A late-life connection.
My friend Matthew Shanahan, born in 1917, was 88 when I first met him in 2005. He was one of those handsome bald men, with delicate, rather aristocratic features, high-colored skin with few wrinkles, and bright blue eyes through which he could make out only the dimmest shades of grey or glints of the most glaring light.
Matt was blind, the victim of retinitis pigmentosa, which ran in his family. The disease began to affect him in his fifties, leaving him with scarcely any sight by his sixties and progressing to total blindness. Deaf in his right ear, he wore a hearing aid in his left. Slender, perhaps 5’10” or so before age had bent him forward, he nonetheless had a natural elegance, and wore clothes well; each day these were chosen for him by one of the attendants at Friedman Place, the Jewish home for the blind on the northside of Chicago into which he had moved a short while before I met him.
The meeting came about indirectly through my granddaughter, then a junior in high school, who was working as a volunteer at Friedman Place in connection with a course at her school. Matt Shanahan was the first person she visited. Her assignment was to help him with his braille, testing him on a deck of braille playing cards. When he had more vision, Matt derived much pleasure from the game of bridge. His main pleasure now, apart from the company of family, was listening to books on tape, and of these he had listened to a vast quantity. Not long after we met, in fact, he turned in my direction and asked, “Do you have any notion why Hannah Arendt wanted to sleep with a creep like Heidegger?” An interesting question coming from a man who never finished high school.
Because getting from her school to Friedman Place required three different buses, and because from her birth I have dedicated myself to spoiling her, I picked my granddaughter up at her school every Thursday afternoon and drove her to Friedman Place. I waited an hour for her in the lobby, where, sitting on a couch before an aviary filled with small charming birds, I read a book.
Not every resident at Friedman Place was entirely blind; some had serious vision impairments but could still see. The spread of ages ran from the youthful to the aged. Having been born blind, or become blind at an early age, it was apparent from my vantage point in the lobby, often resulted in strange, rather Aspergian tics of behavior. Among the arbitrary dirty tricks played upon them: Some of the blind residents talked very loudly, with no sense of modulation; a few others had psychological problems, evidenced by grimacing twitches or scowls; a small man named Stuart had the slightly alarming habit of staring at women at close range in a manner that was clearly not social-scientific.
Roz Katz, who organizes cultural field trips for Friedman Place residents and is in charge of volunteers and is a person of great energy and sweetness of character, after noticing me sitting in the lobby on a few Thursdays, asked if I would be willing to spend the hour reading to residents. Since Mrs. Katz is a woman who could sell a freezer on the installment plan to a man on his way to the gallows, saying no was not really a possibility. I started the following Thursday, reading to perhaps 12 people. I began with a Chekhov story, which cut my audience down to nine; a Turgenev story I read the following week brought it down to six; stories by Somerset Maugham and Saki and myself—and here I felt I was going down-market—left me with four, sometimes three, auditors. I was not, to put it gently, a great hit.
Matt Shanahan was at all my readings, sitting to my right, the better to hear out of his still good left ear. From his concentrated look I could tell that he was listening to the stories at a level of understanding and enjoyment higher than other people’s in the room. We would sometimes talk for a few minutes after the reading. Apart from his Hannah Arendt–Heidegger remark, I don’t recall his saying anything striking, yet he established himself in my mind as a serious man capable of subtlety and of its faithful companion, irony.
Not long after my granddaughter’s semester of volunteer work was over, I decided to stop my unpopular Thursday afternoon readings. I told Matt that I had chiefly continued the readings on his account and would much prefer to spend the time taking him to lunch every other Friday, when we could talk by ourselves uninterruptedly. He agreed. And so we did for the next six years, with occasional breaks for travel on my part and illness on his.
Each second Friday Matt would be waiting for me on a couch to the left of the aviary in the lobby of Friedman Place. I would touch him on the shoulder and take his hand. “Joe?” he would say, without bothering to look up. “The very same, sailor,” I would reply. As we walked out of the lobby, he would grasp my right arm with his left hand—he carried his white-and-red cane in his right hand—and we made our way to my car parked in the driveway. I always described the weather to him, including the quality of the day’s light. He had to negotiate a curb to get into the front seat of my car. Once he had his hand on the upper part of the open door, guiding by it, he was able to slide himself into the front passenger seat. The first time I said, “There you go” when he had done so, he replied, “What do you suppose that means? Where is ‘there’ and why ‘go’?” He was careful with language, and we often investigated the nonsense of stock phrases: food that “hit the spot,” “get a grip on yourself,” “oops a daisy,” “everything’s on the up and up,” and many more. His blindness made him especially thoughtful about language; he saw the words and their comical illogic perhaps more vividly than do people with sight.
At first we went to different restaurants on the northside of Chicago: Greek, Italian, German joints. (I paid the check one week, Matt the next, giving me his credit card and having me sign his name when the bill arrived.) Then we settled on a place called A Taste of Heaven on Clark Street, in the Andersonville neighborhood. I could usually get a parking space nearby, the food was fresh and good, and they served locally famous Petersen’s Ice Cream, notably a flavor called Mackinac Island Fudge, with which we often topped off our lunches. Usually we shared a large sandwich, served on sourdough baguette, but if Matt ordered pancakes or french toast, I would cut it up for him. A West Indian woman at Friedman Place used to do this for him, always saying, “I make pieces,” which he reported to me with his wry smile. At the beginning of the meal, I directed his hand to his coffee mug, and might report that on his plate the pasta salad was at three o’clock, the sandwich at six.
We generally made rather clattersome entrances and departures, Matt bent over, holding onto my arm, his white-and-red stick pointed outward, capturing perhaps too much attention in the restaurant’s narrow aisles. As we left, I would sometimes make dopey jokes. “This guy isn’t really blind,” I’d say, “he just uses the cane to pick up girls.” Or: “Excuse us, but his dog is on vacation in a condo he owns in Boca Raton, and the agency sent me to take him to lunch.” He went along with it beautifully, adding amusing comments of his own. “The dog has much better manners than this fellow,” he might say.
Matt had come into his full blindness too late to be adept at dealing with it. Not many moves came easily to him. Watching him try to establish himself in a restaurant chair could be a reminder of what a subtraction loss of sight was: He would feel the seat of the chair with his hand, place his cap atop it, his cane beneath it, then arrange to seat himself fully three feet from the table or, occasionally, facing the wrong way. Sometimes returning to my apartment after lunch with him, I would close my eyes, pretending to be blind, and for five minutes or so try to put myself through the simplest exercises: finding a light switch, opening the refrigerator and attempting to locate the orange-juice carton, making my way to the bathroom and finding the sink and toilet once there. I didn’t do well.
By rough count, we had 600 hours of uninterrupted conversation, Matt and I. Sometimes I would remind myself that he hadn’t the least idea of my appearance. The way I dressed, the color of my hair, my smile, my physical reactions to his jokes, whether I seemed old or young for my age, graceful or awkward in my movements. I could have closed my eyes while he was speaking, or yawned, or read a magazine through our lunches together, and he wouldn’t have known it. I bring this up because I myself am attentive, as are we all, to the least physical reactions on the part of people to whom I speak, to sense whether what I am saying is understood, agreed with, enjoyed, going down well. Owing to his blindness, Matt traveled without such a social compass, though it didn’t seem to bother him much, at least not in my company.
Neither Matt nor I were confessional, nor did we go in for instant intimacy. We did, though, have an immediate rapport—or, as I told him we Jews called it, rappaport. We never talked about sex, except as comedy, and agreed that everyone else’s sex was comical but our own. We rarely talked about money—he was a paying resident at Friedman Place—though he once told me that if he lived to one hundred, he figured to run out of his savings. On fundamental things we were in agreement: on what was amusing, on who was impressive, on what constituted decency.
He talked about his blindness matter-of-factly. He was without self-pity. I never once heard him complain about the mean trick of blindness that life had played on him. His only physical complaints were about his various hearing aids, which sometimes went on the fritz, tending to give off odd sounds. The hearing aid could also make the din in noisy restaurants unbearable.
Slowly, over the early months of our lunching together, Matt filled me in on his biography. He was the youngest of nine children of Irish immigrant parents. His father, who worked as a bricklayer, was illiterate; his mother, who ran their home on the northside as a boarding house, was the brains of the outfit. Details of life in another era came through: his mother’s economizing by buying day-old bread, the oddity of some of their male borders, their German neighbors, Kogen the Jewish pharmacist who treated most of the minor ailments among neighborhood residents. From time to time he would report an incident about one or another of his brothers or sisters, with none of whom, my sense was, he was particularly close and whose destinies varied from being briefly successful to being bust-outs with alcohol problems.
Matt went of course to Catholic school, and did well there, a favorite of the nuns for his quick mind. He dropped out before finishing, because he was offered a job working in a grocery store, which, with the Depression raging, seemed too good to pass up. He married young and fought in World War II with the Marines in the Pacific Theater. He never mentioned killing any of the enemy Japanese, but he did catch some shrapnel just below the clavicle, for which he was given a Purple Heart. He wrecked his hearing by being too near artillery fire, and suffered dizziness long after the war was over. He once recounted seeing piles of dead Japanese bodies on Guam, which shook him and, though he never said so directly, may have been in good part responsible for his having lost his religion.
Religion was one of the things about which we disagreed—never violently, never allowing it to distract us for long. I held that life’s mysteries were too abundant to make atheism even mildly persuasive. Truth is, religion wasn’t a subject that much interested him; he had closed the books on it. Sometimes, after lunch, back in his room at Friedman Place, as I shook his hand in a slightly lingering way before leaving, he’d say, in a perfectly pitched phony sanctimonious voice, “I’ll pray for you.”
We also disagreed about politics. Matt was a liberal of the old-fashioned kind, which meant he was always on the side of the underdog. I told him it wasn’t all that clear any more who exactly the underdog might be. I quoted to him Orwell’s line about when he saw a policeman beat up on a man, his, Orwell’s, not having to decide whose side he was on, but added that perhaps one did better to wait to see—the guy, these days, could be a rapist or a terrorist. His liberalism didn’t get in the way of his viewing all politicians, in the approved Chicago manner, as guilty until proven innocent.
Matt was never a rich man. But I learned from his son David that, during the years that he lived in retirement in South Haven, Michigan, when he would receive a tax refund of two or three hundred dollars, he would take the money to the local grocery store and ask the manager to give it to someone in true need. He was, in other words, a liberal who put his money where his mouth was—a phrase he would have enjoyed deconstructing.
He knew I wrote for conservative magazines, and sometimes made comments that assumed I had connections that stopped just short of the war room in the Republican administrations, an assumption of which I’m not sure I was ever able to disabuse him. He was himself much interested in, if not approving of, William F. Buckley Jr., a fellow Irishman, and every week read, or rather listened to, National Review, not because he approved of it—he didn’t—but because it was available on tape. In fact, we didn’t waste all that much time talking about politics, either.
Matt was lucky in his family, a son and two daughters, and lots of impressive grandchildren—one an attorney at City Hall, another an Olympic-quality speed skater until he decided to give up skating for a career in medicine—with a number of great-grandchildren added. His daughters live in Chicago, his son in Wisconsin, and they were devoted to him. One or another would pay him visits during the week, take him out for lunch or dinner on weekends; he was with them on all holidays. Often we would return from lunch to find a voicemail from one or another of them, David or Pat or Kitty, and sometimes from all three. They must have known that their father was an exceptional man, and none among them let him down.
Matt was grateful to the staff at Friedman Place, for their kindness and attentiveness to him. He did not complain about the food, with the exception of the turkey bacon (he preferred the real thing), which a Jewish institution was compelled to serve. What he missed was the company of fellow residents. “When I first moved in here,” he told me, “I expected all sorts of Jewish men of my own age with lots of stories and jokes to tell.” None, it turned out, were on the premises. He went to all of Roz Katz’s outings—to the classical music concerts, to plays, to boat rides on Lake Michigan—he took such classes as were offered (exercise, the history of popular music, opera, and others), and this provided diversion, but it wasn’t quite enough. What he was looking for was contemporaries with a high quality of schmooze. Which is, I suppose, where I came in.
Matthew Shanahan was as Irish as Joseph Epstein is Jewish. He had never finished high school, and I had taught (without advanced degrees of any kind) for 30 years at Northwestern University. He had grown up working-class and poor, I middle-class and comfortable. He was 20 years older than I, yet when with him, I felt in the company of a contemporary and a peer, and I think he felt close to the same about me. What we had in common was the city of Chicago, a certain bookishness, and amusement at human foibles, our own included, and a set of standards and values bred by the Depression and World War II that seemed to be on their way out.
From the moment he latched his seatbelt in my car around himself until the time nearly two hours later when I left him in his room at Friedman Place, Matt and I kept up a continuous flow of conversation. The conversation may have been more nonstop than normal because his blindness precluded all other distractions. Sometimes I would fill him in on a detail or two in the restaurant: a staggeringly beautiful young woman who just walked in, a new tattoo on the forearm of our waiter, an obese couple at a small table clearly nuts about each other. “Love,” I informed him a Romanian aphorist named E.M. Cioran wrote, “is an agreement on the part of two people to overestimate each other.” He smiled. “That’s good,” he said.
Once he was safely seated in my car, I ceased to think of Matt as blind, with a few notable exceptions. On one occasion, as I was taking him back to Friedman Place after lunch, driving along the southernmost outer wall of Rosehill Cemetery headed toward Western Avenue, who should come jogging past from the opposite direction, in shorts, with his soft face, heavy white legs, and impossibly perfect hair, but our honorable and now jailed governor, Rod Blagojevich. In the company of anyone with eyesight, this would have been a conversation stopper, issuing in 15 minutes of talk about politics, corruption, the Blagojevich family political connections. But if you didn’t see it, as Matt didn’t, it didn’t really happen, and the event had no more significance than if a squirrel had crossed the path of the car.
The share of talk between us was roughly equal, though I believe Matt did a bit more of it than I, possibly because of his hearing-aid difficulties. His wife Arleane, who died 20 or so years before I met him, came up for fairly regular mention in his conversation, always with great respect. She was a serious, even a formidable, person and a true partner in his life. He would often bring up people he had worked with at Kraft Foods or the post office, from which he retired with a decent pension and excellent health insurance. He never told me this, but I later learned that after his wife’s death he had lived alone, in near and then total blindness, for 20 years in South Haven, doing his own shopping and cooking and arranging bridge games.
We talked a fair amount about words. He once asked me if every word in Yiddish was critical. I told him that I believe every one could at least be used ironically, including the prepositions. We used to fill each other in on the distinctions between such linguistic niceties as the difference between farther and further, each other and one another, nevertheless and nonetheless (of the latter, according to H.W. Fowler, there isn’t any). If either of us came upon an interesting or comical new word, he would report it to the other.
Matt never found passion in his work, or so I concluded. I once told him that he was missing the ambition gene, and he didn’t argue otherwise. Some of this may have derived from his missing out on a fuller education, which would have qualified him for more interesting work; some of it may have resulted from his coming of age in the heart of the Depression, when a job with security mattered more than challenging work. Yet as there was no self-pity in Matt, neither did I ever pick up the note of regret in him.
I wonder, though, if I wasn’t wrong. I have since come to think that, had he grown up in a different world, Matt might have been a writer. His powers of observation were strong. He was keen on analysis of character. He could distance himself nicely even from people he loved to scrutinize their weaknesses and strengths, their motives and illusions. His love of language and skill at manipulating it—he was very well-spoken—would have served him much better on the page than at the post office. Yet without formal education, and having to raise a family, and then with the intervention of the war, the very notion of work without a regular salary had to have been beyond conceiving to him.
We talked a fair amount about books. One week he listened to War and Peace being read by the old Shakespearean actor Alexander Scourby, and insisted that I hear a few paragraphs of Scourby’s magnificent performance. He was an amateur expert in the works of Marcia Davenport, whose memoir Too Strong for Fantasy he thought a fine book. We used to joke about his being the only man living who had read—years before, while he still had the use of his eyes—the autobiography of Loyal Davis, the neurosurgeon, locally (in Chicago) well-known anti-Semite, and father of Nancy Reagan.
He listened to serious books only, and when something reputed to be serious didn’t pass muster with him, he showed his dissatisfaction. With his natural highbrow taste, he wasn’t a fit member for the book-discussion groups he was sometimes asked to join. I always told him what I had been reading, and in some instances suggested he try to order it on tape. I put him on to reading Willa Cather, whom he came to admire. We never discussed what we read in any extended or analytical way. Our very last phone call—he was, alas, my call waiting, so our conversation was too brief—he told me that the library that supplied him with tapes had sent him the wrong ones, and he wanted me to suggest some titles to him for a quick reorder. I mentioned Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies, a Love Story, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, and Gregor von Rezzori’s Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, and then, alas, rang off.
Not long after we started going to lunch together, I began bringing him CDs. I brought him Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington and Lee Wiley and Louis Prima and Blossom Dearie, which he enjoyed well enough. His true taste, though, ran to classical music, so I began to bring him Schubert sonatinas, Frescobaldi harpsichord pieces, Clementi piano works, the songs of Reynaldo Hahn, and others mildly off the war-horse beaten track. I would put these on the CD player in his room, and leave him listening to them. From my own selfish perspective, it felt better to me than leaving him alone in the silent dark.
Matt began to complain about his memory slipping from him. I found it still impressive to the last. Every so often he wouldn’t be able to call up the title of a book or movie or once famous athlete, yet not as frequently as all that; no more than was the case with me. Sometimes he left me with an assignment to check, on Google, a song lyric or the name of an old baseball player, and report back to him. The last item for which I did so was a Joni James song called “How Important Can It Be.” He wasn’t certain that the song really existed and, though the tune was playing in his head, if he wasn’t making it up.
During our last year together Matt told me that he had begun seeing, in his mind’s eye, cities of his own invention, entire urban landscapes filled in by his imagination. A sapient blind person would perforce live in his mind more than the same person with sight who has the visible world always before him for contemplation and distraction, but this creation of complete cities seemed to me a nice touch, and it gave him much pleasure. He told me he was also struck by observations that, he felt, should have occurred to him decades before. He mentioned in this connection a boy he grew up with who was able to beat him at all childish and boyhood games: marbles, mumbly-peg, sprinting, wrestling, everything. In recounting the story, Matt said that he didn’t mind losing to him in the least; he merely presumed the other’s superiority at games. (Competition, like strong ambition, apparently wasn’t in his nature.) Then much later in life, he met this fellow, now a middle-aged man, who showed no interest in him whatsoever. “I existed merely as someone for him to beat,” Matt said, “and when the games were over, so was any interest he had in me. But why did it take me more than eighty years to recognize this?” he asked.
What did we get out of each other? I had over Matt a somewhat wider experience of the world, but he had over me a deeper experience of the great events of our time. He had directly known the Depression and World War II, each of which had permanently marked him, while I lived only in their shadows, feeling chiefly their aftereffects.
He may have got from me authentication of a sort. He knew he was highly intelligent, but he hadn’t run into many people whom the world—that great ninny, as Henry James called it—agreed to certify as intelligent. As a former university teacher, the author of books, a contributor to intellectual magazines, I passed the certification test. And I always treated him as an intellectual equal, because he was.
What I got out of my lunches with Matt, along with much laughter, a nice feeling of comradeship, and bits of education about life in Chicago before my time, was a heightened sense of life’s possibilities, even when the odds are stacked against a man. Matt played on through blindness, near deafness, old age, felt life closing in on him, and kept his poise, humor, high spirits. The plain fact is that I admired him and was pleased to hear other people tell me that he looked forward to our lunches.
The last four months or so, we switched restaurants, leaving A Taste of Heaven, which had become too noisy on Fridays, for a place three blocks to the south on Clark Street called Svea, which specializes in thin Swedish pancakes with lingonberry sauce and the crisp bacon—spare the turkey—that was to Matt’s liking. Two doors and a double stoop had to be negotiated to enter, and the waitress, seeing us coming, held the second, inner door, open for us. I sensed Matt weakening physically. It was tougher for him to emerge from the front seat of my car; his always faltering walk became even slower. I sensed his already limited hearing was getting worse. His enthusiasm for talk, though, was undiminished. Toward the end he more than once said to me that he wasn’t sure how much longer we could count on going out to our lunches together. Nonsense, I told him. If need be, we would come to lunch in an ambulance.
Matt died at 2:30 a.m. in his sleep, I hope. The only thing he ever told me that he feared was a stroke, and he had avoided that. When I received a call about Matt’s death I was not shocked or even surprised—he was, after all, 94—but instead disappointed. We had more to tell each other. The other day I came across the word agnology, whose root is in the word agnostic, and whose meaning is the study of things that cannot be learned. Perfect item for Matt, I thought.
I think of myself about to leave his room. My hand is on the knob of the door; he is seated in his chair, facing a window out of which he sees nothing. Famous arias, or Mozart quartets, or Bach suites are playing on his CD machine. Matt Shanahan is alone in the dark, except that, with his mind, he was never alone, never in the dark, not really.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
My Friend Matt
Must-Reads from Magazine
Justice both delayed and denied.
According to Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat Chris Coons, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when she was a minor, did not want to come forward. In an eerie echo of Anita Hill’s public ordeal, her accusations were “leaked to the media.” With her confidentiality violated, Ford had no choice but to go public. Coons could not say where that leak came from, but he did confess that “people on committee staff” had access to the letter in which Ford made her allegations. Draw your own conclusions.
Though many observers insist that what we have witnessed since Ford’s allegations were made public is about justice, it’s hard to see any rectitude in this process. Ford has been transformed into a public figure apparently against her wishes. The details of the attack that Ford alleges are deeply disturbing, but they are not prosecutable. Ford’s recollection of the events 36 years ago is understandably hazy, but what she alleges to have occurred is too vague to establish with much accuracy. She cannot recall the precise date or location in which she was supposedly attacked. Contrary to the protestations of Senate Democrats like Kamala Harris, the FBI cannot get involved in a matter that is not within the federal government’s jurisdiction. And even if local authorities were inclined to involve themselves, the statute of limitations long ago elapsed.
With precious few facts available to congressional investigators and without the sobriety that public scrutiny in the age of social media abhors, the spectacle to which the nation is about to be privy is undoubtedly going to make things worse. A public hearing featuring both Ford and Kavanaugh will be a performative and political display, if it happens at all. It will be adorned with the trappings of courtroom proceedings but with none of the associated protections afforded accused and accuser alike. It will further polarize the nation such that, whether Kavanaugh is confirmed or not, public confidence in Congress and the Supreme Court will be severely damaged. And no matter what is said in that hearing, it is unlikely to change many minds.
Given the dearth of hard evidence, it is understandable that observers have begun to look to their own experiences to evaluate the veracity of Ford’s allegations. The Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan is the author of a powerful and compelling example of this kind of work. Her essay, entitled “I Believe Her,” is important for a variety of reasons. Maybe foremost among them is how she all but invalidates defenses of Kavanaugh that are based on the positive character references he’s assembled from former female acquaintances and ex-girlfriends. Flanagan was assaulted as a young woman, and her abuser—a man she says drove her to a suicidal depression similar to what Ford has described to her therapist—was not interested in a romantic relationship. CNN political commenter Symone Sanders, too, confessed that “there is no debate” in her mind as to Kavanaugh’s guilt, in part, because she was the victim of a sexual assault in college. The similarities between what she endured and what Ford says occurred are too hard for her to ignore.
These are harrowing stories, but they also reveal how little any of this has to do with Brett Kavanaugh anymore. For some, this has become a proxy battle in the broader cultural reckoning that began with the #MeToo moment. Quite unlike the many abusive men who were outed by this movement, though, the evidentiary standard being applied to Kavanaugh’s case is remarkably low. His innocence has not been presumed, and a preponderance of evidence has not been marshaled against him. It is not even clear as of this writing that Kavanaugh will be allowed to confront his accuser. At a certain point, honest observers must concede that getting to the truth has not been a defining feature of this process.
In the face of this adversity, there are some Republicans who are willing to sacrifice Kavanaugh’s nomination. Some appear to think that Kavanaugh’s troubles present them with an opportunity to advance their own political prospects and to promote a replacement nominee with whom they feel a closer ideological affinity. Others simply don’t want to risk standing by a tainted nominee. The stakes associated with a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court are too high to confirm a justice with an asterisk next to his name—a justice who may tarnish future rulings on sensitive cases by association. Those Republicans are either capitulatory or craven.
Based on what we know now, Kavanaugh does not deserve an asterisk. Maybe he will tomorrow, but he doesn’t today. Those who would allow what is by almost all accounts an exemplary legal career to be destroyed by unconfirmable accusations or outright innuendo will not get a better deal down the line. Some Republicans are agnostic about Kavanaugh’s fate and believe that his being stopped will make room for a more doctrinaire conservative like Amy Coney Barrett. But they will not get their ideologically simpatico justice if they allow the defiling of the process by which she could be confirmed.
The experiences that Dr. Ford described are appalling. Even for those who are inclined to believe her account and think that she is due some restitution, no true justice can be meted out that doesn’t infringe on the rights of the accused. Those in the commentary class who would use Kavanaugh as a stand-in for every abuser who got away, every preppy white boy who benefited from unearned privilege, every hypocritical conservative moralizer to exact some karmic vengeance are not interested in justice. They want a political victory, even at the expense of the integrity of the American ideal. If there is a fight worth having, it’s the fight against that.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Terror is a choice.
Ari Fuld described himself on Twitter as a marketer and social media consultant “when not defending Israel by exposing the lies and strengthening the truth.” On Sunday, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed Fuld at a shopping mall in Gush Etzion, a settlement south of Jerusalem. The Queens-born father of four died from his wounds, but not before he chased down his assailant and neutralized the threat to other civilians. Fuld thus gave the full measure of devotion to the Jewish people he loved. He was 45.
The episode is a grim reminder of the wisdom and essential justice of the Trump administration’s tough stance on the Palestinians.
Start with the Taylor Force Act. The act, named for another U.S. citizen felled by Palestinian terror, stanched the flow of American taxpayer fund to the Palestinian Authority’s civilian programs. Though it is small consolation to Fuld’s family, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that they are no longer underwriting the PA slush fund used to pay stipends to the family members of dead, imprisoned, or injured terrorists, like the one who murdered Ari Fuld.
No principle of justice or sound statesmanship requires Washington to spend $200 million—the amount of PA aid funding slashed by the Trump administration last month—on an agency that financially induces the Palestinian people to commit acts of terror. The PA’s terrorism-incentive budget—“pay-to-slay,” as Douglas Feith called it—ranges from $50 million to $350 million annually. Footing even a fraction of that bill is tantamount to the American government subsidizing terrorism against its citizens.
If we don’t pay the Palestinians, the main line of reasoning runs, frustration will lead them to commit still more and bloodier acts of terror. But U.S. assistance to the PA dates to the PA’s founding in the Oslo Accords, and Palestinian terrorists have shed American and Israeli blood through all the years since then. What does it say about Palestinian leaders that they would unleash more terror unless we cross their palms with silver?
President Trump likewise deserves praise for booting Palestinian diplomats from U.S. soil. This past weekend, the State Department revoked a visa for Husam Zomlot, the highest-ranking Palestinian official in Washington. The State Department cited the Palestinians’ years-long refusal to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The better reason for expelling them is that the label “envoy” sits uneasily next to the names of Palestinian officials, given the links between the Palestine Liberation Organization, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, and various armed terrorist groups.
Fatah, for example, praised the Fuld murder. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the “al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah . . . welcomed the attack, stressing the necessity of resistance ‘against settlements, Judaization of the land, and occupation crimes.’” It is up to Palestinian leaders to decide whether they want to be terrorists or statesmen. Pretending that they can be both at once was the height of Western folly, as Ari Fuld no doubt recognized.
May his memory be a blessing.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The end of the water's edge.
It was the blatant subversion of the president’s sole authority to conduct American foreign policy, and the political class received it with fury. It was called “mutinous,” and the conspirators were deemed “traitors” to the Republic. Those who thought “sedition” went too far were still incensed over the breach of protocol and the reckless way in which the president’s mandate was undermined. Yes, times have certainly changed since 2015, when a series of Republican senators signed a letter warning Iran’s theocratic government that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) was built on a foundation of sand.
The outrage that was heaped upon Senate Republicans for freelancing on foreign policy in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration has not been visited upon former Secretary of State John Kerry, though he arguably deserves it. In the publicity tour for his recently published memoir, Kerry confessed to conducting meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” as a private citizen. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino if Kerry had advised his Iranian interlocutor to “wait out” the Trump administration to get a better set of terms from the president’s successor, Kerry did not deny the charge. “I think everybody in the world is sitting around talking about waiting out President Trump,” he said.
Think about that. This is a former secretary of state who all but confirmed that he is actively conducting what the Boston Globe described in May as “shadow diplomacy” designed to preserve not just the Iran deal but all the associated economic relief and security guarantees it provided Tehran. The abrogation of that deal has put new pressure on the Iranians to liberalize domestically, withdraw their support for terrorism, and abandon their provocative weapons development programs—pressures that the deal’s proponents once supported.
“We’ve got Iran on the ropes now,” said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, “and a meeting between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister really sends a message to them that somebody in America who’s important may be trying to revive them and let them wait and be stronger against what the administration is trying to do.” This is absolutely correct because the threat Iran poses to American national security and geopolitical stability is not limited to its nuclear program. The Iranian threat will not be neutralized until it abandons its support for terror and the repression of its people, and that will not end until the Iranian regime is no more.
While Kerry’s decision to hold a variety of meetings with a representative of a nation hostile to U.S. interests is surely careless and unhelpful, it is not uncommon. During his 1984 campaign for the presidency, Jesse Jackson visited the Soviet Union and Cuba to raise his own public profile and lend credence to Democratic claims that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy was unproductive. House Speaker Jim Wright’s trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinista government was a direct repudiation of the Reagan administration’s support for the country’s anti-Communist rebels. In 2007, as Bashar al-Assad’s government was providing material support for the insurgency in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sojourned to Damascus to shower the genocidal dictator in good publicity. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi insisted. “Unfortunately,” replied George W. Bush’s national security council spokesman, “that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq.”
Honest observers must reluctantly conclude that the adage is wrong. American politics does not, in fact, stop at the water’s edge. It never has, and maybe it shouldn’t. Though it may be commonplace, American political actors who contradict the president in the conduct of their own foreign policy should be judged on the policies they are advocating. In the case of Iran, those who seek to convince the mullahs and their representatives that repressive theocracy and a terroristic foreign policy are dead-ends are advancing the interests not just of the United States but all mankind. Those who provide this hopelessly backward autocracy with the hope that America’s resolve is fleeting are, as John Kerry might say, on “the wrong side of history.”
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Michael Wolff is its Marquis de Sade. Released on January 5, 2018, Wolff’s Fire and Fury became a template for authors eager to satiate the growing demand for unverified stories of Trump at his worst. Wolff filled his pages with tales of the president’s ignorant rants, his raging emotions, his television addiction, his fast-food diet, his unfamiliarity with and contempt for Beltway conventions and manners. Wolff made shocking insinuations about Trump’s mental state, not to mention his relationship with UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Wolff’s Trump is nothing more than a knave, dunce, and commedia dell’arte villain. The hero of his saga is, bizarrely, Steve Bannon, who in Wolff’s telling recognized Trump’s inadequacies, manipulated him to advance a nationalist-populist agenda, and tried to block his worst impulses.
Wolff’s sources are anonymous. That did not slow down the press from calling his accusations “mind-blowing” (Mashable.com), “wild” (Variety), and “bizarre” (Entertainment Weekly). Unlike most pornographers, he had a lesson in mind. He wanted to demonstrate Trump’s unfitness for office. “The story that I’ve told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says that he can’t do this job, the emperor has no clothes,” Wolff told the BBC. “And suddenly everywhere people are going, ‘Oh, my God, it’s true—he has no clothes.’ That’s the background to the perception and the understanding that will finally end this, that will end this presidency.”
Nothing excites the Resistance more than the prospect of Trump leaving office before the end of his term. Hence the most stirring examples of Resistance Porn take the president’s all-too-real weaknesses and eccentricities and imbue them with apocalyptic significance. In what would become the standard response to accusations of Trumpian perfidy, reviewers of Fire and Fury were less interested in the truth of Wolff’s assertions than in the fact that his argument confirmed their preexisting biases.
Saying he agreed with President Trump that the book is “fiction,” the Guardian’s critic didn’t “doubt its overall veracity.” It was, he said, “what Mailer and Capote once called a nonfiction novel.” Writing in the Atlantic, Adam Kirsch asked: “No wonder, then, Wolff has written a self-conscious, untrustworthy, postmodern White House book. How else, he might argue, can you write about a group as self-conscious, untrustworthy, and postmodern as this crew?” Complaining in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen said Wolff broke no new ground: “Everybody” knew that the “president of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounded himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound.” Remind me never to get on Gessen’s bad side.
What Fire and Fury lacked in journalistic ethics, it made up in receipts. By the third week of its release, Wolff’s book had sold more than 1.7 million copies. His talent for spinning second- and third-hand accounts of the president’s oddity and depravity into bestselling prose was unmistakable. Imitators were sure to follow, especially after Wolff alienated himself from the mainstream media by defending his innuendos about Haley.
It was during the first week of September that Resistance Porn became a competitive industry. On the afternoon of September 4, the first tidbits from Bob Woodward’s Fear appeared in the Washington Post, along with a recording of an 11-minute phone call between Trump and the white knight of Watergate. The opposition began panting soon after. Woodward, who like Wolff relies on anonymous sources, “paints a harrowing portrait” of the Trump White House, reported the Post.
No one looks good in Woodward’s telling other than former economics adviser Gary Cohn and—again bizarrely—the former White House staff secretary who was forced to resign after his two ex-wives accused him of domestic violence. The depiction of chaos, backstabbing, and mutual contempt between the president and high-level advisers who don’t much care for either his agenda or his personality was not so different from Wolff’s. What gave it added heft was Woodward’s status, his inviolable reputation.
“Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book…is especially surprising,” wrote Dwight Garner at the New York Times. That was the point. The audience for Wolff and Woodward does not want to be surprised. Fear is not a book that will change minds. Nor is it intended to be. “Bob Woodward’s peek behind the Trump curtain is 100 percent as terrifying as we feared,” read a CNN headline. “President Trump is unfit for office. Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’ confirms it,” read an op-ed headline in the Post. “There’s Always a New Low for the Trump White House,” said the Atlantic. “Amazingly,” wrote Susan Glasser in the New Yorker, “it is no longer big news when the occupant of the Oval Office is shown to be callous, ignorant, nasty, and untruthful.” How could it be, when the press has emphasized nothing but these aspects of Trump for the last three years?
The popular fixation with Trump the man, and with the turbulence, mania, frenzy, confusion, silliness, and unpredictability that have surrounded him for decades, serves two functions. It inoculates the press from having to engage in serious research into the causes of Trump’s success in business, entertainment, and politics, and into the crises of borders, opioids, stagnation, and conformity of opinion that occasioned his rise. Resistance Porn also endows Trump’s critics, both external and internal, with world-historical importance. No longer are they merely journalists, wonks, pundits, and activists sniping at a most unlikely president. They are politically correct versions of Charles Martel, the last line of defense preventing Trump the barbarian from enacting the policies on which he campaigned and was elected.
How closely their sensational claims and inflated self-conceptions track with reality is largely beside the point. When the New York Times published the op-ed “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” by an anonymous “senior official” on September 5, few readers bothered to care that the piece contained no original material. The author turned policy disagreements over trade and national security into a psychiatric diagnosis. In what can only be described as a journalistic innovation, the author dispensed with middlemen such as Wolff and Woodward, providing the Times the longest background quote in American history. That the author’s identity remains a secret only adds to its prurient appeal.
“The bigger concern,” the author wrote, “is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.” Speak for yourself, bud. What President Trump has done to the Resistance is driven it batty. He’s made an untold number of people willing to entertain conspiracy theories, and to believe rumor is fact, hyperbole is truth, self-interested portrayals are incontrovertible evidence, credulity is virtue, and betrayal is fidelity—so long as all of this is done to stop that man in the White House.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Review of 'Stanley Kubrick' By Nathan Abrams
Except for Stanley Donen, every director I have worked with has been prone to the idea, first propounded in the 1950s by François Truffaut and his tendentious chums in Cahiers du Cinéma, that directors alone are authors, screenwriters merely contingent. In singular cases—Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick himself—the claim can be valid, though all of them had recourse, regular or occasional, to helping hands to spice their confections.
Kubrick’s variety of topics, themes, and periods testifies both to his curiosity and to his determination to “make it new.” Because his grades were not high enough (except in physics), this son of a Bronx doctor could not get into colleges crammed with returning GIs. The nearest he came to higher education was when he slipped into accessible lectures at Columbia. He told me, when discussing the possibility of a movie about Julius Caesar, that the great classicist Moses Hadas made a particularly strong impression.
While others were studying for degrees, solitary Stanley was out shooting photographs (sometimes with a hidden camera) for Look magazine. As a movie director, he often insisted on take after take. This gave him choices of the kind available on the still photographer’s contact sheets. Only Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson had the nerve, and irreplaceable talent, to tell him, ahead of shooting, that they could not do a particular scene more than two or three times. The energy to electrify “Mein Führer, I can walk” and “Here’s Johnny!” could not recur indefinitely. For everyone else, “Can you do it again?” was the exhausting demand, and it could come close to being sadistic.
The same method could be applied to writers. Kubrick might recognize what he wanted when it was served up to him, but he could never articulate, ahead of time, even roughly what it was. Picking and choosing was very much his style. Cogitation and opportunism went together: The story goes that he attached Strauss’s Blue Danube to the opening sequence of 2001 because it happened to be playing in the sound studio when he came to dub the music. Genius puts chance to work.
Until academics intruded lofty criteria into cinema/film, the better to dignify their speciality, Alfred Hitchcock’s attitude covered most cases: When Ingrid Bergman asked for her motivation in walking to the window, Hitch replied, fatly, “Your salary.” On another occasion, told that some scene was not plausible, Hitch said, “It’s only a movie.” He did not take himself seriously until the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd elected to make him iconic. At dinner, I once asked Marcello Mastroianni why he was so willing to play losers or clowns. Marcello said, “Beh, cinema non e gran’ cosa” (cinema is no big deal). Orson Welles called movie-making the ultimate model-train set.
That was then; now we have “film studies.” After they moved in, academics were determined that their subject be a very big deal indeed. Comedy became no laughing matter. In his monotonous new book, the film scholar Nathan Abrams would have it that Stanley Kubrick was, in essence, a “New York Jewish intellectual.” Abrams affects to unlock what Stanley was “really” dealing with, in all his movies, never mind their apparent diversity. It is declared to be, yes, Yiddishkeit, and in particular, the Holocaust. This ground has been tilled before by Geoffrey Cocks, when he argued that the room numbers in the empty Overlook Hotel in The Shining encrypted references to the Final Solution. Abrams would have it that even Barry Lyndon is really all about the outsider seeking, and failing, to make his awkward way in (Gentile) Society. On this reading, Ryan O’Neal is seen as Hannah Arendt’s pariah in 18th-century drag. The movie’s other characters are all engaged in the enjoyment of “goyim-naches,” an expression—like menschlichkayit—he repeats ad nauseam, lest we fail to get the stretched point.
Theory is all when it comes to the apotheosis of our Jew-ridden Übermensch. So what if, in order to make a topic his own, Kubrick found it useful to translate its logic into terms familiar to him from his New York youth? In Abrams’s scheme, other mundane biographical facts count for little. No mention is made of Stanley’s displeasure when his 14-year-old daughter took a fancy to O’Neal. The latter was punished, some sources say, by having Barry’s voiceover converted from first person so that Michael Hordern would displace the star as narrator. By lending dispassionate irony to the narrative, it proved a pettish fluke of genius.
While conning Abrams’s volume, I discovered, not greatly to my chagrin, that I am the sole villain of the piece. Abrams calls me “self-serving” and “unreliable” in my accounts of my working and personal relationship with Stanley. He insinuates that I had less to do with Eyes Wide Shut than I pretend and that Stanley regretted my involvement. It is hard for him to deny (but convenient to omit) that, after trying for some 30 years to get a succession of writers to “crack” how to do Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick greeted my first draft with “I’m absolutely thrilled.” A source whose anonymity I respect told me that he had never seen Stanley so happy since the day he received his first royalty check (for $5 million) for 2001. No matter.
Were Abrams (the author also of a book as hostile to Commentary as this one is to me) able to put aside his waxed wrath, he might have quoted what I reported in my memoir Eyes Wide Open to support his Jewish-intellectual thesis. One day, Stanley asked me what a couple of hospital doctors, walking away with their backs to the camera, would be talking about. We were never going to hear or care what it was, but Stanley—at that early stage of development—said he wanted to know everything. I said, “Women, golf, the stock market, you know…”
“Couple of Gentiles, right?”
“That’s what you said you wanted them to be.”
“Those people, how do we ever know what they’re talking about when they’re alone together?”
“Come on, Stanley, haven’t you overheard them in trains and planes and places?”
Kubrick said, “Sure, but…they always know you’re there.”
If he was even halfway serious, Abrams’s banal thesis that, despite decades of living in England, Stanley never escaped the Old Country, might have been given some ballast.
Now, as for Stanley Kubrick’s being an “intellectual.” If this implies membership in some literary or quasi-philosophical elite, there’s a Jewish joke to dispense with it. It’s the one about the man who makes a fortune, buys himself a fancy yacht, and invites his mother to come and see it. He greets her on the gangway in full nautical rig. She says, “What’s with the gold braid already?”
“Mama, you have to realize, I’m a captain now.”
She says, “By you, you’re a captain, by me, you’re a captain, but by a captain, are you a captain?”
As New York intellectuals all used to know, Karl Popper’s definition of bad science, and bad faith, involves positing a theory and then selecting only whatever data help to furnish its validity. The honest scholar makes it a matter of principle to seek out elements that might render his thesis questionable.
Abrams seeks to enroll Lolita in his obsessive Jewish-intellectual scheme by referring to Peter Arno, a New Yorker cartoonist whom Kubrick photographed in 1949. The caption attached to Kubrick’s photograph in Look asserted that Arno liked to date “fresh, unspoiled girls,” and Abrams says this “hint[s] at Humbert Humbert in Lolita.” Ah, but Lolita was published, in Paris, in 1955, six years later. And how likely is it, in any case, that Kubrick wrote the caption?
The film of Lolita is unusual for its garrulity. Abrams’s insistence on the sinister Semitic aspect of both Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert supposedly drawing Kubrick like moth to flame is a ridiculous camouflage of the commercial opportunism that led Stanley to seek to film the most notorious novel of the day, while fudging its scandalous eroticism.
That said, in my view, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon, and Clockwork Orange were and are sans pareil. The great French poet Paul Valéry wrote of “the profundity of the surface” of a work of art. Add D.H. Lawrence’s “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and you have two authoritative reasons for looking at or reading original works of art yourself and not relying on academic exegetes—especially when they write in the solemn, sometimes ungrammatical style of Professor Abrams, who takes time out to tell those of us at the back of his class that padre “is derived from the Latin pater.”
Abrams writes that I “claim” that I was told to exclude all overt reference to Jews in my Eyes Wide Shut screenplay, with the fatuous implication that I am lying. I am again accused of “claiming” to have given the name Ziegler to the character played by Sidney Pollack, because I once had a (quite famous) Hollywood agent called Evarts Ziegler. So I did. The principal reason for Abrams to doubt my veracity is that my having chosen the name renders irrelevant his subsequent fanciful digression on the deep, deep meanings of the name Ziegler in Jewish lore; hence he wishes to assign the naming to Kubrick. Pop goes another wished-for proof of Stanley’s deep and scholarly obsession with Yiddishkeit.
Abrams would be a more formidable enemy if he could turn a single witty phrase or even abstain from what Karl Kraus called mauscheln, the giveaway jargon of Jewish journalists straining to pass for sophisticates at home in Gentile circles. If you choose, you can apply, on line, for screenwriting lessons from Nathan Abrams, who does not have a single cinematic credit to his name. It would be cheaper, and wiser, to look again, and then again, at Kubrick’s masterpieces.