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What Made Grandma Grandma? ‘Kantika’ Deploys Clever, Analytic Tool: Fiction

Book Review

There is historical fiction. There are the literary cousins of memoir and family history. Then there is the canny, lyric hybrid Elizabeth Graver deploys in Kantika, the 2023 novel that tracks her own family’s 20th-century journey from Constantinople to America, by way of Barcelona and Havana. Don’t worry: Ellis Island and its many overworked tropes do not figure here. Those are generally reserved for Eastern Europeans and Ashkenazi Jews. Graver’s people are the decidedly Mediterranean, metropolitan and mercantile Sephardic Jews, first invited to the Ottoman capital by Sultan Bayezid II, in 1492, following the Christian Reconquista of Spain.

Four centuries on, the author introduces her great grandfather, the cultured, haute bourgeoisie owner of a textile concern, until he isn’t. After retooling his factory during The Great War, to produce military uniforms, the new Turkish government absconds with it. Or so Alberto Cohen tells his wife and children. Did Ataturk really take their livelihoods and social standing by eminent domain? Or did this charming-but-passive sensualist fritter or perhaps gamble it away instead? Such questions are rarely meted out for certain, not in real life, not within families, certainly not looking back across generations. Graver is unflinching in her fleshing and framing of such consequential gossip, yet the novelist can also absolve or blame or leave ambiguous all the saucy or ambivalent bits, pretty much at her whim. To the narrative’s great benefit.

And so Rebecca — our protagonist, the author’s maternal grandmother — decamps with her penniless relations for Barcelona, just as she comes of age. There she marries a largely absent dullard because four centuries on, in what would shortly become Franco’s Spain, Sephardic men are hard to find. She builds a business and bears two children, only to be widowed at 30. Her older sister, already emigrated to the U.S., makes her a speculative, trans-Atlantic match with another widower, Sam Levy, whom Rebecca meets in Havana. As a test. Twenty-four lusty hours later, they are married and aboard a boat bound for New York City.

Stories of American immigration tend to concentrate less on the old country, the conditions that obliged one to light out for the territory in the first place. I am grateful that more than half of Kantika is set abroad. Not everyone in a family might choose to emigrate, or is allowed to. Rebecca waits two years for her boys to join her in America, for example; her aged parents expire before their papers & passages are secured. What’s more, the ones who do manage to leave tend to self-select according to their strength of self, adventure and determination. To some extent, these metrics account for the can-do immigrant spirit that has, in large part, made the U.S. what it is. After the same fashion, it enabled and informed the distinct culture of the American West. In short, the sad sacks tend to stay home. The same goes for those immigrants who get dragged to a new world and never leave the old neighborhood. (In Greater Boston, where I grew up, they have a name for those folks: The Lace-Curtain Irish.)

There are plenty of sad sacks in the Cohen family, in any family, and this story does not ignore or pigeon-hole them. But Rebecca is determinedly bound not necessarily for bigger things but the next thing, all the while singing and cajoling, striving and faltering, dusting herself off and risking it all again. America and its celebrated dreams do not magically lift her blended family out of working-class hardship. In several not-insignificant respects, she was sold a bill of goods (by her sister!). Yet Graver still depicts Depression-era Queens and this new, extended family with a clear-eyed, richly detailed generosity, which feels deserved.

The Cohens and Levys will never be confused with the high society Sephardim of Steven Birmingham’s esteemed 1971 history, The Grandees. But neither did he create characters as earthy and captivating as Rebecca. Working in non-fiction, he didn’t create them at all. The humans who populate Kantika, while technically the fabrications of a novelist, nevertheless feel markedly genuine — because, in these pages, the reader recognizes them as actual historical figures, relatives and literary characters all at once. This genre Graver cleverly contrives here: It can’t be her own invention, can it? Either way, her sketches of fin de siècle life by the Bosphorus, the portraits of her great grandparents in particular, and the language of those newly arrived in Barcelona, then the boroughs of Gotham, all ring very true. As do the black & white photographs that headline the chapters. I took the time to study each one, delighting in my recognition of these blood relations we’ve come to know via the unfolding drama. These components and others all deliver such splendid narrative impact because, it seems to me, they strike the reader as more authentic and intimate than mere details in a work of fiction, while never succumbing to the gloss of memoir or family history. Because the author is clearly moved by the epic sweep of this tale, so are we.

The word “kantika” means “song” in the old Judeo-Spanish language of Ladino, the accent of which Rebecca never shakes. One imagines that Graver herself — a Boston College professor whose 2013 novel, The End of the Point, was long-listed for the National Book Award — was enthralled by her grandmother growing up. And perhaps a bit intimidated by such a robust, borderline domineering, still-rather-foreign figure. Graver and I attended Wesleyan University together in the mid-1980s; we didn’t really know each other, but we did share several English classes. Perhaps the cynical, white-bread nature of the New England small college initially led her to dismiss as mere mythos her grandmother’s literary potential. Credit the free-thinking Jesuits in Chestnut Hill and maybe a tenure track for leading her back to subject matter, a legit heroine’s journey, that was there all along.

It Was 20 Years Ago Today: Marking the Birth of Modern Red Sox Fandom

The Red Sox, for whatever cosmic reasons, have proved remarkably championship-prolific at the beginning of centuries. By 1918 they had claimed more World Series titles (5) than any team in Major League Baseball. That they wouldn’t win another until 2004 has been, erm, well documented. But listen: They just had a bad century, like the post-Opium War Chinese. Come the Millennium, Deng Xiaoping had re-established his people in the Middle Kingdom, while the Sox, by 2018, had won another four World Series.

The years between 1918 and 2004 weren’t exactly dark. They were periodically robust and eventful, at times heart rending and/or darkly comic. Yet 20 years ago this week, the Red Sox as modern baseball fans know them today — the post-Curse, billion-dollar-appraised, theme-park-residing, culturally monolithic Sox — first revealed their curiously revived championship character to their fans, to the region, and to the Major Leagues at large.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when exactly lightning is caught in a bottle, but here it’s rather clear — coming back from 2 games down to beat the Oakland A’s in the 2003 A.L. Divisional Playoff. The affable-if-mercurial Derek Lowe emerged from the bullpen to close the decisive Game 5, striking out Terrence Long on a 3-2 pitch with the bases loaded to preserve a 1-run victory.

The precise date: 6 October 2003.

Boston would not win the World Series that year. It would lose another, even more dramatic series to the New York Yankees later in October. That epic encounter, and the victory over Oakland, have been further obscured by the Bloody Socks, Idiots, unlikely stolen bases, and fan-enabled 3-run homers of ALCS 2004 — to say nothing of the four World Series that followed. Nevertheless, Boston laid the championship foundation the year prior, with its unlikely victory over the Athletics, long-time nemeses in their own right.

The recent passing of Tim Wakefield, another of this era’s complicated talismen, got me thinking about these emotional building blocks from 20 years ago. It’s only fitting that we celebrate that clinching Game 5, that oft-overlooked Oakland series, its own unlikely heroes, and the hilariously drunken adventure I experienced watching the finale from Spokane.

Yes, Spokane.

The Build-Up: Looking back, Red Sox Nation in the fall of 2003 remained hopeful but hopelessly naïve. Unwitting fans actually believed Boston could reverse a century of futility with Grady Little pulling the strings, with Trot Nixon in right, with Nomar at short, with Mike Timlin and Scott Williamson closing games. What’s more, we actually dared to assume the team might win post-season series without David Ortiz performing like a Dominican Paul Bunyan. Ortiz produced a fine 2003 regular season, his first in Boston, but he went 2 for 21 in the Oakland series. Not until 2004 would he cement both his legend and the Big Papi sobriquet, courtesy of the RemDawg.

Accurate foretelling is hard. Even in the direct wake of Oct. 6, 2003, The Nation and its long-suffering citizenry had zero understanding of what was happening, of what was to come. I mean, how could we? The Mo Vaughn Sox made some playoff appearances during the 1990s, including an ALDS elimination game, courtesy of the Albert Belle Indians, on Oct. 7, 1995 (my wedding day). That performance laid the title-winning groundwork for exactly nothing. The acquisition of Pedro Martinez in 1998 did result in an American League Championship Series appearance the following year, but the Yankees proved way too good. Historically dynastic, in fact. And let’s be clear-eyed about those Sox: No team featuring Troy O’Leary batting clean-up was ever that close to winning anything.

The 2003 experience, in the moment, felt similarly competent and perhaps substantial, but never touched by the fates — not until Derek Lowe willed us into the ALCS.

Here’s another important differentiator: Few had realized that a powerful new karma had only recently settled over Fenway and the Red Sox, starting in 2002. That’s the year Ted Williams passed away. As I wrote at the time, Mr. Ballgame had been born in 1918. His all-hit, no-field career didn’t just symbolize Boston’s 80-plus years of championship futility. His carbon-based life form embodied it. The Splinter’s death, however tragic, was tantamount to removing a giant karmic thorn from the paw of Red Sox Nation.

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Cultural Adventures in Historiography

Let’s get to know Charles Beard, whose intellectual connection to 1619 principal Nikole Hannah-Jones may tar him with some people, but whose story still has much to teach us. Born in 1874, Beard was perhaps the most influential American historian of the first half of the 20th century. We’re obliged to segment his heyday in this fashion because a historian’s work is famously ephemeral. Beard’s most notable work, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, prompted much academic pearl-clutching upon its release in 1913, before forming the spine of an historical consensus that lasted more than 40 years. By the 1960s, his views on colonial America were quickly falling from grace.

This waning/waxing of historical reputations, among historical figures and the academics who study them, is de rigueur. Views are routinely raised up, then built upon or debunked as new scholarship amplifies or moots competing points of view. I’d have thought the ongoing 1619 controversies would, by now, have summoned more mention of Beard, whose work similarly challenged an existing consensus re. America’s revolutionary period. It remains to be seen whether The 1619 Project — a multimedia series from The New York Times Magazine that re-examines the legacy of slavery in the United States — will experience a similar evolution. The NYT published its 1619 package in book form back in November.

This much already seems clear: No work of U.S. history has ever been so swiftly, widely and cynically politicized. Right-wingers especially have perceived electoral advantage in portraying this work of pop scholarship as a “radical left-wing” cousin to another all-purpose bogeyman, Critical Race Theory. Even the Trotskyites who manage the World Socialist Web Site have joined the fray, on the side of Trumpists, Republican state legislators, and Fox News. This potent propagandistic cocktail (whipped up by such strange bedfellows) has resulted in spitting-mad parents showing up at school committee meetings eager to wage cultural warfare. Just in time for the mid-term elections. We should emphasize that otherwise reputable historians have also objected to aspects of The 1619 Project, while carefully praising the ambitious sweep of it. That such distinguished mainstream scholars as Sean Wilentz and Gordon Wood have seen fit to kick up such a public fuss illustrates still more politicization — from the normally left-leaning ivory tower.

But what exactly is everyone so angry about? The story of Beard’s rise and fall should help us understand what’s really going on here.

Between 1865 and the First World War, historical consensus bathed America’s founding — and the so-called framers themselves — in extraordinarily gauzy light. Beard’s scholarship changed all that, for a time. An Economic Interpretation introduced the jolting idea that our patrician colonial forebears, in particular, acted not merely out of high-minded Enlightenment principals, but in their economic self-interest as well.

To cite just one example: Beard’s scholarship reminded us that many founders were active land speculators, including George Washington. We all know the British tripled taxes following the French and Indian War, in order to pay for said war: the taxation without representation we’ve all read about. To avoid another costly military conflict, Parliament also barred land speculation in the west or “back” country, across a “Proclamation Line” designed to separate colonials from indigenous peoples. The founding class, all of them wealthy white men, objected to the massive tax increase, the famous Stamp Act of 1765. But they also took great exception to this hamstringing of their land-speculation activities. 

Beard’s work, like The 1619 Project, landed like a bombshell. The founders had never before been presented to the American public as hewing to such work-a-day, bourgeois imperatives. Eventually the demonstrable truth and rigor of Beard’s perspective, vetted over the course of decades, gained significant purchase. It became central to the U.S. historical canon. Indeed, its more clear-eyed, humanistic take on the founders and their motivations also allowed future American academics, politicians and citizens to see Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton et al. more as men of flesh, blood and standard human foibles, and less as flawless, heroic icons chiseled from marble.

This shift in American historiography, this trend in writing about the revolutionary period less sentimentally, has been slow-moving. Or rather, such a process doesn’t always bend in one direction, without interruption, toward objectivity or justice. Beard’s work fell from significant favor starting in the 1950s, when a gathering Cold War induced a great many Americans — academics, politicians, bureaucrats and citizens — to band together ideologically before a looming Red menace. In the face of what was perceived to be an existential threat, many felt our historical consensus required more spotless founders to rally around. Beard’s scholarship didn’t fit so well under that sort of jingoist cultural rubric, as that of Hannah-Jones does not today.

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Great Moments in Towing: A Brief, Late ’80s Anthology

It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in Boston, which is to say it’s been a long time since my car’s been towed. Cars do get towed in Maine, I suppose, but vehicular hazards here are more often centered on large antlered mammals in the roadway, as opposed to somewhat smaller, slightly less hirsute, exclusively bipedal mammals hooking one’s stationary vehicle to a still-larger vehicle, then driving away.

Further, my life here (I moved north in 1992) has been predominately family-oriented, pastoral and deliberate. In Boston, where I lived from 1986-92, I was single, urban and reckless. Nothing more viscerally illustrated this directly post-collegiate existence than lighting out for a party or club, circling a particular destination for a legal parking spot, successfully hunting one down (perhaps on the cusp of legality), leaving one’s largest and most valued possession there, only to return three hours later and find it gone — or, to find it untouched! It was a survivalist game of cat and mouse that I played with some skill for many years opposite traffic authorities representing the cities of Boston, Cambridge, Allston, Brighton and Somerville. I’d like to think that six years of eschewing parking garages saved me more money than I ultimately spent on tickets and towing fees. But that risk/reward ledger has never been reliably reckoned.

What I undoubtedly gained was a slew of great tow stories. I chronicle three selections here. Most tales of tow are tales of woe, where the system clearly got the best of me. That wouldn’t be a full and accurate portrayal, however. I could just as easily detail for you three occasions I parked illegally but successfully in the alleyways that divide city blocks in Back Bay, or parked sans resident sticker (and sans incident) in neighborhoods all over Greater Boston. But I won’t be doing that. As they say in the media business, it ain’t news when the plane lands safely.

September 1986: The Return — If there were an international governing body of traffic incidents, where meticulous logs were kept regarding the speed with which one regains possession of a towed vehicle, I might be world record-holder. On this potentially record-setting occasion, I was fortunate watch the truck slowly pass by the first-floor window of my Beacon Hill apartment. Once I had deduced that my silver 1978 Dodge Omni was literally in tow, there was nothing to do but bolt out the front door and give chase, on foot. I caught the tow truck in Government Center, a third of a mile down Joy Street, and another up Cambridge Street. At first the dude wouldn’t let me ride with him. But ultimately he took pity, acknowledging the effort perhaps, and waved me into his cab.

The impoundment lot this fateful night was located in South Boston, hardly remote. Dude let me out 100 yards before reaching the chain-link gate, so as not to reveal his breach of tow-truck protocol. Often there is a mass of pissed off people milling about the desk of an impoundment lot, but there was just one person there on this providential evening: A woman, in a fur coat, chatting agreeably with the staff. They clearly knew her, so frequently did she flaunt the parking system apparently. Soon she had paid and was gone; 5 minutes later I followed suit and exited through the same door. Same dude was still lowering the Omni back to Earth when I handed him my receipt. Hightailing it back to Beacon Hill couldn’t have taken more than 10 minutes.

I would peg the elapsed time — from the moment my car was placed on the hook, to the time I returned to the Joy Street apartment — at 30-32 minutes. The period stretching from my moment of realization, that my car had been towed, to my reappearance in the flat, could not have exceeded 25-27 minutes. That has got to be some kind of record.

Anyone who knows Beacon Hill — with its high-density residential, its narrow one-way streets, its proximity to three high-volume employment venues (Mass General, the State House and Government Center) — understands that parking thereabouts is about as challenging and high-risk as the Boston street scene gets. In many ways, the stakes are higher today: Computerization connects bad parking behavior with dire consequences almost immediately. Circa 1986, prior to the digital age, it took years for the DMV to run down scofflaws — and so, the anxiety was more textured. Who knew precisely how close to the precipice one stood? A letter might arrive, only go unread for a week or completely ignored. Two weeks later one might be two tickets deeper in the hole, maybe three. Would the next ticket summon the cursed tow truck, or (perish the thought) the dreaded boot?

The ultimate penalty was not meted out this record-setting evening, but there was a karmic breach. A group of us were headed out that particular night. Everyone else, three or four others, were clustered in the living room, positioned at the rear of our Joy Street apartment. Standing in the front bedroom, alone, I saw whirling red lights refracting through the windows on the walls. For an instant, I mused to myself, “Some moron got himself towed.” The regret was equally instantaneous. I was the moron.

No one had even noticed when, without word or warning, I raced out the door and down Joy Street. Twenty-five minutes later I returned and they were like, “Where have you been?” I got towed.

“Oh no. We’re going to be really late now.” No, I already got it back. Let’s go.

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Count Me Out of Any and All Hall of Fame Melodrama

Apparently the San Diego Chicken is Cooperstown material but Barry Bonds is not.

In my dotage, I find myself at the heart of Major League Baseball’s core demographic. After all, I still watch playoff and World Series games in their entirety — not later, online, via some highlights package. I get choked up when Henry Aaron and other icons from my youth pass from the scene. I even cut MLB slack in small-but-meaningful ways — like this summer, when I pointed out that COVID-era baseball doesn’t suffer so much for the lack of fans, because we’re already used to watching extra-inning games where pretty much everyone has gone home.

But count me out of any and all Hall of Fame melodrama.

Yet another episode of this embarrassing, annualized hall pall descended last week when Trump toady and erstwhile World Series hero Curt Schilling was denied his piece of immortality, along with steroid poster boys Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. Ho fucking hum. Would-be inductees might be dicks, or saints, in the superficial and cynical ways these traits are communicated to the sporting public. But I am determined never again to invest emotionally in such constructs — the Hall of Fame being the greatest construct of them all.

What a sorry collection of misplaced sentimentality and tradition. Because of its Hall of Fame, MLB’s entire relationship to the past is a maudlin self-congratulatory muddle… The NFL? Worst sport coats I’ve ever seen. It’s as if new inductees are all guest-hosting Monday Night football in 1973… The basketball Hall of Fame is located in Springfield, Mass., in a nod to inventor Dr. James Naismith. As a Bay Stater who covered Travis Best in high school, I should stick up for it. But the place isn’t affiliated with the NBA, and so folks like Wilt Chamberlain and Alexander Belov and Pat Summit are honored side by side, with nothing at all to connect them… The World Golf Fame in Florida is absurd — and needy. Players need not retire from competition in order to gain entry. Phil Mickelson was inducted — in 2012! They invited Tiger Woods; he told them, “Not yet, thanks.”  Whatever… As for the NHL Hall of Fame: Is there one?

Award rituals in this country are unusually dependent on murky interpretations of phrases, term and ideas that feel dated or misplaced. “Hall of Fame”, for example, is a phrase that does not mean anything. What sort of “hall” are we talking about here? Like that place dead Vikings gather, if they should die holding a sword? In what other context do historic figures convene in this way, so as to honor them for all time time? It’s like a museum that is also an exclusive club — but only if you never gambled or did drugs?

The bizarre trappings of hall induction politics have become an anchor around the neck of Major League Baseball, in particular. Pete Rose pioneered this particular shit storm but let’s be clear: On-field greatness cannot effectively be withheld — not by a bunch of sports writers, based on something so amorphous as lapses in “character” or “integrity.” This is a level of caprice that is simply impractical.

The Baseball Writers Association of America, members of which vote on Hall of Fame induction, delineates HOF criteria this way: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”

Pretty wide open to interpretation. It is, I suppose, some type of “injustice” that Barry Bonds has been denied entry based on his steroid use, but here is my solution: It does not matter to me, as a matter of will. And I would urge readers to join me in worrying about something else. It would frankly matter more, to me, had the juice won Barry and the Giants that World Series in 2002. Same with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa — the juice won them nothing. So who cares. I’ve consciously turned myself off to the potential for outrage.

Now, if Bucky Dent or Aaron Boone were juiced, I’d be pissed.

Otherwise, meh.

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Coup-by-Con. An Alternative Fragment

“What’s unfolding now is an attempted coup by a con.”
—  Tim Egan, The New York Times, Nov. 20, 2020

In Xanadu did Coup-by-Con

Via stately news bubble decree

Where Rudy, the sacred river troll, ran

Amok through caverns baseless and inscrutable to man

      Down to the Four Seasons — no, not that one.

Twice the popular vote did sound

Never piercing unscalable walls girdled round

Rose gardens bright with sinuous rills

Where did blossom many a friv’lous conspiracy;

But elsewhere were norms, ancient as the hills,

At last resistant to rank shithousery.

But oh! that deep journalistic chasm which once slanted

Across White House lawns where talking heads did cover

A savage redoubt! So unfair! As holy and enchanted

As e’er beneath “Stop the Steal” banners was chanted

By dead-enders wailing for their demon-lover!

‘Twas from this chasm, with Georgian turmoil seething,

As if straight from his Base, source of all that mouth-breathing,

A mighty fountain of plots was voiced, incandescent:

Amid considered judgment only intermittent,

Huge fragments of bullshit vaulted like rebounding hail,

Or chaffy secular grain ‘neath Bill Barr’s tail:

And mid these flauncing “frauds”, these many losses

Did gum up momently the vote-count process.

Five miles meandering with hazy, baseless motions

Through courts and canvass boards the sacred river did variegate,

Reaching Electoral College caverns unresponsive to the electorate,

And so sank this tumult to a lifeless ocean;

Of all this tumult Coup-by did first learn via Fox

Ancestral, once-allied voices prophesying a pox!

   On both houses beneath the dome of pleasure

   Floated fair and balanced on the airwaves;

   By way of Arizona, where was heard the mingled measure

   From the fountain and the caves,

A miracle of objective reportage, from outside the pleasure dome,

Where sun-disinfected facts still reigned!

Come 21 January would he finally reckon the damsel & her lawsuit

   In a vision he once saw:

   ‘Twas an Upper West Side maid

   On her dulcimer keyboard played,

   Singing of dressing rooms at Bergdorf Goodman.

   In spite of this (and others) could he revive, within His Base

   The symphony and song,

   To such a deep delight ’twould win another race,

That with blowing hard, loud and long,

Would build anew that alt-fact dome — perhaps merely on-air.

That sunny Capitol dome! those caves of ice!

And all who heard should still see them there,

And all the rest of us should cry, Beware! Beware!

His flashing eyes, his Orange hair!

Weave a shrinking circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread

For he on Quarter-Pounders hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise/Total Landscaping

—   Hal Phillips (with apologies to S.E. Coleridge)

Why Politics So Often Trumps Piety: It’s Baked Right In

“The Good Shepherd” by James Tissot

Confused by stalwart evangelical Christian support for Donald Trump? Don’t be. Organized religious movements, especially those of the Christian variety, are only nominally “religious” or faith-directed. They are, in fact, political movements. Always have been; they started that way. We aren’t confused by U.S. Chamber of Commerce support for Trump, for example. These captains of industry don’t like the guy either; it’s not clear they ever respected him as “a businessman” (I mean, who bankrupts casinos? That’s really hard to do). But the Chamber anticipated that Trump, as president, would deliver policy outcomes that would keep American corporate interests rich and powerful. The Chamber’s support for Trump doesn’t confuse us at all.

The president’s evangelical Christian support is identically political and transactional.

To be fair, the president’s evangelical support is even more politically on the nose because, as it happens, the world’s two most prominent monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, were both founded as uniquely, overtly political movements — and so they remain. The disconnect and confusion come when something like ‘evangelical Christianity’ is viewed as a movement or phenomenon of faith. As such, its support for someone sporting such a “rich” history of bigotry, sexual predation, white supremacy and transgressive plutocracy would be totally mystifying.

However, when evangelical Christianity is rightly viewed as a political movement, the hypocrisy and our confusion about it fall away. Or they should.

Look at what Trump has promised and, in part, delivered to this political constituency of his: not enlightenment or even a righteous example but rather the appointment of judges who are likely to rule against abortion and gay rights (though the latter backfired on the evangelical right last week); the channeling of taxpayer money to private, largely religious, certainly segregated schools; recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, thereby laying the groundwork for the fulfillment of biblical prophecy; and restoration of an America that is ruled by white Christian men, despite a population that is ever more diverse. Quite apart from Trump and Republican Party policies, evangelical Christians also tend to be strongly supportive of American militarism abroad, race-based immigration policy, and authoritarian policing, three more things that make it darned near impossible to, among other things, love they neighbor as thyself.

We can agree nearly all of these priorities as maintained by Trump’s evangelical base don’t touch on faith much at all; even the fulfillment of prophecy serves only Christians themselves, not the breadth of God’s human family. Many of these political goals demonstrably transgress New Testament teachings. Instead they are far more concerned with the wielding of power, social influence and control, and money — the stock in trade of most political movements.

Many Americans are thrown by this — the inability of nominal Christians to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (Romans 13:1). Even religiously observant onlookers get stuck on the hypocrisy of the situation — to a point. Trump’s personal behavior would surely offend lots of evangelicals were he raising their grandchildren or coaching their son’s Little League team, for example. But he’s not doing that. He’s delivering political power and influence, and that trumps all. Apparently. Evangelical Christians are no different from any other political constituency in their search for return on investment — a return they frankly didn’t realize from many Republican presidents up to now.

What has changed with Trump is the extent to which individual members of the religious right wing attempt to cloak these plainly political aims in religious vestments. That is to say, under Trump that practice has fallen away almost entirely — and this should help the rest of us better understand what has always been true: that organized religious movements don’t give a fig about salvation (yours, theirs, anyone’s), not when earthly power, influence, social control and money are at stake.  

Listen to the way Steven E. Strang, founder of the Christian publishing house Charisma Media, reckons this political calculus today:

“I believe that God answered our prayers in a way we didn’t expect, for a person we didn’t even necessarily like,” he told The New York Times last winter. “Christians believe in redemption and forgiveness, so they’re willing to give Donald Trump a chance.” Strang added that those who talk about Trump tarnishing the evangelical brand “are not really believers — they’re not with us, anyway.”

One thing is clear: This fellow Strang is not concerned with souls.

Neither is Penny Young Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, an evangelical organization formed to frame the 2018 midterm elections (to potential donors) as a civilizational struggle. Referring to Trump, she said, “His family can talk to him about issues of character.”

“Certainly we are all embarrassed,” Linda Leonhart, who is active in the women’s ministry at her suburban Dallas church, told  The Times in March 2019, citing the president’s serial lying, pettiness, impulsiveness, profanity and name calling. “But for the most part he represents what we stand for.” Not the Gospels, in other words, but the political gathering and wielding of earthly power, influence, social control and money.

These folks are not concerned with the teachings of scripture, much though former Attorney General Jeff Sessions might have tried to cite it in defense of this xenophobic policy or that one. Former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders attempted these same diversions. In 2020, it should be clear that Republicans are more concerned with using scripture in the derivation and deployment of political identity and power, reflecting a Christian tradition that is nearly 2,000 years old.

The mere acknowledgement that Trump may be less than ideal morally — but that he delivers things like Brett Kavanaugh and protections for Christian health workers — is itself a tacit acknowledgement, on the part of Christian voters, that political concerns are equally important, if not more important, than matters of personal faith. For them, it’s a simple exercise in compartmentalism, a word that does not appear in the Bible, for the record. I doubt very much these folks would want Trump for a son-in-law (faith). But they love what he’s doing as president (politics).

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Unprecedented? Nope. Modern GOP Still Harking Back to the ’80s — the 1880s

With word that President Donald Trump planned to resume his in-person political rallies in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 19, 2020 — that’s Juneteenth, a commemoration of slavery’s end and black America’s biggest secular holiday — it seemed clear the era of Republican dog whistling was finally over.

Tulsa was, of course, site of the so-called ‘race riots’ that slaughtered of hundreds of African-Americans over a two-day period in 1921. That was the height of Jim Crow America, when pogroms like these were sadly unremarkable. This was the symbolism our Republican administration was clearly reaching for, and by now it should not surprise us.

From the moment Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 presidential campaign — in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists had been murdered and buried in an earthen dam back in 1963 — the GOP has positioned itself as the party of white folk. The symbolism was clear enough from Day 1. It was effective enough to lure white southern Democrats (the “Dixiecrats” who fled the Democratic Party during the Civil Rights era) into the once-anathema Republican Party, the Party of Lincoln and The Union. A Trump presidency and the scheduling of this July rally neatly complete the circle.

In light of the protests that gripped American cities in wake of George Floyd’s May 29 killing, we are now free to drop all pretenses. Indeed, it’s time to retire all sorts of presumptions, including the idea that Trump and his white-nationalist “Christian” support is somehow unprecedented. On the contrary: We have been here before.

But first, by all means, let’s also dispense with any and all pearl-clutching from progressives and centrists. Donald Trump understands the nature of his political support and, by now, so should we. To be fair, he’s been remarkably consistent re. the nature of his vision for this country. “Why is it always about race with you people,” his supporters serially countered in pre-Floyd America. Because, as was confirmed in June (which only confirms what the war on drugs and mass incarceration showed us decades before), it’s always been about race.

Let’s further dispense with our vaguely snarky musing on the Trump movement’s signature rallying cry. When he and his followers pledge to “Make America Great Again”, they really do mean to make it white again — or rather, to restore white citizens to their longstanding, “rightful” place of privilege and power in the face of an ever more diverse citizenry and electorate. It’s time to retire this rhetorical question and simply accept it as demonstrable fact.

We can also stop with the lengthy magazine think pieces and earnest video documentaries that explore the economic nature of Trump’s support. Yes, plutocrats love Trumpism. They may indeed be pulling some of these strings. But there is no economic explanation for the white working-class embrace of Donald Trump. And here’s a good rule to follow at all times but particularly in this one: When we perceive our fellow citizens to be repeatedly voting against their own self-interest, we have almost certainly failed to effectively divine that self-interest.

To wit, Trumpism is not an economic movement. It is a white, nationalist, extra-scriptural Christian movement. In four years’ time, it has produced a great many things we can fairly call “unprecedented”. But MAGA isn’t one of them. Going forward, it’s critical that “the rest of us” recognize this.

What’s more, as we’ll establish here, it’s important to recognize this is not the first time white Americans have found themselves on the wrong side of a demographic equation, i.e. trying to maintain political power and privilege in a society where voters of color roughly equal if not outnumber them.

We have indeed been here before. It’s called the Post-Reconstruction South, where the identical demographic situation resulted in the identical political response. To a remarkable degree, the policies articulated by Trump during his campaign and those instituted by his administration these past 40 months are the spiritual godchildren of those initiated by post-Reconstruction southern whites in the late 19th century — for the same desperate and obvious demographic reasons.

No one bothered to ask late 19th century southern white men why they effectively demonized, disenfranchised and, where possible, criminalized black citizens, black voters. No contemporaneous journalists from the agitating north went looking for the economic foundations of Jim Crow. It was obvious to all, north and south, what they were doing and why. Institutional racism was essential and obvious to the white fight for political power in the former Confederacy. The political motivations of white southerners post-1877 had nothing to do with economics, government intrusion, faith, the opioid epidemic, flyover country resentment of coastal elites, etc. It also lasted the better part of 100 years.

And so, in this sense, we should not be surprised that it remains front and center in U.S. politics. It’s about race and power. It has always been about race and power. Not exactly the race of some urban African-American or that of some border Latinx, but rather the so-called white race, “our” race, and its prospects for enduring power in this country. The demography of an immigrant nation has finally caught up to white America, and a lot of them (40 percent by most counts) don’t like it much. It’s time we all accepted this and set about wrestling with it properly.

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FDR: President, Statesman, Patrician… Golf Course Architect?

[Ed. This piece appeared in Golf Journal back in 2002. Published by the USGA (without advertisement), this was a fine magazine — one of many print outlets to fall by the wayside in the 21st Century but this one really stung, as I did a lot of work through the years for the editor there, Brett Avery, who shared a love of quirky, often historical pieces. For years I had kept my GJ story clips in hard copy form, but they all perished in my 2016 barn fire. Time to start archiving them here.]

One is taken aback by the photograph. It’s encased in glass and big as life, the first thing one encounters upon entering the Visitor Centre at Roosevelt Campobello International Park. There’s FDR, young and turn-of-the-century attired, posing at the finish of what appears to have been an elegant swing.

FDR played golf? I had seen that written somewhere, but this photo speaks to a level of proficiency that surprised me. Fluid. Relaxed. Confident. Beside the photograph, inside the exhibit case, is further testimony to his skill: a medal, earned by winning the August 1899 members’ tournament at Campobello Golf Club.

There’s a book in the case, too, detailing the results of these competitions staged between 1897 and 1920. But it’s the photograph that intrigues as it contrasts so markedly with those more familiar images of FDR: the new president, waving from his convertible Stutz; the four-time candidate addressing boisterous crowds from the stump; the solemn slayer of fascism, posing with Churchill and Stalin at Yalta — all of them burned into the public consciousness but all depicting a much older Roosevelt, aged beyond his years by lengthy struggles with polio, global economic depression and world war.

To see FDR so youthful and athletic, swinging a golf club no less, when the mind’s eye is so accustomed to seeing him differently — invariably seated, or perhaps standing stiffly while leaning hard on the arm of his young naval officer son — is startling.

***

A visit to Campobello, this small Canadian island off the coast of Maine, is replete with enlightening discoveries. It was settled in 1770 by Welsh sea captain William Owen, who remained loyal to King George following the American Revolution. Indeed, island tax records show that Benedict Arnold maintained a residence here, at Snug Cove, in 1786.

The Roosevelts, from the Hyde Park section of New York’s Hudson Valley region, summered here in the province of New Brunswick for nearly 50 years, beginning in 1883, when FDR was just a year old. He learned to sail here on the frigid waters of Passamaquoddy Bay. It was on what he called his “beloved island” that he secretly proposed to his future wife, Eleanor. While visiting Campobello during the summer of 1910, he resolved to run for the New York State Senate, thus launching one of America’s most remarkable political careers. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr. was born on Campobello in 1914, and it was here, in 1921, that his father and namesake contracted the disease that would cripple him.

The nine-hole layout at Campobello Golf Club is long gone. A thick forest now occupies the site and further envelops the 34-room Roosevelt “Cottage” and the Hubbard Cottage next door. At the turn of the century, when FDR and his fellow colonists whiled away their summers here, this portion of the island was treeless. In 1881, the Boston-based Campobello Land Co. had cleared these properties in hopes that wealthy families would be enticed by unimpeded ocean views. They were indeed, and many of the noblest clans in the U.S. soon built rambling estates on the land above Friar’s Bay.

The Campobello Land Co. also built a pair of summer hotels on this high ground, the Tyn-y-Coed (Welsh for “house in the woods”) in 1882, and the Tyn-y-Mays (“house in the fields”) a year later. Both were gone by 1910, but it was beside these grand, American shingle-style hostelries that Campobello Golf Club was laid out. No photographs of the course survive, though in the photo of FDR swinging his club, a corner of the Tyn-e-Coed is visible in the background.

“The course was there beside the hotels, opposite Hubbard Cottage, across the road,” recalls Mrs. Howard Hodgson, 74, a resident of nearby St. Andrew’s, N.B., and a Hubbard by birth. “I spent all my summers [on Campobello] in the cottage, from 1925 to 1941. My grandfather was treasurer of the golf club and James Roosevelt, the president’s father, was the one who started it.

“Nobody played any golf on the island when I was growing up, so I don’t remember the course, per se; it was just a cow pasture when I was there. Once the [First World] war ended, the colony just sort of fizzled. But I remember going blueberry picking with my father in that field. We used to find these funny old golf balls there.”

The Visitor Centre at Roosevelt Park is modest in size but its displays thoroughly recount the Roosevelt’s aristocratic-but-vigorous existence on Campobello via museum-style text, complemented by oversized black-and-white photography. There’s a tiny theater, wherein a short film, entitled “Beloved Island,” further documents the picnics, hikes, sailing and golf FDR enjoyed. About halfway through the film, the screen fills with the photograph from the lobby: FDR, no more than 20 years of age, following-through (“posing” if you will) with his driver.

“FDR,” the narrator explains, “served on the Governing Committee at Campobello Golf Club and laid out the course …”

What? FDR laid out the course? This notion is perhaps more startling than the photograph. Could it be that FDR, Architect of the New Deal, was also an amateur golf course architect? For buffs of history and golf, this is an extraordinary prospect, one that warranted further investigation.

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Hello, World. Welcome back to The Middle Kingdom

There’s a reason China has long referred to itself as The Middle Kingdom, and Daryl Morey, the NBA and frankly much of Western Civilization is beginning to understand why.

As you’ve no doubt heard by now, Morey is the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets. Until last week, he was known primarily as one of the league’s most savvy operators, an early and successful adopter of advanced hoop metrics and a keen, an innovative judge of talent in a league turning inside-out (read: the NBA’s new, stat-backed reliance on 3-point shooting). He’s also politically aware, apparently, something he exhibited last Friday when he tweeted his support of Hong Kong protesters in their running battle with China’s central government. “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” he wrote.

Well, with that seemingly innocuous digital bromide, the political equivalent of “Boston Strong”, Morey has pissed off that central government, in Beijing. In the process, he may have inadvertently clued much of America into the fact that the unilateral, post-Cold War Era is over.

Morey has since taken the Tweet down but he, the Rockets and the NBA have reaped the 21st century whirlwind.

In response, the Chinese Central Government has announced that Rockets games will no longer be broadcast by Chinese state TV or partner Tencent, which recently agreed to a $1.5-billion deal with the NBA to stream games in China. Last year, some 600 million Chinese watched an NBA game in this fashion. The Rockets themselves just happen to have been the most popular team in the country — mainly because Yao Ming, China’s most successful NBA product, played his entire career in Houston. Today Yao is head of the Chinese Basketball Association. On Monday he severed the CBA’s relationship with his former team.

Behold, The Middle Kingdom. China so named itself circa 1,000 BCE, when the reigning Chou people, unaware of advanced civilizations in the West, believed their empire occupied the middle of the Earth, surrounded by unsophisticated barbarians. For the ensuing 3,000 years China has indeed been the center of the Asian universe, such has it dominated economic and cultural affairs in this region — in a way that has no European, African, Middle Eastern, South or North American analogue. In Asia, over this long arc of history, China’s military whims were routinely indulged. Its culture effortlessly spilled over into countless neighboring nations. Its outsized market (always a function of its outsized population) routinely bent foreign states to the Kingdom’s economic will.

North Americas and Europeans have a difficult time grasping this concept — the enormity of China’s power — because recent history doesn’t bear this primacy out. Starting in the mid 1800s (when the English first acquired Hong Kong and its holdings in the Pearl River Delta), and ending with Mao’s victory over nationalist forces in 1949, China was something of a geopolitical and economic patsy.

Here’s the way I’ve always thought of it: China had a bad century. The Chinese call it a “Century of Humiliation”… But one or two bad centuries in 30 isn’t such a terrible batting average. In any case, that blip is over. Its recent “rise” is merely a reinstatement of a longstanding status quo.

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