“Les Bourgeois” and the Wisdom of Age

Jacques BrelIt’s always a good time to talk about Jacques Brel. The years have not diminished my admiration for him. What is so great is that he doesn’t just sing. He acts the songs. He is, above all, a storyteller. And the stories that he tells are so filled with keen observations of the way the world is.

I understand that there are other artists who do this. Bruce Springsteen’s best work is like this, but usually he falls into cliche. Bobbie Gentry certainly managed this on a few songs. But American songwriters tend to disappoint. As much as I love the work of Warren Zevon and Randy Newman, they rarely succeeded in any given song. I think the problem is that American popular music, regardless of the form, is too dependent upon “slice of life” stories, with little payoff. It is extremely rare that a songwriter even tries to convey what we get from the best American short story writers like Irwin Shaw.

But Brel doesn’t just try—he succeeds. And he does it consistently. It doesn’t matter if he’s being serious or silly, he always has something to say. A good example of this comes from a song I really like, “Les Bourgeois”—a song that is both serious and silly. It tells the story of three friends: Jojo, Pierre, and the narrator. The first two verses tell of how they are drinking away their youth at the Three Pheasants Hotel bar. And when the older bourgeois pass by, the young men ridicule them in the chorus, “The bourgeois are like pigs!” And so on.

In the third verse, things are different. The three friends are now the bourgeois. They still have the same interests. They are still the same people. But they are old. And now there is a new generation of young people who ridicule them just as they ridiculed the generation before them. This is not exactly a startling denouement, although I think any reasonable person would admit that it has far more to say that most American pop songs. And that’s especially true coming from a man only 32 years old. (Brel wrote the lyrics; the music was written by Jean Corti.)

What’s more notable about the song is the way that Brel performs it. The entire tone of the third verse is different. It is a bit more stiff—the performance of man who knows he has to be dignified but still feels the same inside. And then, he doesn’t even sing the final chorus. This is the same chorus that was sung with such gusto the first two times, “The bourgeois are like pigs!” It is spoken with sense of disbelief, “Can you believe what these kids say to us?” It’s poignant and beautiful.

Here is the song. There are no subtitles, but I hardly think they are necessary:

If He Were Serious, Paul Ryan Would Switch Parties

Paul Ryan - Eddie MunsterOver at the Huffington Post, Arthur Delaney tries to get to the bottom of, Just How Much Does Paul Ryan Want the Government to Plan Poor People’s Lives? And, as is getting more and more common with the more and more vanilla website, he doesn’t really answer the question. But he does provide a good overview of just what the Republican wunderkind is up to. And as expected, he is showing himself to be the fraud he has always been.

Apparently, Ryan told the Christian Science Monitor today that the whole case management thing was just an idea he was fond of. Just like when people noted the gaping holes in his budget, he argues that despite all the big deal made of his plan, it’s not set in stone. Apparently, anything that anyone has a problem with will be jettisoned and so his poverty proposal is just as serious as his budget was. But it’s worse than even that.

Ryan told the Huffington Post, “What we’re saying is we’re not mandating case management. We’re saying this is one of the things we recommend, but give the states the ability to try other ideas.” Now you may not be as fluent as I am in the obscure Charlatan language, so let me translate. He’s saying that the most important thing is to bind up all the the poverty plans and block grant them. That’s what he really cares about. And the reason he really cares about it is that this is a way that the poverty programs can be destroyed over time.

Again, I wonder: why is anyone taking this guy seriously. He cares about the poor the way I care about Potato Bugs: I know they exist and they will always exist, but I don’t want them around me. Let’s be clear about this. Paul Ryan’s primary plan to help the poor is to do what he’s always wanted to do: block grant programs that conservatives don’t like. His other big idea is to create “case workers” for the poor. What he’s thinking—what he “knows”—is that the poor aren’t poor because of a lack of opportunity; they are poor because they just don’t know any better. If they had a more “can do” attitude and a cool Eddie Munster haircut like Paul Ryan, they too could be on the short list for the Republican presidential nomination.

Return to SenderIt is worse than stupid that the media continue to treat this guy with even a modicum of respect. I assure you that a young black man who had failed as totally in his career as Paul Ryan has in his would undoubtedly be spending life without parole in a prison somewhere. But Paul Ryan is a rich white guy. So we have to listen to him because rich white guys are always serious and important and filled with wisdom.

But something more general has been on my mind. This isn’t just about the media needing to find a “serious” Republican. It is about this idea that both sides of the political isle want to help the poor; both parties care about making America better for everyone. But that is absolutely not true. If you want to see the real political divide in this country, look at the anti-immigration protests. Look at the angry people screaming with their “Return to Sender” signs. This is the Republicans Party in a general sense. They don’t care about the kids fleeing death in their home countries. And to the point: they don’t care that people are born into poverty, live in poverty, and die young in poverty. If Paul Ryan really cares about poverty, he needs to switch parties first.

Democrats Making Chumps Out of Us

Bill ClintonThomas Frank has been recycling some old essays recently, and yesterday, he posted one he wrote after Obama had won the election but before he took office, Obama Really Let These Clowns Win? How Right-Wing Obstruction Always Trumps Sober Centrism. In a certain way, it is just his way of saying, “Told you so!” But I’m not so interested in it for being prophetic as I am in how much it parallels my own thinking.

The base of his essay is that Clinton played the “moderate” game and moved the country to the right and Obama was looking as though he was going to do the same thing. And we all now know that he did just that. It’s true that Obama did not hurt the country nearly as much as Clinton did. But given the opportunity that Obama had coming in right after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, you have to say that he did as bad a job as Clinton.

Frank ended his essay on what was undoubtedly meant to sound hopeful but in retrospect just makes me want to close up the house and go back to bed for a decade or two:

Centrism is a chump’s game. Democrats have massive majorities these days not because they waffle hither and yon but because their historic principles have been vindicated by events. This is their moment. Let the other side do the triangulating.

But there is more Frank’s article than a look back on Clinton and a look forward to Obama. He also gets into the thinking of the professional centrists, of which Obama and Clinton are members, but who are mostly journalists. As he noted, “The real-world function of Beltway centrism has never been to wage high-minded war against ‘both extremes’ but to fight specifically against the economic and foreign policies of liberalism. Centrism’s institutional triumphs have been won mainly if not entirely within the Democratic Party…” Indeed.

I’ve gone farther on this issue, as I did back in 2012 when I wrote, Serious Centrist Saletan’s Selfishness. In it, I discussed William Saletan of Slate, but more as a type than as an individual:

The reason that Saletan and his peers share this kind of [economically conservative, socially liberal] political outlook is clear enough: it speaks to their personal interests. They are socially liberal because the corresponding views improve their lives. They have friends who are gay. They’ve had girlfriends who have had abortions. Their careers depend upon a strong first amendment. So their lives would be poorer and their bank accounts too, if the social conservatives got power in the United States. As a result, they are socially liberal—even extremely so.

On the other side of things, they are rich. Whether on the TV, in newspaper, or increasingly even on the internet, pundits are rich. They are all well inside the top 20% of earners. As a result, Saletan finds it easy to be a booster for so called free trade. No Chinese worker is going to take his job. (Not that there aren’t about a million who could do it as well.) But unionized IT professionals might reduce his income. And increased taxes on the upper class could certainly reduce his income. So it just makes sense to argue that Social Security must be cut while ignoring the obvious fix of increasing the payroll tax cap, which it just so happens would increase his tax burden.

And I suspect this is the problem with Clinton and Obama. They are winners in society. They may care more about the poor than the Bush family, but they are no less estranged from the poor. So of course Obama would never think about raising the payroll tax cap: that would hurt every one of his friends and himself. So the only solution that makes sense to him is to cut Social Security benefits in a politically viable way. It isn’t that he’s a bad man, it is just that like everyone, he is largely biased by his own class interests. And those are the interests of what is called a centrist.

Barack ObamaBut as I’ve shown, centrism isn’t the middle between the two extremes. In fact, if you look at the American people, elite centrism is more or less the popular anti-centrism. The people tend to be economically liberal and socially conservative. So what Democrats and most of the press call the “middle” is anything but. The main thing to remember however, is that whether it is elite centrism or popular centrism, it is still an ideology. Obama’s claims about being post-partisan make him either a charlatan or a fool. Regardless, we are lost as long the “liberal” Democratic Party keeps electing people like him. As Thomas Frank noted, “Centrism is not merely a mental habit of the comfortable, but an ideology of its own, a system of cognition that stands beyond proof or refutation.” Obama and Clinton will go to their graves certain that they had found the Aristotelian perfection: the golden mean between the two extremes.

Long Term Interests in Israel-Palestine

Ezra KleinThere has been a lot of liberal rethinking and despair about what’s going on with the Israel-Palestine conflict. Yesterday, Jonathan Chait wrote, Israel Is Making It Hard To Be Pro-Israel. And then this morning, Ezra Klein wrote an article basically commiserating with Chait, Why I Have Become More Pessimistic About Israel. Klein does a better job of getting at the real problem, which is that Israel’s actions are bad for it in the long term.

In bars up and down the west coast in the 1980s and 1990s, and even to this day but to a much smaller extent, I came upon a certain kind of person who had fought in the Vietnam War. And they would lament the fact that we could have won that war but the government just wouldn’t let them. I think these guys felt they had to defend themselves and their generation. This came from the fact that a lot of people thought that the Vietnam War was the first war that the United States lost. Just on a factual basis this is absurd: we lost the War of 1812, and this is why we make such a big deal of the Battle of New Orleans—it was the only thing that went well for us in that war.

But the truth is that the point of war is never to “win.” By this logic, we could have “won” the Vietnam War by simply nuking the country back to the stone age. And that takes us to everyone’s favorite Prussian general, Carl von Clausewitz and his often quoted aphorism, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” In other words, the war is not the point; the war is just a tool. Now I would argue that ultimately wars serve only themselves, and this is why after just about every war, people wonder why we fought it. But there is no doubt that rulers generally start wars because they want to accomplish something other than killing a lot of people.

In Klein’s article, he quoted a Stratfor Global Intelligence report that looked at Israel’s long term interests. It indicated that Israel is acting as though it will always be the great military power in the region. But given that it is currently completely dominant, the chances are that in fifty years Israel’s situation will be worse than it now is.

Looking at the relative risks, making a high-risk deal with the Palestinians would seem prudent in the long run. But nations do not make decisions on such abstract calculations. Israel will bet on its ability to stay strong. From a political standpoint, it has no choice. The Palestinians will bet on the long game. They have no choice. And in the meantime, blood will periodically flow.

What we know is that when these conflicts arise, both sides gain more political power. It’s like after 9/11—it greatly increased support for President Bush. The whole thing makes me even more cynical, because if anyone should be thinking about the long term, it should be Israel. But instead, Benjamin Netanyahu and most of the Israeli government seem to care more about their short term political interests. Clearly, Netanyahu’s power is increased when Hamas starts shelling. So that’s what conservative politicians in Israel get. But Israel, if anything, gets weaker.

It all reminds me of The Battle of Algiers where effectively the French “win” the battle, but lose the war. I don’t think the Israeli government is working in the interest of Israel just as I don’t think Hamas is working in the interest of Palestine. It is almost an unspoken conspiracy for leaders of both sides to increase their internal power, while actual people die and the long term prospects of both sides look dimmer by the day.

See Also

Cause of Every Israel-Palestine War
Don’t Ask How the US Would React
A Modest Proposal for Israel-Palestine
Israel’s Long-Term Security
Two-State Solution Unlikely Anytime Soon

Waiting for Peter Bogdanovich

Peter BogdanovichThe great film historian and and director Peter Bogdanovich is 75 today. He is an interesting guy. He started off as an actor and then somehow ended up as the film programmer at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. From this position, he met and interviewed a number of notable people from the film industry including John Ford and, most important, Orson Welles with whom he had a friendship for the rest of the older director’s life. There’s no doubt he could have continued on in this vein for the rest of his life. He is a great analyst of film, although I always get the feeling reading him that he’s looking down on me: everything is obvious and shouldn’t you just be watching the films? I largely agree and so haven’t made it a point of reading much of his work.

It was inevitable given his knowledge, predisposition, and connections that he would direct films. He first became involved with Roger Corman, for whom he directed Targets and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women in the late 1960s. In 1971, he made it to the big time when he wrote (based on the novel by Larry McMurtry) and directed The Last Picture Show. It’s a coming of age film that I admire but don’t much enjoy. He followed it up with the highly successful and funny What’s Up, Doc? And then, of course, there was one of my favorite films, Paper Moon.

The rest of his life has been a muddle. He’s made a number of good films since then. I’m a big fan of Noises Off myself. And there has always been his attraction to young actresses, most notably his relationship with Dorothy Stratten, which culminated in her murder (I’m not suggesting that Bogdanovich is in any way culpable). Currently, he is working on a film One Lucky Moon with Cybill Shepherd, with whom he was romantically involved when she was the age he seems to be most attracted to.

These days I look to him mostly for news about the status of Orson Welles’ last film, The Other Side of the Wind. If anyone ever gets the film released as it should be, it will be Bogdanovich. It isn’t just a matter of the legal issues (of which there have been many). There are missing bits that may require some second unit filming, narration, editing, and music. No one wants its release to be a repeat of Don Quixote. But I would like to see the film before I die. Anyway…

Happy birthday Peter Bogdanovich!