Voice of the Past: Enoch Powell on Overstaying Your (Political) Welcome

 

 

Politicians often overstay their welcome. Presidents are lucky in that the 22nd amendment cuts short a political life before abject failure, allowing each of them to become elder statesmen. But even that defense rarely protects them in the waning year of their presidencies–as most presidents are found to be odious after eight years of them. Clinton and Bush were loathed immediately after their presidencies, and I suspect Obama will be as well. All are rehabilitated to fondness in later years–so long as they accept their exile from the ballot.

This past week, a milestone in American political history happened. For those wonks and talking heads that follow such a thing, the House Majority Leader Eric Cantor–the usual heir apparent to the Speaker of the House, lost his seat in a primary election. Eric Cantor didn’t have the luxury of a term limit to inflict the abortive blow. Instead, he had to experience what the British arch-conservative Enoch Powell observed:

“All political lives end in failure.”

Powell, a Conservative member of parliament, exuded the sort of privileged arrogance that some American politicians display. Truly, many of them can get away with this sort of bravado for a bit, but showing too much of your hand–your contempt for the electorate–will end you. Powell gave a fiery speech against immigration in Britain, a speech that went down in their history as the “Rivers of Blood” speech, and left such a bad taste upon the stiff upper lips in Britain that he lost his seat in the Shadow Cabinet–dashing any hope to lead the UK someday. Despite the fact that many agreed with his sentiments, he rode out his time as a meaningless backbencher.

His quote–his epitaph really–came from a book he wrote about another politico, the 19th century Leader of the Opposition, Joseph Chamberlain. The quote in full tells more of the story:

“All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs”–Enoch Powell, Joseph Chamberlain (Thames and Hudson, 1977), p. 151.

Note to politicians–best to leave the game on your terms, rather than overstay your welcome.

 

 

 

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Voice of the Past: Emerson on Procedures

Ralph Waldo Emerson

We’ve all been there; a situation where someone in authority over our work, day or life relies upon a procedure, codicil or regulation to snap things back into bureaucratic harmony. Nothing is more infuriating than procedure getting in the way of common sense. (An aside, I have always found common sense to be an oxymoron for reasons that become obvious upon an appeal to it.)

Among many of his Bon mots, this particular gem by Emerson offers a retort:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

The challenge, of course, is that a reader looking to massage their own ego may think that being inconsistent in all things is somehow a stroke of genius. I’d contend that the difference between those who are inconsistent and brilliant against those who are inconsistent and neurotic is in their productivity. Put another way by the screenwriter Bruce Feirstein in his version of 007:

“The distance between genius and insanity is measured only by success.” –Super villain Elliot Carver, in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).

 —

Emerson is saying more than to be an iconoclast, he means that small minded people cannot shake the feeling that being consistent is a virtue. Or perhaps feigning consistency to impress those who think consistency is a virtue is somehow good in its own right. There are cases in life where consistency has its purpose, building a house, the scientific method and responding to a fire come to mind. But those are not small-minded endeavors.

Sometimes to resolve a problem or to focus on what matters, the old way will not suffice, as the old way will end up creating the same result. Einstein said as much too, in his reflections in trying to solve a problem with the same failing solution with the expectation of differing results.

Like a lot of quotes, cutting off the explanation leaves the real meaning lost, denuded. Here is the full quote:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”– Emerson, Self-Reliance

Emerson Books18 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Tipple the Hitch

Glass of Scotch

April 13th marks the 65th birthday of the late Christopher Hitchens, perhaps the most prominent polemicist and essay scribbler of his generation. Hitchens was a rakish provocateur in the model of Dylan Thomas’ style, George Orwell’s indignation with a command of English all of his own.

When working in the DC area, I discovered that Hitchens would stop off at the bar in my office building—Johnny’s Half Shell—before and after his appearances on C-SPAN, Fox and NBC News. At that time in my nascent career, I didn’t quite recognize the rumpled, khaki-suited man in the elevator, perfumed in eau de Nicotine. Sadly, that is my only memory of the man in the flesh.  However my co-worker—an intense analyst we dubbed “Lattimer”—was a passionate media junkie and celebrity hound. Lattimer was the kind of guy who’d stop off to offer up unsolicited recitations on his intense weekends.

“Hey.”

                “Good morning, [Lattimer].”

Hwaet! What’s with the trench coat and penny loafers, G. Gordon Liddy?”

                “Funny. Don’t you have an education policy to ruin this morning?”

“You won’t believe who I drank with yesterday at Johnny’s”

                “No, I probably won’t.”

“Christopher Hitchens.” he said, allowing the name to resonate in the cube farm. “There he was, and I sat down and ordered him a Scotch.”

                “Expensive date, Lattimer.”

“Worth it.  Worth it. He talked to me for a full half-hour.”

While usually I’d dismiss this as a big fish tale, there is a kernel of truth in this retelling. Hitchens was known for his generosity of time with people, not just fellow intellectuals, but anyone, who could carry a conversation. He was also known for his love of Johnny Walker Black Label. Lattimer was no dumb jock—he knew policy and he knew people. I am sure Hitch would have dismissed him early on if he were boring (which was Hitch’s existential fear, boredom). For the fan-boy Lattimer, he engaged in near pick-up artist tactics to capture a leading mind of our time for a moment.

Hitch’s preferred poison was Johnny Walker Black, cut with Perrier. Like getting into Wagnerian Opera, Slow Foods, and Baseball, Scotch requires patience and perhaps a bit of personal tragedy to enjoy. I tend to look at my own preference for Scotch through the lens of honoring my Scots and Scots-Irish ancestors, as a communion over time, enjoying the same taste experienced by each generation. For Hitch though, Scotch provided inspiration and bestowed panache.

And how should one tipple like the Hitch? Only his own words will suffice the explanation:

“I work at home, where there is indeed a bar-room, and can suit myself. But I don’t. At about half past midday, a decent slug of Mr. Walker’s amber restorative, cut with Perrier water (an ideal delivery system) and no ice. At luncheon, perhaps half a bottle of red wine: not always more but never less. Then back to the desk, and ready to repeat the treatment at the evening meal. No “after dinner drinks”—most especially nothing sweet and never, ever any brandy. “Nightcaps” depend on how well the day went, but always the mixture as before. No mixing: no messing around with a gin here and a vodka there.”—“Hitch-22

 

Martin Amis, Hitch’s best friend in the world, advised him that “making rules about drinking is a sign of an alcoholic,” but nonetheless, rules there were:

“Of course, watching the clock for the start-time is probably a bad sign, but here are some simple pieces of advice for the young. Don’t drink on an empty stomach: the main point of the refreshment is the enhancement of food. Don’t drink if you have the blues: it’s a junk cure. Drink when you are in a good mood. Cheap booze is a false economy. It’s not true that you shouldn’t drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain. Hangovers are another bad sign, and you should not expect to be believed if you take refuge in saying you can’t properly remember last night. (If you really don’t remember, that’s an even worse sign.) Avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than less and are not designed—as are the grape and the grain—to enliven company. Be careful about up-grading too far to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won’t be easily available. Never even think about driving a car if you have taken a drop.” –Hitch-22.

Perhaps too much thought has been given here to something delightful. I don’t particularly find rules and relaxation to go hand in hand. However, for those in the production of the arts—whether essays, music, craft or other culture–letting the rules go and indulging too much has led to exquisite cultural touchstones (The Beatles, Picasso, Oscar Wilde) and conversely I suppose, death (Kurt Kobain, Ernest Hemingway, Tchaikovsky).

Perhaps rules are a good thing, at least for the mixology. What is it about Scotch and soda that works exactly? For me anyway, bubbles are the difference between drinking a glass of motor oil or experiencing something transcendent. Think about it, like wine, Scotch sits a long time in a barrel, aging and growing grizzled, adding complexity where there was none before. Scotch develops character in the dark, dank underworlds.

(An aside: a few years back, I got to perform a stage production of Beethoven’s Fidelio. There is a moment in the opera where the prisoners are given a chance to see the sun for the first time in what must have been decades for them. I often think of Scotch’s liberation from the barrel with this music in mind.)

Water alone cannot help the Scotch along to breathe again in the sun. Bubbles—by way of club soda—is an accelerant. But the problem here is that club soda is just cheap carbonated water, cranked off in a factory, pumped through a bartender’s nozzle into a glass of finely crafted elixir. This is where Hitchens steps in, to champion an alternative solution—natural carbonation. And Perrier? Seems snobbish at first, but those natural bubbles and minerals seem to dance with the Highlanders, like French mermaids. In fact, when trying to think of an historical context where the French and Scots have aligned before, I think of Mary, Queen of Scots—the Scots-born Queen Consort of France and pretender to the English throne too. If not for Hitchens, we might think of the combo of Perrier and Scotch ordering up a “Queen Mary” instead.

So, in homage to Hitchens, and perhaps Queen Mary and (if I must), Latimer too, think of cutting your Johnny Walker with Perrier, the up-scaled Scotch and soda of our time. And on April 13th, remembering days of Auld Lang Syne, I join other Hitch fans in honoring the man of letters with his favorite restorative (Of which, several posts of “Henry’s Eclectic” have been aided tremendously.).

3c808-christopher_hitchens_painting

Photo credit: dvanzuijlekom / Foter / CC BY-SA 
Hitchens by Paintings on the Side by Cara and Louie: An original painting of Christopher Hitchens. Ink and Paint on Panel Original available for sale on Etsy.com

Voices of the Past: Gore Vidal and Abe on Jealousy and Patience

GoreVidalVanVechten1

“Every time a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”

Vidal, one of the great craftsman of written English, was probably not being facetious in his quip, above. He was as erudite as he was vain. But in this bon mot, he is truth telling–it is hard not to feel a bit of defeat in the success of others. By our very nature, humans in are in a constant state of making comparisons. The best of us can shelve that proto-behavior. And in many cases, we outgrow the comparison behavior (at the basest level) once the wild oats are sewn. Or at least, we learn not to take things so very personally, thus why only a little something dies instead of a big something. Vidal had his own victories in life of course, very early success in literature set up a life of being the public intellectual–a sort of philosopher-king of the chattering class. But for those whose triumphs are small and hidden, or a long way off, Vidal doesn’t offer much solace. For that, we turn away from Lincoln’s biographer to Young Abe Lincoln himself, who for many is the ur-American, the undefeatable and the persistent, who said:

“I will study and prepare myself, and someday my chance will come.”

Some people in life are prodigious, like an F. Scott Fitzgerald or Salinger. Their success comes very early in life. Others must prepare, and develop their craft over time. They pay dues. They pay forward. They build up the reserves. They are the Mark Twain’s of the world. Vidal seemed to have Fitzgerald’s wunderkind success but Twain’s long view. Lincoln would have to face many more defeats than victories before his chance came. Where do you fall? Prodigy or Sage, or somewhere in between?

Young Abe by Torrey

Photo Credit Gore Vidal: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GoreVidalVanVechten1.jpg Photo Credit Young Abe Lincoln: Photo credit: TV19 – DD Meighen / Foter / CC BY-SA

America’s Grandpa: Pete Seeger

PeteSeeger2

Valedictories were piled high this week for Pete Seeger, a singular American troubadour who lived a huge, long life. Like the recent passing of Mandela, no one looks at the death of a nonagenarian with the kind of sorrow that we hold for those who die young. No, for people like Pete Seeger, we are of course sad to see them pass, but we praise the meaningful life they led.  Everyone has their pantheon of music gods who they revere. And over the course of our lives, we tend to change out those Rock and Roll tin gods for others, based on our tastes. For me anyway, I have a very short list of musicians whose art I hope survives the human race and echoes through the universe forever like an annuciation of the human condition. Those are: Bach, Beethoven, Led Zeppelin and Pete Seeger.

There is a slight irony that this wise old banjo picker died on the night of the Grammy’s. A continent away, a commercial industry lauded whole genres of performers whose music may capture the vapid, white hot void of pop and hip-hop, but offer nothing really to exalt the human condition or highlight our collective plight. Nor do those shiny, autotuned people celebrate what is good and noble about us all.

Pete Seeger’s music did the opposite of winning platinum records (though the man had hits of his own, and his songs covered by others were hits in their own right.). For Seeger, music was a convener and motivator for social action. A life-long pro-union socialist, he was the last of his generation that truly fought for workers rights, then civil rights, then against war and poverty. Wherever there was an injustice, he showed up with his banjo to provide hope for those who fought for freedom and justice.

As a music innovator, he popularized folk music, the banjo itself and brought folk melodies out of the mountains and into the movements of his day. Most people may not realize that the peace anthem “We Shall Overcome” was popularized by Pete, and became the song of the civil rights era. When approached to lend his name to the production of a “Pete Seeger” banjo, he took no royalties. He lived an esthetic, almost monastic life in an old cabin along the Hudson River, giving away much of his winnings to causes around him–the preservation of the Hudson Valley watershed, civil rights and liberties.

There are plenty of obituaries out there getting into the marrow of the man–his activism, his defiance of the McCarthy-era witch hunt. What I loved about Pete Seeger was his moral consistency and his impulse toward justice for all. He was ahead of his time, and was until the very end. Here are some of my favorite songs by Pete. They are simply beautiful, and are among the few works of art that I can say changed my life. Or rather, helped me get back home, to my own people–those working folks, their condition and the need to help those who are less fortunate. Some have called Pete as secular saint. I can’t disagree.

Thanks Pete. Time for my generation to pick up the banjo, I think. We’ll take it from here.

Pete Photo credit: Joseph A. Horne / Foter / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Voice of the Past: Mohammad on Cats

Turkish Angora cat

One of the more charming customs of Islam and its adherents is the reverence shown toward cats. Being a bit of a cat person, I was amazed upon my first trip to the region to see the care strangers offered the street cats. People left out food for them, some were taken in a house pets. In fact, my wife’s first kitten as a child was adopted in that way, off the streets of Istanbul and hauled around the world.

The reason for this compassion, I’d like to believe, is human nature. But in Islam, the compassion comes from emulation of Mohammad, their prophet. When not spreading Islam, Mohammad had a soft spot for felines. His favorite cat, Muezza, was described as being an Angora with a blue eye and a green eye.

Several of his sayings—captured in the Hadith—say that Mohammad had a fellow traveler who was nicknamed “King of the Kittens”—Abu Hurariah. He claims that his cat saved Muhammad from a snake bite. To show appreciation, Muhammad stroked the cat’s neck, causing the cat to arch up for more caresses. Believers say that Muhammad’s blessing gave all cats the “righting reflex”—a well-known cat behavior.

For more practical reasons, cats are admired for their cleanliness, as bathing is a hallmark of Islamic custom. Cats are thus allowed to roam into Mosques, homes and hospitals. Food sampled by cats is considered clean—or halal. Others believe that cats are always looking for those in prayer, and will reward the pious with their company.

The most famous cat crazy story in relation to Mohammad follows like this:

Mohammad arose to the call to prayer—the adhan—by the muezzin of the mosque. He reached for his cloak only to find his cat, Muezza, asleep upon its sleeve. Rather than disturbing the cat’s slumber, Mohammad cut the cloak from the sleeve, leaving the cat undisturbed.

While some might see that to be a waste of outerwear, only a cat lover could appreciate such a sentiment. However, as much as I like my cats, I am not cutting off the sleeve of my parka to accommodate their seeming narcolepsy.

Maome

Turkish Angora Cat Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn / Foter.com / CC BY

Depiction of  17th century Ottoman copy of an early 14th century (Ilkhanate period) manuscript of Northwestern Iran or northern Iraq (the “Edinburgh codex”). Illustration of Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī‘s al-Âthâr al-bâqiyah ( الآثار الباقية ; “The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries”)  Photo credit: unknown / Foter.com / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Voices of the Past: George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens on Tea

George

The Midwest, and other parts of America, are in for a heck of a winter. It’s been cold, below freezing and steady snow for weeks. And, it isn’t winter even yet. Months like these require a constant kettle of water boiling, to keep my tea cup filled to the brim. Many have strong opinions about tea, and the British seem to have the strongest of them all. This has always stricken me as odd, in that the Brits merely appropriated tea as part of their acquisition of Empire. Knowledge of tea is not innate within them, but what seems to be in their genes is a mastery of the prose required to write about tea. Two such Brits come to mind.

The genius behind the dystopias 1984 and Animal Farm was also known in his time as a prolific essayist. Some years ago, George Orwell’s entire canon was available, should you wish to read the man’s thoughts on every subject. One of my particular favorites include his brief work, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a celebration of the cast iron house plant–a plant that served its owner to signal to others that they have attained middle class-hood. (Think about it, for whom would keep a plant that wasn’t food unless one could afford such excess?) Orwell also expounded on every Englishman’s favorite past-time, the consumption of black tea. In his 1942 essay, A Nice Cup of Tea, Orwell attempts to lay down the rules of proper brewing, in 11 steps:

“First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea…Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.

Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware…

Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand…

Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right….

Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot….

Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about….

Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.

Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is,the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.

Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.

Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject.

The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.”

History is harsh to the essayist. Moderns will forever appreciate Orwell’s literary masterworks, but his essays may fall to the wayside in a hundred years. Few essayists can expect their work to survive their lifetime–Mencken, Thurber, and Twain come to mind, but who is reading say, Mike Royko nowadays (aside from your author?) As for contemporary essayists, time will tell if Christopher Hitchens will join Twain or perhaps fade into the ether of the late 20th century. Hitchens, the late Anglo-American essayist and polemicist, idolized Orwell for many reasons–the economy of his pen, his opposition to fascism, and his exposition on the balance every British citizen must take with their heritage–pride and shame. When it comes to tea, Hitchens tried to rescue Orwell’s advice, in his own words. Hitchens made a point to mediate upon Orwell’s sixth rule:

“Now, imagine that tea, like coffee, came without a bag (as it used to do—and still does if you buy a proper tin of it). Would you consider, in either case, pouring the hot water, letting it sit for a bit, and then throwing the grounds or the leaves on top? I thought not. Try it once, and you will never repeat the experience, even if you have a good strainer to hand. In the case of coffee, it might just work if you are quick enough, though where would be the point? But ground beans are heavier and denser, and in any case many good coffees require water that is just fractionally off the boil. Whereas tea is a herb (or an herb if you insist) that has been thoroughly dried. In order for it to release its innate qualities, it requires to be infused. And an infusion, by definition, needs the water to be boiling when it hits the tea. Grasp only this, and you hold the root of the matter…

If you use a pot at all, make sure it is pre-warmed. (I would add that you should do the same thing even if you are only using a cup or a mug.) Stir the tea before letting it steep. But this above all: ‘[O]ne should take the teapot to the kettle, and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours.’ This isn’t hard to do, even if you are using electricity rather than gas, once you have brought all the makings to the same scene of operations right next to the kettle.”

It is entirely possible that in fact, Americans never, ever learned how to make a proper tea correctly. And if we did know, the knowledge has been lost over the decades, a victim of the mass production of everything. There is hope though, as tea purists and the nerdy predilections of those with “first world problems” are perhaps seeking out quality over quantity. And perhaps then, we will not need reminders from British essayists on how to brew tea, as the practice will become innate within the population.

One last note from Orwell, worth repeating here. While I wholeheartedly disagree that tea should be bitter and enjoyed like a warmed over British IPA, sugar in tea is pointless. You’d be better off drinking sugar water and sparing yourself the cost of the tea leaves:

“Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.”

Orwell, always the gentleman, ended on that illustrative note. Hitchens, always maintaining his elan and sardonic humor, ends his exposition differently:

“Next time you are in a Starbucks or its equivalent and want some tea, don’t be afraid to decline that hasty cup of hot water with added bag. It’s not what you asked for. Insist on seeing the tea put in first, and on making sure that the water is boiling. If there are murmurs or sighs from behind you, take the opportunity to spread the word. And try it at home, with loose tea and a strainer if you have the patience. Don’t trouble to thank me. Happy New Year.”

What is your favorite tea? Do you have your own way of brewing your favorite cuppa?

Christopher Hitchens Photo Credit: Paintings on the Side by Cara and Louie: An original painting of Christopher Hitchens. Ink and Paint on Panel Original available for sale on Etsy.com

George Orwell Photo credit: PVBroadz / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND