is happening right now. Why the New York Times and so many of the other Fake News publications do this every day. They have amazing writers and reporters that go out there into the world, much like Herodotus, to come back and tell us what they’ve seen. And I never tire of reading them, for reading them there is always more to learn about the world, more I did not know.

Imagine a thousand or more individuals with the intelligence and sensitivity of Thucydides looking closely at our own wars, giving us full descriptions of what happened, and more important what was going on underneath the surface disagreements and battles. Herodotus and Thucydides where are you now? Well you may very well be here with us but in multiple copies, and that’s good.

And I haven’t even mentioned Homer. But I’m sure he’s here too, somewhere. When you have thousands of us looking about us and writing about what we see it’s inevitable that there will be some of them who will have as much to tell us about our world, more actually, than the ancients, when there were only a very few, writing, about their own compared to ours, tiny world. Because today’s historians, and perhaps poets also, will have read the ancients and incorporated the ancient wisdom into their own works. Or something like that… I often think that we live in the best of times, assuming that we will have a decent guy as our president in January of 2021.

Life in hong kong has always been impossible

Now in the era of Donald Trump and Covid-19 life does also seem to be impossible, almost as if time were standing still. And in particular all the Trump twitter about restoring the past, making America great again, moving full speed ahead as Trump likes to say, if that were ever to happen, that would be the height of standing still, no movement at all. Trump doesn’t understand that In this country it’s never been about going back, always about lessening present inequalities, shoring up present inadequacies, addressing if not correcting some of the country’s flaws and deficiencies and only then moving incrementally on.

In Hong Kong life seems to be at a stand still, where it’s been, it seems, forever. The neighboring Chinese authorities do from time to time get anxious about all this freedom so close to their imprisoned millions and decide within the freedom of their own freedom what to do about the freedom of others, usually taking it away.

But there’s nothing new here, is there? In Hong Kong Life Has Always Been Impossible and now with the coming of Donald Trump and his lying, servile minions (aka Republican Senators) life here also is becoming no less impossible.

“Take care tonight/ Things might not look like this tomorrow.”

By Karen Cheung

Ms. Cheung is a writer in Hong Kong.


Last year, in July, a month after the protests over an extradition bill began in Hong Kong, I renewed the lease on my flat. For the first time since I turned 18, I would be living in the same apartment for more than two years. It felt like an accomplishment, like I was a real adult.

My place is almost 300 square feet, and it has a view of trees and steps, which is such an improvement from my last flat that sometimes just looking out the window makes me emotional. I ordered a cheap Ikea carpet and put up old posters. I started buying vinyl records and physical books again. I could be here for a while. It began to feel like home.

There are so many reasons Hong Kong is not a particularly habitable city, so many reasons you might want to leave, even without the Chinese Communist Party threatening to throw dissidents in jail.

Windowless apartments, subdivided flats, bunk beds. If you have children, your choice is either to send them to local schools, where they face an unforgiving education system, or international schools, which can cost as much as $13,000 a year. The high rents or archaic land regulations and bureaucracy can force out anyone trying to run an independent space for music, art and expression. Rates of depression have recently reached a 10-year high, but quality mental health care is too expensive for ordinary people.

I am 27 now, and when I was younger, I desperately wanted to leave Hong Kong. I grew up in a neighborhood that, at the time, felt like a cultural backwater. There were no bookstores, no art, no record shops. I attended a conservative Christian school and never really fit in. I went to concerts alone. I wrote fan fiction and spent all my time on Tumblr.

I thought I wanted to go to school in London or New York, where I’d finally find “my people.” The longest I’ve ever managed to be away from the city was four months, for an exchange semester in Scotland. I never really ended up going anywhere.

But that was OK, because eventually I did find my people. I met community activists and other young creative types who showed me an alternative way of living in Hong Kong. I became a regular at the cha chaan tengdiners in my neighborhood, where I’d be given a second bowl of soup at dinner once the staff found out that I didn’t live with my family. There were local musicians whose shows I’d never miss. In university, I began going to protests.

The poet Maggie Smith writes, “Any decent realtor,/ walking you through a real shithole,/ chirps on/ about good bones: This place could be beautiful,/ right? You could make this place beautiful.”

There is an annual march on July 1, the anniversary of the British “handover” of Hong Kong to the Chinese, and soon I took it for granted that about this time every year, I would be marching through the streets in the sticky heat. I belonged, and I was proud to be here and not anywhere else. Hong Kong was still unforgiving, but we could expand the space for what is possible here.

This year, on the evening of June 30, the condolences started coming in. Earlier that day, China had passed the new national security law, which took effect within hours. The sky had cracked with a coral sunset that seeped into the horizon like a warning.

Friends living abroad sent me texts: I’m so sorry, hope you’re OK, thinking of you. Restaurants started peeling protest stickers off their glass windows. Some writers I know have been trying to scrub their work from the internet and deleting their chat records. The law is broad and gives China new ways to punish protesters and silence dissent.

Former classmates are discussing immigration plans or getting married, so that if they need to, they can flee with their partners. Others are figuring out how to renew their British National Overseas passports, the documents issued to Hong Kongers born before 1997, which could allow them to stay in Britain for five years.

Before the new law made the chant “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” possibly illegal, my favorite place to hear it was at tiny music clubs, “livehouses” that stink of beer and sweat at the end of the night. After the encores, the last guitar note still reverberating, someone would yell the first half of the slogan, and others would answer in unison. At the end of December, I celebrated New Year’s Eve at a small pro-protest cafe where a friend played the unofficial protest anthem, “Glory to Hong Kong,” and everyone sang along.

After six months of street protests and police violence, we were all exhausted, but it still felt like we were on the cusp of change.

I was 10 when the Hong Kong government tried to introduce a national security law in 2003, and it was quickly withdrawn after half a million people took to the streets in protest. That proposal was a sword that hung over us for nearly two decades, a threat to what Hong Kongers hold most dear — a culture of protest, the rule of law, freedom. We’ve been fighting for “freedom,” that abstract concept, for so long, with no idea of what losing it would look like. It was delivered with devastating speed — the whole process took less than two months — in the form of a 66-article piece of legislation that we had no say in. Hong Kongers, academics and overseas commentators say this is the endgame, that after this law, Hong Kong will be “dead.”

Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

But I don’t really know what that means. Seven and a half million people still live here. On July 1, some protesters unfurled a banner with an obscenely worded message professing love for Hong Kong, and soon that phrase became a hashtag. The subtext is that we might not have a place to love anymore. I have a law degree, and I am a former reporter, so I am conditioned to have an almost religious belief that legal processes are fair, that the annual protests penciled into the calendar are allowed to take place. That version of Hong Kong is now a relic.

But not everything has disappeared. The bookshop near my flat posted a message on social media: “Life goes on, resist fear.” A reporter I know tweeted, “I’ll just try my best to pretend this law doesn’t exist, keep calm, and carry on.”

I don’t want to downplay how terrifying the national security law is. People were arrested under that law on the first day, some of them just for carrying a flag bearing suddenly “outlawed” slogans. Courts can deny bail and hold secret trials. No one knows how to navigate this new reality.

Yet people are already coming up with cheeky, humorous ways of circumventing the new rules, resisting the temptation to be too obedient and give in to the chilling effect. We will continue to find defiance in unexpected places.

Over the past week, I have read report after report about how there would be an exodus of Hong Kongers from the city after the law was passed. But leaving is not an option for the young people who don’t already have British or B.N.O. passports or whose families don’t have the means to send them abroad to study.

Ahkok Wong, a musician-social activist I know, actually moved back to Hong Kong recently, telling me, “I think it’s an important time to be here.” Life in Hong Kong has always been about demanding the impossible, trying to make seeds blossom in cement, he says.

After the law went into effect on July 1, I tried to write. But what I wanted was to walk around the city, and then go to the seaside where the breeze reeks of salt and summer, where couples make out and uncles jog near the pallets unloaded from cargo ships at the Western District pier. To see the city through the eyes of someone who’s just moved here and think, “I want to stay here forever.”

A view from a hilltop in the Shek Kip Mei area of Hong Kong.
A view from a hilltop in the Shek Kip Mei area of Hong Kong. Credit…Lam Yik Fei , The New York Times

I used to see leaving as abandonment, but the cost of staying could now potentially be life imprisonment. When Nathan Law announced that he had left the city, I thought about the last time I saw him, a month ago, canvassing for an upcoming election at Hill Road. I wish I had stayed longer to thank him for trying to make this city more habitable. Four years ago, when elections still seemed to matter, I had voted for him, to make him the youngest legislator ever elected in Hong Kong, before he was disqualified. There will be new forms of resistance, here or elsewhere, and I know he will be a part of them.

I remember the night before July 1, it seemed like all my friends were posting the same song on social media, a cover by the Hong Kong band My Little Airport. It goes, “Take care tonight/ Things might not look like this tomorrow.” In between the verses, there is an archival recording of Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, saying, “Now Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong, that is the promise and that is the unshakable destiny.”

That promise has been broken, but this is not the end. We will continue to make a home out of an imperfect place. To wipe down the mold, repaint the walls. One day we could be forcibly evicted, or this could all burn to the ground. But for now, we’re still here. Maybe we can still try to make this place beautiful.

Not to forget, Journal notes

There are things that go right for me, things that could have gone right for me. There were things that were somehow meant to be. But I have almost never stopped for them. And if it does happen that I do stop I leave behind almost no record of them, of my experience with them. These things were for the most part beginnings, things I did start but never finished. And in fact my life is made up much more of beginnings than of ends

We begin things in life, oh don’t we, oh how much the things we begin do we ever bring to a satisfactory end? At the moment I can’t think of even one, not a great time for me is it, for where I am today is old age.

In far too many cases too many things pass me by, I don’t stop for them, but mostly they don’t stop for me. These things, as I now realize represent, all the things I might have been. For we are not, most of us at all what we could of been, are we?

What then does that make us? Frustrated, dissatisfied not to have gone down our bucket list and finished. This frustration and dissatisfaction, especially in times of state and national elections, leads us on looking for someone who will promise us a greatness we have never known for ourselves. We haven’t lost that dream, to make something of ourselves, and alone that is why we admire so much those who unlike us do start and finish things. I think of all those mathematicians, musicians,  athletes, artists, scientists… and the few of them I have known. And by the nature of things there can never be more than a few of them at the top .

Now this fact alone, that there are only a few at the top, lays bare the underlying inequalities among us and is probably more to be blamed that racism, bigotry, authoritarianism, etc. for the inequalities that we observe among us. Whereas we are learning painfully what to do about racism and authoritarianism we really have no idea what to do about the gifts and talents that are so poorly distributed among us, separating the few inexorably from the many.

But reading over what I’ve just written, while correcting the typos, or better in my case, les fautes de frappe because of my age, I think about what I wanted to write about in my 88th year. For that’s more or less the real subject of my blog. I do have a blog which I call My Journal, but as things go, as you start things, much as I started My Journal, you very quickly find yourself paying little or no attention to your first idea for writing and you end up writing another blog much the same as my earlier Quatrevingtans.

So back to where I was going with this blog before I started writing. What I find hardest to live with at my age of 88 are not my considerably diminished powers of seeing, hearing, and tasting, perhaps less, feeling and touching (what have I left out? well smelling, which was never a big part of my life anyway). I find hardest to live with the fact that when my life is over (it’s over already in respect to the people who measure this kind of thing)  and I don’t remember the name of these people, as I don’t remember the names of the flowering plants in our front yard here in Tampa, Florida. So another power I’m losing, the memory of proper names. If you don’t think this is a serious handicap try living without being able while speaking to recall this or that proper name on which your entire story or argument is probably based.

Also, there is (and this is what I really wanted to write about, but now I ‘ll have to put it off to the next time) the fact that when my life has ended there will be almost nothing that remains of me. Certainly no more beginnings, although I am still learning a few words of Arabic from my wife, as well as learning by heart the “Bénissez nous seigneur, bénissez ce repas,,” that we say at table in admiration of the Catholic family members giving thanks at the table in Blue Bloods.

I’m not just talking about the thousands of books, papers, those things all of which made up during my now long life a good part of me, perhaps the best part.

From where I’m sitting at my desk in front of my recently purchased Apple 27 inch display I look across at some of my book shelves (there are shelves of books, and there always have been in all of our rooms and all of our houses and apartments over the years, and from here I see my math library, from here most of what I see are my many versions of the calculus because there really was a time when I really wanted to learn the calculus and didn’t hesitate to buy one edition after the other, beginning of course with For Dummies.

Now my blog is not at all commercial. On the contrary it has no purpose beyond my own personal wishes and dreams. But there may be a reader out there who might want to purchase my math library, or my Russian library, or my biological sciences, in particular evolution library? Many excellent books in all three collections. And there are other collections too, corresponding to moments, to years in my life, The Greek years, the Great Books years, the Italian and Spanish, and German years…

But there were three very special moments in my learning years, not moments in school but personal times when I sensed almost from first encountering them their special importance, and not just to me. These encounters, with the calculus, the Russian language, and evolution, were made probably too late for me to obtain a kind of fluency in any one of the three, without which they will or have already died.

And now in my life the three of them are hanging by threads close to disappearing even before I do myself. You might be saying, why just these three? No good answer to your question. Calculus is important, as is evolution, as are foreign languages, but so are any number of other subject matters. But a good part of my own life has been taken up by these three, at least in respect to time spent and purchases made…

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité