27 January 2016


The American media is so obsessed with presidential election politics that significant trends elsewhere, especially in Europe, are being totally missed. Right-wing populist parties are increasingly doing well, whether it is the National Front in France, UKIP, or similar parties in Eastern Europe. Uncontrolled Islamic immigration and terrorist attacks have upended the usually sleepy political climate in Europe and it is hard to tell where things will wind up. In the US Donald Trump has tapped the same disenchantment and continues run strongly in the polls. 

The question is whether all of this represents a conservative trend, or something else. Whatever they are, the right populists are not conservative, although claiming the mantle is unsurprisingly in keeping with stretching the meaning of political terminology and identity. Since all of these candidates are calling themselves conservative but are far apart on many subjects it essentially just show how meaningless political labels have become. 

If we look closely, the only areas the right populists and conservatives have common ground is some disposition towards nationalism and the traditional culture of their societies. We may find these things favorable in moderation. The problem with the further right is that there is always a danger of driving over the cliff, as all the countries that participated in the disaster of World War I certainly did. That along with the second world war made nationalism unpopular in Europe until recently. Thus there is a difference between patriotism and chauvinism, (a term so misused in this country most people don’t have the foggiest notion of what it really means. It originated with critics of a 19th century French figure who was so over the top in sabre-rattling and near loony extreme nationalism that the term chauvinism stuck). At the same time there is nothing wrong with patriotism or pride in one’s own culture. The problem in the west is an intellectual class that despises their own culture, and become horrified when people react accordingly. 

But there similarities end. The populists want action, which usually distresses conservatives who abhor social disruption. No one is making much of an economic argument but here again populists are tapping into real feelings about stagnant incomes and elusive prosperity. Trump has managed to channel a good part of this sentiment, and when responsible establishment figures attack him it seems to have the opposite effect.   For there are some problems in the way this righteous indignation has come across on two levels. First, we have the problem of loss in faith in institutions across society, be it the political class, what passes for “intellectuals” in this country, the media, etc. etc. whose scolding of Trump only further reduces their tenuous legitimacy while inflating his. 

I am hardly a supporter of Trump but in this sense find his critics annoyingly hysterical. He could hardly be worse than the past couple of presidents, he might do more to serve the interests of the working class, he’d get along well with Putin and probably cut a favorable deal with the Chinese leaders. The president after all can only exercise real power in foreign affairs, being otherwise hemmed in domestically by strong constitutional limits. However in other places where the constitutional order is less strongly embedded there could be problems, even somewhere like the Fifth Republic (France). 

Trump, like the other populists, is not invested in the system, a fact that is working in his favor at present, but could backfire if he were to come into real interaction with it in office. In such an eventuality given how moribund the Democrats are, I could see the principal opposition to Trump coming, ironicallly from conservatives. Given the way things are going, and indeed have almost always gone, we would be a lot better off if it didn’t matter so much who was president. Perhaps that will be the net result of all of this, but at this stage the only thing we can reliably expect is the unexpected. 

14 January 2016


Our little cat Cleo left for cat heaven after spending nearly twenty wonderful years with us. After all, given how genetically related we are with other life forms, if there is a heaven for humans it is not unreasonable to presume there is one for cats. For as Herodotus speculated 2500 years ago, if humans have gods in their own image, then is it not possible that cows, dogs, and other animals have gods in their own image as well? We can never know, but if we have souls, then animals must have some less developed equivalent life force. 

We sense this especially when we have pets, and we recognize that they have clearly distinct personalities. They are unique individuals and can become as much a part of our lives as any human. That is why their loss is so painful, because we truly have lost a little individual with whom we have shared so many memorable experiences. It is not merely a cat that has died, but a particular, well-known individual that has passed on. 

The last period of Cleopatra’s life was trying as her abilities declined sharply to the point where her demise was inevitable and painful to experience. It is for that reason that some people won’t consider adopting another animal, for the fear of the pain of loss is too great. Yet in perspective that is but a moment in what could otherwise be a long, happy life full of treasured experiences that transcend that momentary loss. What I wrote of her brother Caesar when he died three years ago still rings true and can easily be substituted for little Cleo: 

There are millions of feral cats who live short, miserable lives. My cat Caesar, who just passed away, was far more fortunate in that he lived as good a life as any creature ever had. That doesn’t assuage the sense of loss, but does provide some perspective on how painful life always is for most living things. When we take in pets we free them from the cruelties of nature and in the process they become something more. A bond is formed. We give them names and they adapt to us as we adapt to them. Then we come to realize that this is, in some sense, a sentient individual with a distinct personality. 

Caesar was a source of endless wonder and joy to me. He had perfectly refined features, and even at the end the vet remarked how handsome he was. He was a very loving cat, unusually good-natured, gentle, and provided endless fascination in the way he interacted with the world around him. He became an intimate part of our lives, so that with his passing there is a deep sense of loss. 

This is something that anyone who has pets inevitably has to deal with, and our tendency is to feel sorry for them. But if we have treated them well, the sorrow is all ours, for death and loss is mainly painful for the living. Of course I will miss Caesar, but inevitable loss is a part of life that we have to deal with. That is far outweighed by the precious, immeasurably rich experience of having shared a part of my life with him. 

It is equally the case with our little Cleo, who so constantly enriched our lives and will surely be deeply missed, yet ever stronger will be the memories of all the good times we shared with her.

12 January 2016


The other night we went to the Metropolitan Opera, holding some of the best seats in the house,  looking forward to a nice night on the town. It wasn’t. The restaurant we ate at close to Lincoln Center was the noisiest place I’ve ever been and it was impossible to carry on a conversation with everyone else shouting to be heard above the racket. Then the opera, Die Fledermaus, was presented in English and took considerable liberties with the libretto. Opera sung in English always sounds stupid to me, and there’s no reason for it since they stream translations across the back of the seat in front of you. 

Every time I’ve been there I look at the hall and think why can’t we do better than this modern blank edifice, say like the old Met, vastly superior halls in Europe or even in other cities in the US. That is also true of the other venues, including what was Avery Fischer Hall, now renamed David Geffen hall, but is still just Philharmonic Hall to me. I don’t see why anyone should get a tax deduction for plastering their name all over things; the ego gratification doesn’t warrant it. If you’re coming to visit New York you can skip Lincoln Center, except for the overall architectural view; the individual halls are nothing to write home about. 

Earlier in the evening I thought I was lucky to find a parking space like in the old days before they stuck meters on everything, so I could avoid paying $46 for a garage. There was absolutely nothing to indicate the parking was illegal so I thought I was home free. But after the concert when we got to the spot the car was gone; either stolen or towed. I called the city number and yes, it had been towed, for allegedly parking in a bus stop. However there was not a single sign indicating that, and there was no yellow line on the sidewalk, so there was absolutely nothing to show it was allegedly a bus stop. But the damage was done, we had to grab a cab and head for the 38th street pier to retrieve the car after paying a $185 towing fee, and there was also a $115 ticket on the car on top of that. Most of the people there after midnight were clueless out-of-towners with rental cars that had been towed. This is nothing but a revenue racket, and the appeal process is deliberately convoluted. 

It was 1 AM when we finally got home, and due to alternate side parking I had to find a space on one side of the street. I drove around and around several blocks but there were no spaces, even on the wrong side. Finally after half an hour I found a small space I had to squeeze into with only inches to spare, and still on the wrong side so I would have to move the car in the morning. 

Last week we were on our way to another event but never got there because I hit some sort of obstruction that wasn’t there before nor was it demarcated and had to get two new wheels. 

The point of all of this is that this city not only discourages cars, it is hostile to them. On that basis don’t drive in New York City. Those of us who are natives have to live with this, but travelers beware. Something is bound to go wrong and spoil your evening, never mind being shaken down for parking, and honestly there’s nothing that great here anyway.