Thursday, April 25, 2013

Samuel Johnson was not an easy man to like

            London, 1763. My imagination had transported me to Doctor Johnson’s lair – a Fleet Street Coffeehouse. The Great Man fingered his cheap non-powdered wig, better to descant on the Americans whom he called “a race of convicts” who “ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.”
            Johnson’s table manners were squalid to the point of splattering those adjacent. He now elected to twit the hapless Goldsmith on the failing of Goldie’s “She Stoops to Conquer,” and then to twit his biographer Boswell on the failings of being Scottish. But the Doctor’s smug magnanimity was for the colonies: “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.”
            This was, safe to say, insufferable to me, an American in London. Were it not for Boswell’s adulation, Johnson would be dismissed as a quaint lexicographer. If you ask me, the book might better have been Johnson’s Life of Boswell, rather than Boswell’s Life of Johnson. But now Doctor Johnson’s animadversion on Americans set me afire.
            David Garrick, the acting profession’s contribution to Johnson’s Literary Club, was uncharacteristically at a loss for words, offering only a sharp intake of breath.
            As I rose to respond, the coffeehouse quieted.
            “Sir, I rise above your taut. Moreover, looking to the future, should any foreign power ever menace England – let’s say the Germans, hypothetically – we Americans hope you’ll call on us for help.”
            “Indeed,” scoffed someone from the back. “Yankee Doodle to the rescue.”
            Doctor Johnson’s bemusement seemed more muted. There was a sense that I had given him pause, on which note I exited, tripping over his gout-ridden foot on the way and prompting a Johnsonian bellow.
            The Doodle strikes again.
            Postscript: Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer” endures today as a comedy of manners. It is regarded as a classic.
            England did solicit American assistance in two world wars, both involving Germans.
            Dr. Johnson is today best remembered as a conversationalist, which was his true métier. He never in his long and dramatic life lost his disdain for Americans.

How to make your politics more satisfying

           Face it, there’s little you and I can do to improve the US political culture which has gone bipartisanly rancid. It’s time for each of us to protect our political sanity. A few suggestions:
            1. Don’t let the TV pundits tell you what to think. Especially don’t let Rachel Maddow of MSNBC tell you what to think. Or Karl Rove with his insufferable chalkboard thing. These people see themselves as molders of opinion. My opinions are moldy enough.
            2. Pollsters would have you believe that an American shopping for a political home must choose between liberalism and conservatism, the one excluding the other. In fact, one can admix elements of each. The two philosophies exist in symbiosis or they do not exist.
            3. Or, disdain these labels altogether. Ask not what is liberal or conservative. Ask what is true, and let the answer fall where it may on the political spectrum. Franklin Roosevelt was a fiscal conservative who became a Keynesian when he saw the need. And Dwight Eisenhower found truth everywhere. “I think most Americans are both liberal and conservative,” he said.
            4. Because a few politicians err or are corrupt, it is possible to adopt a general cynicism about the entire class. Resist the temptation. And keep it civil. There is no governing idea that cannot be undermined by meanness of spirit.
            5. “Kum Bah Yah” is a perfectly good song and not, as some would have it, an anthem of false conciliation.
            6. Will panelists on news shows ever realize that five people talking at once is not discourse? Ideas profit when we allow one another the dignity of a completed thought. Being loud is not the same thing as being bold.
            7. It is possible to believe that most politicians (and most lawyers and most bureaucrats) are men and women of rectitude. Most want to help, despite the backbreaking burden of regulations under which they work.
            8. Goes the cynic’s plaint, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” You don’t have to get a dog. There is still honor. There’s still kindness, and you and I may rely on it.
            9. If “Kum Bah Yah” is discredited, have Congress belt out a bipartisan rendering of “Give My Regards to Broadway.”
            10. If a pundit invites you to lunch, let him pick up the check. Most of them have expense accounts.

What if someone went on Wheel of Fortune while slightly inebriated? A fantasy

            Early in the show is the contestant chat wherein Pat Sajak ritually belittles each participant using his smug grin to subtly mock the goings-on. I was in no mood for it.
            PAT: Alan, your life sounds like a total cliché. But I’m betting you have some kind of interesting hobby.
            ALAN: No, nothing like that. I’m here for the money. Now if that young lady could bring me a martini….
            PAT: That’s Vanna White and she is not a cocktail waitress.
            ALAN: Oh. I’m sorry. I guess it was the slutty outfit. By the way, I’ll skip the half-car and the trip to the Turks and Caicos. Just cash! (spinning the wheel) Uh oh, my hand slipped.
            PAT: $300.
            ALAN: Can I spin again? (Vanna shakes her head no). Aw shut up Vanna. Gimme an X. Naw, just kidding. Gimme a T.
            PAT: Sorry, we have to go with your first response and there are no X’s. But I think we’ve discovered your hobby (makes tippling gesture). OK Madeline, our dairy farmer from Wisconsin, it’s your turn to spin (wheel stops on $900).
            MADELINE: May I have a T please.
            ALAN: She heard me call a T. That’s not fair.
            PAT: There are three T’s. Madeline that’s $2700. Not bad.
            ALAN: Can I spin now?
            PAT: Not your turn, you incredible oaf. Go ahead Ralph, our fireman from Santa Fe, New Mexico (wheel stops on the million dollar space).
            ALAN: Lissen Ralph, I hope you win the million. Pat doesn’t like me so I don’t have a chance. Let’s all go for drinks later.
            RALPH: (to Alan) Why don’t you put a sock in it? You’re gassed.
            ALAN: Oh yeah? Prove it! (Ralph grabs Alan and tosses him onto the wheel. Pat spins the wheel and Alan goes round and round to the audience’s delight.) Hey Pat, look – I’m on the half-car space. I’ll take half a Mercedes.
            PAT: Forget it Alan. It’s all over.
            ALAN: I’ll take the thousand-dollar consolation.
            PAT: No you won’t.
            ALAN: OK, OK, I’ll take the Turks and Caicos… Turks and Caicos… Turks and Caicos… (Alan awakens and finds himself at home in his easy chair, sweating copiously.) It was all a dream! Pat and Vanna! The wheel! Actually I’ve never liked spinning. I couldn’t even sit through Vertigo despite the reassuring presence of Jimmy Stewart. So anyway, that’s how a stupid game show taught me to stop drinking.