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A Boy Called Christmas

There are many B-grade Christmas movies, of course (and lots of A-grade ones as well). But not all the B-grade ones have a cast that includes Maggie Smith and Jim Broadbent. The B-grade budget is apparent in some of the sets. But some of the Old World scenery is gorgeous, filmed in Finland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.

Nikolas, the boy, is played by Henry Lawfull, a newcomer with a strange face strangely suited to fairy tales and magic. Stephen Merchant is the voice of the mouse.

“A Boy Called Christmas” can be streamed on Netflix.

The Rose

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and so the Christmas season begins. As a heathen and pagan, I prefer the word Yule. If we set aside the centuries-long war on Yule by the church, then some pretty nice hard-to-kill things remain — yule fires, lights, greenery, feasting, gift-gifting, conviviality, and, most of all, music. The best Yule music, always, is choral music.

Usually this time of year I post something from the choir of King’s College Cambridge. This year, here is something a little different. It’s the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles with the country singer LeeAnn Rimes. She is a rare (these days) country singer who actually can sing, with no equipment other than a microphone.

When I post music videos, I always try to post only videos that are well recorded. So, as always, make sure that your computer is connected to good speakers, or use headphones or earpods.

Radish sprouts

Radish sprouts are my new favorite sprouts. They’re also one of the healthiest kinds of sprouts you can eat, very high in antioxidants. They do have a fairly strong flavor, though. Not everyone likes them. If you don’t like radish sprouts raw, they work very nicely in stir-fries. They’re almost as big as mung bean sprouts, and they have nice, pea-shaped leaves that will turn dark green if they get enough light. The radishy flavor works really well in spicy stir-fries.

Winter greens

I wish I had started experimenting with winter greens in a cold frame a long time ago. This mustard was planted in early October and is now ready to start picking. I’ve decided to make a little ritual of it, though, and have the first winter mustard on Thanksgiving.

For comparison, I’ve also got some mustard growing outside the cold frame. The mustard inside the cold frame has grown almost twice as fast. Plus, the outside mustard has started to toughen a bit and looks a little shabby and weathered. Next year, I think I’ll expand the winter garden and see what I can do. One very agreeable difference, compared with summer gardening, is that there are no bugs, no briars, and no heat and humidity.

Fiona Hill for president!

There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century. Fiona Hill, Mariner Books. 432 pages.

I rarely read political memoirs, but I made an exception for Fiona Hill. She made a strong impression on millions of people during the House impeachment hearings of 2019. She was a visible example of the kind of people who, during Trump’s term in the White House, saved the American government from being completely corrupted by political hacks who did everything they could to turn the United States into Russia. Political hacks refer to this kind of people as the “Deep State,” by which the hacks mean: principled professionals who could not be corrupted or easily taken down, people who stood in the way of the Putinization of America.

Hill is a Russia expert. Trump called her “the Russia bitch.” Because she was born down and worked her way up, she did not go down easily. Principle, professionalism, and truth were her secret weapons.

Even from where I sit in the provinces it was clear that the Trumpist intent was — and is — to turn the U.S. into Russia. When someone like Fiona Hill confirms this, we ought to pay attention. She spent her career studying Russia, from the cold and grit of decaying Siberian cities to Moscow dinners sitting beside Putin. She worked in the White House and saw up close how the Trump White House operated. Her many hours of testimony to the House Intelligence committee are on the historical record. Most Republicans will never admit what happened or how close we came to an authoritarian coup, and the Republican cover-up continues. But one of the things that I find comforting, no matter where we end up a few years from now, is that historians are going to know the full story of what happened.

If you heard Hill’s testimony (it’s still available from CSPAN and on YouTube), you know that she is from the north of England. Hill’s perspective on the past thirty years allowed her to see connections that most of us are unable to see. Most important, of course, are the similarities between the Putinization of Russia and the Trumpization of America. She grew up very poor, in impoverished coal country. She is able to see how the policies of the Reagan-Thatcher era destroyed provincial economies but did nothing to mitigate the damage (though Hill also acknowledges that Thatcher was faced with trends and forces beyond her control). During the 1990s, Hill was on the ground in Russia, witnessing how efforts to create a Russian democracy failed and how oligarchs and so-called “populists,” who feed on grievance and disorder, took control. And then came Trump, riding the same whirlwind.

Hill writes that her training and her work have been nonpartisan. But, as Paul Krugman likes to say, reality has a distinctly liberal bias. This entire book, whether Hill intended it or not, is a powerful and urgent case for the enactment of the progressive agenda and a damning historical indictment of where Reaganism, neoliberalism, and so-called populism have led.

The book is in four parts. First, her deprived childhood in County Durham in the northeast of England. Second, how she found her way out, first to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and then to Harvard. Third, she writes about her time in the White House and what she saw there. And fourth, she does her best to offer ideas on what it will take for the United States to avoid Russia’s fate. The key to that is investing in people in the places that have been left behind.

One of the reasons I love this book is that I identify with Fiona Hill. My circumstances were never as harsh as hers, and my achievements were far less. Yet when she writes, for example, about “code switching,” I completely understand. She writes in the book about how she was often humiliated for her provincial accent, in particular when she interviewed at Oxford (and decided to go to St. Andrews instead). Some disadvantaged Brits, she writes, actually take elocution lessons to lose their provincial accents and learn “received pronunciation,” or what we used to call the BBC accent. Margaret Thatcher, for example, took voice lessons in the 1970s. I grew up with the Southern Appalachian dialect. But even in the provincial city of Winston-Salem, where I got my first job, that would not do. Because I had a good ear and an aptitude for languages, I was able to learn to “code switch.” People in San Francisco always told me that they could not detect a Southern accent. “Prove it,” someone once said. “Say something in Southern Appalachian.” I did, and the involuntary look of disgust on his face surprised even me, as though he had found a roach in his soup. Fiona Hill had similar experiences, and I greatly respect her for not trying to change her accent. She moved to America for greater opportunity, just as I moved to San Francisco for greater opportunity.

The subtitle of this book is about finding opportunity. How people talk is only one of many things that keep them down. Lack of education, lack of social support (meaning that there is no one there to help them), racism, classism, and the economic decay of rural and post-industrial regions are the biggies that keep people down.

Conservatives and even today’s so-called “centrists” have no solutions. In fact, conservatives do everything possible to block progress and push societies toward inequality and authoritarianism.

In a way, I regret that I have to say that this book is a powerful argument for the progressive agenda, because I don’t think that was Fiona Hill’s intention. But (like reality) a rational, historical, pragmatic, and nonpartisan outlook has a distinctly liberal bias. Conservatives dismiss Hill as a subversive and a George Soros mole in the White House. But what is clear to me is that the progressive view, and the progressive prescription for our problems, are not just a bias. It’s just a sensible, informed, and pragmatic way of looking at the world today. If I have a bias, it’s this: the progressive view and the progressive prescription for our problems are the only sensible, informed, and pragmatic way of looking at the world today.


A right-wing protester at a Trump rally in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Sept. 1, 2020. Source: Wikipedia.

Farhad Manjoo, in a column this morning in the New York Times, draws attention to a novel right-wing claim of self-defense, in which a right-winger with a gun points the gun at unarmed people, then claims self-defense out of fear that an unarmed person might take away the gun. Manjoo writes:

“And Rittenhouse’s gun was not just a danger to rival protesters. According to his own defense, the gun posed a grave threat to Rittenhouse himself — he said he feared being overpowered and then shot with his own weapon.”

This has come up again this week, in the trial for the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed by vigilantes after they saw him jogging and assumed he was a criminal. The Washington Post writes, “Travis McMichael testified that he raised his shotgun first to ‘de-escalate’ and scare Arbery off, drawing on his use-of-force training while employed with the Coast Guard. But he said that as Arbery ran toward him and finally made physical contact, he fired, afraid the man would get control of the weapon.”

With no verdicts as of today in either case, we don’t yet know whether juries will accept this kind of perverted logic. It would be a horrifying precedent. If a man with a gun points the gun at an unarmed person, doesn’t the unarmed person have a right to self-defense? Lacking a weapon, what are the options other than trying to grab the gun before the guy with the gun can shoot? The claim, clearly, is that the person with the gun has a right to self-defense, but the unarmed person does not have a right to self-defense.

Probably this question has come up before in other court cases. I don’t know. But it does seem clear that there is a connection to vigilantism. Police have the authority arrest and detain people. Vigilantes do not. This is a question that everyone who owns a gun should think about. It’s a question that should be discussed in every concealed carry class. Let’s hope that the courts will provide some clarity.

The intelligentsia and civil war

Etel Adnan in Marin County, California. Photo by Simone Fattal. Source:

The New York Times carried an obituary this morning for Etel Adnan, who died yesterday in Paris at the age of 96. I was saddened to hear this, because I knew Etel and her partner, Simone Fattal, during their Sausalito years, when I was living in San Francisco.

Etel was best known for her novel about the Lebanese civil war, Sitt Marie Rose. Part of what I find remarkable about Etel Adnan is how her literary reputation was built entirely on the work of small presses. As far as I know, none of her books was ever published by a commercial press. Etel and Simone had established their own micropress during the 1980s, the Post-Apollo Press. It was Post-Apollo that published Sitt Marie Rose, translated from the original French by Simone. Even in the early ’90s, inspired by Simone and Etel, I aspired to starting a micropress someday.

When I reflect on what I remember about Etel, what stands out is her sadness and grief about what civil war did to her country, Lebanon, and in particular to the immense damage of what war did to the city of Beirut, which Etel compared with San Francisco. The New York Times writes: “Her most widely acclaimed novel, Sitt Marie Rose, (1978) based on a true story, centers on a kidnapping during Lebanon’s civil war and is told from the perspective of the civilians enduring brutal political conflict. It has become a classic of war literature, translated into 10 languages and taught in American classrooms.”

As Simone and Etel drove me home to San Francisco one night after dinner in Sausalito, Etel asked me as we crossed the Golden Gate bridge to imagine how I would feel if San Francisco suffered such destruction. It was December, and she was bundled up in their Volvo like a Lebanese peasant (though she came from a wealthy family). Of the thousands of times I have crossed the Golden Gate bridge, I remember that time the best — stars over the Pacific, and the lights of San Francisco reflected in the bay. I always felt safe in San Francisco, a refuge from what is worst about America.

Today, the news is horrifying, and it’s getting worse. When we watched as the U.S. Capitol was attacked on January 6, we did not know that what we were seeing was an actual, organized, serious attempt at an authoritarian coup. New books have revealed much, but I expect the congressional hearings to reveal even more. The law is closing in on Trump’s enablers, and I have little doubt that Trump himself, and two or three of his children, will be indicted next year. At the very least, those indictments will be about financial crimes, and those crimes will be the easiest to prove. But, as Trump enablers such as Steve Bannon, Mark Meadows, and a bunch of right-wing lawyers face the choice between longer prison sentences and testifying against Trump, I expect them to testify against Trump, and I expect the evidence to be damning.

The rise of an organized authoritarian power structure is scary enough, but the gullibility of Americans is even scarier. Recent polls show that a majority of Americans may be willing to go right on voting for Republicans. We have no choice but to imagine the worst. If the Republican Party either steals or wins the national elections in 2024, then that will be the end of the American democracy and the end of the rule of law. Part of what I find I find incomprehensible about the politics and religion of America’s non-intelligentsia is that they imagine they would prosper under such a regime. No they wouldn’t. As soon as a right-wing authoritarian government was installed beyond the reach of democracy and the rule of law, ignorant Republican voters would feel the other end of the stick as the country’s wealth is transferred ever more quickly from the bottom to the top. A right-wing authoritarian government in the United States could never be stable. At least half of the population — largely those in the cities and on the coasts — would never put up with it. The Republican Party and its propaganda would ensure that there are brownshirts, scapegoats, and turmoil. Sham right-wing-run elections would never permit a democratic change of government. What alternative would be left other than civil war?

Already, authoritarian governments are working to escalate the turmoil. A story in the Times of London on November 13 reports that Britain’s most senior military officer has warned that the risk of an accidental war with Russia is now greater than at any time since the Cold War. There are increasing fears that Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine. British troops have been sent to the Polish border with Belarus because Belarus is trying to create a crisis by flying in migrants from the Middle East and sending them to the Polish border. Things such as this get little attention in the dysfunctional and not-very-smart American media.

I’ve tried to do some Googling to determine what has been written about intelligentsias in time of war. Most of what has been written is about Russia. But intelligentsias, at many times in many places, have seen and understood what others are slow to see and understand. It happened in Russia. It happened in Germany. It happened in Etel’s Lebanon. And now the United States could be well on its way. I’m afraid I was mistaken when I thought that this country was out of the woods when Trump left the White House. I still believe that Trump will go to prison. But that is not enough, as it has become increasingly clear that the Republican Party, post-Trump, will continue to try to establish a right-wing authoritarian government beyond the reach of law and fair elections. The details about their intentions grow ever uglier — for example, Michael Flynn’s remark about “one religion.”

In my Googling, I found this, written in 1972 by Richard Hamilton for Dissent magazine:

“In the world view of liberal intellectuals, those persons who share decent and humane values form a tiny minority standing on the edge of an abyss. In that world view they are always standing there, the problem being that there are so few people who share those values and so many potentially powerful and, if aroused, dangerous groups present in the society. The best one can hope for is that the threatening groups remain quiescent, that they not be aroused.

“The American liberal finds himself in a difficult world; he is sincere, concerned about the pressing problems in the society, willing to see changes made, but he also is trapped by the inexorable dictates of the situation. If these hostile groups were to be aroused (at one time the dangerous lower middle class was the problem, now there is also the dangerous white working class), the liberal minority would be unable to stem the reaction that would follow.”

As always, my disclaimer is that no one knows what is going to happen in the future. But my fear is this: If the American right wing succeeds in installing a Putin-style government, which is their clear intent, then there is a future in which this country is torn apart by civil war.

New from Acorn Abbey

The newest title from Acorn Abbey Books will be released on December 30. The book is The Outnation: A Search for the Soul of Japan. This is a new edition (with a new foreword) of the book, which was first published in 1992 by the Harvard Business School Press.

The author, Jonathan Rauch, is an old friend of mine. He is the author of seven books, most recently The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, published last June by the Brookings Institution Press. Dreux Richard, who wrote the new foreward, is the author of another book on Japan, Every Human Intention: Japan in the New Century, published earlier this year by Pantheon.

The Outnation is a classic in its genre, first published at a time when the world was struggling to learn about Japan during what we now call Japan’s bubble economy. The book’s first edition has long been out of print, and there was no digital version of the first edition. Acorn Abbey is publishing digital editions (including Kindle) as well as a paperback edition.

Louis Wain

Cat fans — not to mention fans of Benedict Cumberbatch — will want to see “The Electric Life of Louis Wain.” Louis Wain (1860-1939) was the late Victorian artist who charmed the world with his paintings and drawings of anthropomorphized cats. It is a sad story in many ways. Wain’s eccentricity eventually became overt mental illness, and he spent his last years as a mental patient.

I cannot vouch for the truth of it, but it is said that cats were not regarded by the Victorians as suitable housepets. If so, it was Wain who changed all that. We cat lovers owe a flower on his grave. He is buried in London.

The film can be streamed on Amazon Prime video.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Finch ★ ★ ★ ★

Could a movie possibly go wrong with Tom Hanks, a teenagerly robot, a dog, and a post-apocalyptic plot? That would be difficult. Of course the plot, the situations, and the sentiment are predictable. But who cares if you’ve got Tom Hanks, a teenagerly robot, a dog, and a post-apocalyptic plot?

This is a classic, family friendly kind of story with a near perfect screenplay. The science, the engineering, and the brilliant (though salvaged) tech are bonuses. The story starts in St. Louis. After that, the irresistible ingredients include a postcard from the Golden Gate Bridge. There’s also a beat-up, heavily modified RV, the steed which carries the three characters on their quest toward the Golden Gate.

I watched it with my cat.