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A road trip to the real Mayberry


Here is a video from today’s road trip into the Blue Ridge Mountains. American readers will be aware of the “Mayberry” angle from the classic American television show with Andy Griffith. Those of you in Europe may not be aware of the cultural complications, which relate to the fact that Andy Griffith the actor was a liberal but that most of those who idolize Griffith, and the television show, are make-America-great-again deplorables.

But never mind all that. It was a nice road trip with some autumnal Blue Ridge Mountain scenery, a wonderful local historian who has had a book of science fiction open every time I’ve been in her store, and scenes from the kitchen of the chef who made my lunch.

Catherine the Great



Helen Mirren in HBO’s Catherine the Great

The sets and costumes and colors are lavish. Helen Mirren is, as always, a remarkable actress. But one episode of Catherine the Great was all I can take.

Just as every story with a classical structure needs a villain, so every story needs at least one decent human being. In this story, there aren’t any. There’s no one to like, including Catherine the Great. It’s all debauchery and treachery and cruelty, all the time.

It has never mattered to me whether a story is “true to life.” I prefer the opposite, actually, because to me stories are about escape and imagination. Life itself is true to life, and that’s enough. HBO’s mini-series about Catherine the Great may be true to life, and true to history, for all I know. If I cared enough, I’d read a history. But, as a story, there was no one in it worth caring about — except, maybe, the Russian people, who, at least in episode 1, never appear.

Recently I wrote a book review here on the history of tyrants. Of the three types of tyrants that Waller Newell describes, Catherine the Great was a “reforming tyrant.” She did Russia proud. Is there something about the Russian people that they can be led only by tyrants? Or is it that tyrants are all the Russian people have ever known? I don’t know enough Russian history to try to answer the question. But I think I’m glad that I’m not Russian.

A fresh take on pimento cheese



Pimento cheese made from fresh roasted green peppers, served with my homemade borscht

I was reflecting today on the history of pimento cheese, which, since my earliest childhood, has been a Southern American favorite. It seemed oddly Mediterranean, because nobody around here has ever grown pimiento peppers, nor does anybody can peppers, as far as I know. Luckily, the story of the history of pimento cheese has already been written, and I came across this article from Southern Living: You Will Not Believe the History of Pimento Cheese.

It turns out that my speculation was right. According to the article, it was back in the 1870s that Spain started sending canned red peppers to the United States. America supplied the cheese. Pimento cheese was born.

When I was a young’un, there was often a little glass jar of pimento peppers in my mother’s cabinets for making pimento cheese. If you make it at home (I’m thinking that nobody ever does anymore), the ingredients would be cream cheese, some cheddar, and some mayonnaise. All groceries stores here have it, though, in plastic tubs. If you read the ingredients, you’ll faint, because store-bought pimento cheese is usually made from cheap, artificial ingredients such as “cheese food.”

Last time I was at Trader Joe’s, I bought too much Wisconsin cheddar, and I’ve been hard pressed to use it all. Pimento cheese seemed like a good idea. Cream cheese is not something I normally buy. But Greek yogurt was a good substitute. And I never run out of mayonnaise.

You could use any kind of pepper, red or green, even mildly hot ones, if you like the idea. I roasted a sweet green pepper on the grill. Let it cool, then peel it and chop it. I marinated my green pepper for an hour or so in some of the marinade from a jar of marinated artichoke hearts. Stir the chopped peppers into the grated cheddar, plus the cream cheese (or Greek yogurt) and a dollop of mayonnaise.


Update: A vintage can of tinned pimentos that was for sale on eBay.

What authoritarians see


This photo, which I assume is an official White House photo, is historic. We’re going to see it for the rest of our lives, in documentaries about Donald Trump’s impeachment and how we almost lost the American republic to a gang of tawdry, slow-witted, money-grubbing little boys who grew up mean and twisted. Nancy Pelosi’s role as the heroine in this drama is now a given.

As you probably know from yesterday’s news, the photo first became public when Trump tweeted it, with the caption “Nervous Nancy’s unhinged meltdown!”

Pelosi immediately made it her Twitter header photo, and the photo went viral.

Molly Roberts has a good column in this morning’s Washington Post, The Nancy Pelosi photo is a Rorschach test for an America cleaved into two. Molly Roberts is exactly right. What authoritarians like Trump and Trump supporters see in the photo is entirely different from what we liberals see.

Shortly after Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer walked out of the meeting, Pelosi held a press conference in which she talked about what happened in the meeting. (There’s a video clip from the press conference with Molly Roberts’ column.) Pelosi said, “At that moment, I was probably saying, ‘All roads lead to Putin.'”

To authoritarians, Trump is the Big Man. He is the bully-in-chief, their little God figure who belittles and pushes around all the people that right-wing authoritarians don’t like. He makes little dime-a-dozen authoritarians everywhere believe that he’s making them great again. To authoritarians, the very idea that a woman, any woman, would loom over Donald Trump at the White House cabinet table and tell the Big Man to his face that he is a traitor to the United States of America is highly offensive. If a woman like Nancy Pelosi is not supportive of Donald Trump, then she is supposed to be afraid of him. That’s the way things are supposed to work in the authoritarian utopia that we’re all expected to live in once all those feckless little authoritarians have made America great again.

On the other hand, we liberals don’t give a damn about authority and power. When authority is wrong and wicked, we stand up and say stick it up your nose. When power is corrupt and tells lies, we speak truth to it. Finger-wagging is optional, but standing up to deliver truth to power is essential. It’s the finger-wagging, though, that makes this photo so historic. Trump is being told just how little he really is. Notice how the old men to Trump’s right are hanging their heads, under the bust of Ben Franklin. The photo is perfect. It’s astonishing that an authoritarian mind such as Trump’s can think that the photo makes him look good and Nancy Pelosi look bad.

It wouldn’t hurt to keep in mind that Nancy Pelosi isn’t just anybody. She’s a very rich woman from San Francisco, and right now she is not only the most powerful woman in the country, she’s also the most powerful person in the country (and she knows it). She is third in line to the presidency as the law closes in on both Donald Trump and Mike Pence. Part of what the photo reveals is that the tables have turned. Trump’s weakness and bluster are exposed. Trump is already defeated, though the process for getting him out of the White House and off to prison will take a while longer.

Once Trump is gone, several million of his adoring followers are still going to be with us. It remains to be seen whether right-wing propaganda will try to find a new Trump and keep Trumpsters enraged or whether it will try to win them over to an old and boring standby such as Mitt Romney and a saner kind of politics. If the Republican Party should decide that yet more rage and division best serve its purposes, then we’re going to have millions of Trumpsters in our faces, their gloating turned to fury, some of them wanting civil war. Nancy Pelosi is setting an example. The law and the Constitution are on our side. We do not report to Vladimir Putin. We don’t have to take that sitting down.

But is it good writing?


The New Republic’s excellent obituary for Gene Wolfe points out that, as Notre Dame cathedral was burning back in April, word was flying around the Internet that Gene Wolfe had died. Lots of readers saw the strangeness of the coincidence, because, near the end of The Shadow of the Torturer, the narrator Severian sees what appears to be a vision:

“Hanging over the city like a flying mountain in a dream was an enormous building — a building with towers and buttresses and an arched roof. I tried to speak, to deny the miracle even as I saw it; but before I could frame a syllable, the building had vanished like a bubble in a fountain, leaving only a cascade of sparks.”

The book ends before the reader is told what Severian actually saw (it was not a vision, you’ll learn later in the series). Though Wolfe did not proselytize, he was a devout Catholic. “I do not write Catholic books intentionally,” Wolfe had once said. The New Republic’s obituary called Wolfe the Proust of science fiction. That gets it about right, I think.

I had not read Wolfe for many years, but a few days ago I shelled out $11.99 for a Kindle edition of The Shadow of the Torturer. That’s a lot of money for a Kindle book. For some reason, it’s almost impossible to find new science fiction that I find worth reading. So I thought why not catch up on some 1980s classics that I hadn’t read.

In the world of science fiction and fantasy, a holy war has gone on for decades about whether Wolfe was, or was not, a good writer. One Goodreads reviewer wrote, “I tried. Fuck it.” But Ursula K. Le Guin saw Wolfe’s novels as masterpieces.

I’m late to the Gene Wolfe holy war, but since the war has flared up again now that Wolfe has died, hand me my gun.

I probably was born wearing an editor’s visor with a book in my hand. I have rather strong opinions about whether writing is good or not. But of course, tastes differ. And there are many kinds of writing. No one can declare what good writing is; we can only read and argue.

The mind of a good editor, like the mind of a good writer and the mind of a good reader, is complex. But I would say that there are certain minimum standards that a piece of writing must meet before we can even ask the question whether it is good or not. I have two modes of editing. The first mode I call “bit level mode.” The second level I call “high altitude mode.”

Imagine that an editor is sitting in front of a computer with a piece of writing on the screen. The writer who wrote the piece of writing is sitting behind the editor. Often editors must edit without the writer present, but the collaborative mode of editing, with writer and editor side by side, works best. The writer sees what the editor is doing, and, if the editor is a good one, the writer sees why.

It’s in bit level mode that basic matters of grammar, syntax, and usage get worked out. I’ve often said that writers and editors must work very hard so that readers don’t have to. A piece of writing should be as friction free and transparent as possible, so that the reader can glide through it without ever having to stop and work out an ambiguity or a vagueness. For example, the word “live” can be a verb, or it can be an adjective. Upon hitting the word “live,” it must be clear to the reader from what preceded the word “live” whether it’s a verb (“to live well”) or an adjective (“live clams”). If that’s not clear, then the reader is obliged to read on to be able to determine how the word “live” was intended. In effect, the sentence must be read twice to be parsed correctly by the reader. That’s friction. A million little things like this get fixed during bit level editing.

High altitude editing is far more interesting. For this the writer and editor don’t sit at the computer. They go to lunch and drink.

If the piece of writing in question is a newspaper article about a county commissioners’ meeting (or even an important email or letter) then no high altitude lunch is needed at all. But if the piece of writing in question is a novel, or a memoir, then the high altitude elements are what matter most. (For an example of a beautifully written memoir from my own Acorn Abbey Books, see Denial.)

In my experience as a reader and editor, some people can write, and some people cannot. Plenty of people write who cannot write. I fling their books all the time after ten or twenty pages.

But how does one decide whether a writer can write or not? Again, there is no single standard. We can only argue. But if you asked me how I determine whether someone can write or not, it would be this: Writers either have, or do not have, an ear for their mother tongue. Editors often say that a certain writer has a “tin ear.” An ear for language is developed not only by reading, but also by listening — and by listening not only to language, but also to music (and poetry). I can speak here only for my own mother tongue, English. English has its own natural rhythms and musicality. Writing is like composing.

I’m going to come around to Gene Wolfe soon, I promise.

Anyway, if it’s philosophy we’re reading, we expect it to be dense and complex and wordy, because it has to be. But if a piece of fiction is dense and complex and wordy, then writers had better know what they’re doing.

As a prime example of a tin-eared writer of dense fiction, I’d suggest Hilary Mantel, whose writing in her novel about Thomas Cromwell I found not just bad but offensively, insultingly bad. This tends to happen when a writer is trying to cultivate a reputation for “style.” To me, a “style” just means quirky and irritating. It’s the sort of thing that creative writing teachers often encourage, and it produces the kind of dreadful novels that the New Yorker likes to review. I’ve also written here, some years ago, about the fascist, machine-gun rhythms of Ayn Rand’s prose.

Gene Wolfe’s writing is certainly complex. The reader does have to work at it a bit, though the prose easily passes all the tests that prose must pass during bit level editing. But what makes Wolfe’s writing work is that Wolfe has an ear for English. That’s what makes all the difference. He’s a composer. He’s also a philosopher.

And with that I’ll leave you with a sample, so that you can decide for yourself:

It was on that walk through the streets of still slumbering Nessus that my grief, which was to obsess me so often, first gripped me with all its force. When I had been imprisoned in our oubliette, the enormity of what I had done, and the enormity of the redress I felt sure I would make soon under Master Gurloes’s hands, had dulled it. The day before, when I had swung down the Water Way, the joy of freedom and the poignancy of exile had driven it away. Now it seemed to me that there was no fact in all the world beyond the fact of Thecla’s death. Each patch of darkness among the shadows reminded me of her hair; every glint of white recalled her skin. I could hardly restrain myself from rushing back to the Citadel to see if she might not still be sitting in her cell, reading by the light of the silver lamp.

We found a cafe whose tables were set along the margin of the street. It was still sufficiently early that there was very little traffic. A dead man (he had, I think, been suffocated with a lambrequin, there being those who practice that art) lay at the corner. Dr. Talos went through his pockets, but came back with empty hands.

“Now then,” he said. “We must think. We must contrive a plan.”

Soup season, at last



And all at once, summer collapsed into fall.” — Oscar Wilde


One of the things I learned in Scotland this summer is that my culture of origin — Southern American — is not really a soup culture, though maybe it would be more accurate to say that the climate of the American South is not really a soup climate. Not until cool weather arrives do the soup pots come out (if anybody other than me still uses soup pots).

In Scotland, especially in the Highlands and islands, soup is welcome on the table year round. Even in August, a friend who grew up in rural Ireland made some amazingly imaginative vegetarian soups. In these parts, you’d get some funny looks (and, in some households, shot) if you put hot soup on the table in August.

This year, August just wouldn’t go way. Summer persisted until early October with highs in the 90s, and then at last the weather changed. I turned off the cooling system and flung open the windows to let the nip in. While the cat sat in the window and pressed her nose against the screen to eye the birds, I was eyeing a soup pot and checking the contents of the fridge. For the first fall soup, I decided on a simple potato soup with onions, celery, and a whiff of garlic.

The challenge with vegetarian soups is the stock. I almost never buy ready-made soup stocks. Lord knows what’s in them. And the vegetarian versions almost always have some kind of weird, strong flavor that jumps into the foreground. The stock is a soup’s background. It should be savory but subtle. Another problem with store-bought soup stocks is that they’re mostly heavy liquid that weighs down the grocery bags. They’re not worth lugging home. My usual solution is the family of bouillons made by Better Than Bouillon. They’re light in the grocery bag, very concentrated, and they keep forever in the refrigerator. And let’s not forget that water makes a big difference. The water here comes from my own deep well (305 feet, with the lower 270 feet of it solid rock), and the drinking and cooking water goes through a charcoal filter.

There is no milk or cream in this soup. I thickened it by whizzing most of the potatoes in the blender when the soup was almost done. I also added some tahini. (Mix liquid slowly into the tahini to make a smooth sauce before adding it to the soup). Nut butters make great thickeners for soups. Peanut butter goes well in any soup that contains tomatoes. Tahini can stand in for milk or cream. This would have been a vegan soup except that it contained a little butter. I cooked it very slowly for three and a half hours, barely bubbling, covered.

Speaking of soup pots, I’m very happy with my new scheme of using only old-fashioned cookware. For sauces, sautéeing, and reducing, I’m using heavy tin-lined copper pots, vintage, bought on eBay. For frying and baking, I’m using cast iron, including a cast iron wok. For soups and anything that wants to boil, I’m using vintage Corning Visions cookware bought on eBay. Using glass cookware is a bit eccentric, but I like it because glass is so inert and does not affect the flavor of things — a particular problem with things such as soups and stews that cook long and slow.

A history of tyrants



Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror. Waller R. Newell, Cambridge University Press, 2016. 254 pages.

The Crisis of Church and State 1050-1300. Brian Tierney, Prentice-Hall, 1964. 212 pages.


One book leads to another. While reading Nigel Tranter’s historical novel Sword of State, set in Scotland in the early 1200’s, one thing that struck me was the niceness of the Scottish and English kings compared with the nastiness of the pope. The pope (Innocent IV) was constantly trying to lord it over the kings, wanting money, armies, and more power. The pope’s beating-stick was excommunication, and his carrot was get-out-of-hell-free cards. The pope’s representative was forever schlepping back and forth from Rome with some threat or demand or another. The pope also was politically stupid and fell for the conspiracy theories of wicked nobles who hatched plots to pit the pope against the crown in hopes of getting the crown for themselves. As for the armies and the money, the pope needed that for his genocidal holy wars in the “Holy Land.”

Tranter’s fictional account made me wonder whether the 13th Century popes really were that bad. That led me to a classic work on this subject, Brian Tierney’s The Crisis of Church and State 1050-1300. Yes, the popes really were that bad.

Part of the beauty of Tierney’s book is that he lets the popes speak for themselves by quoting from the bulls and decrees that the popes were forever cranking out. English translations of medieval church documents are not all that easy to come by, even now — especially the ugly bits. It’s strange, but much of the history of the church remains available only to those who read Latin. Most of those who read Latin — at least so it seems to me — are Catholic historians and theologians, who are happy to tell us about the pretty parts and let the ugly bits remain untranslated on backroom shelves at the older universities. In any case, the popes of the 13th Century were villains who lusted for riches and earthly power. Not only did they claim power over kings, one of them even claimed to own all the riches of the entire material world. If you crossed a pope, he’d consign you to hell, and of course people believed then that popes had the power to do that. The constant conflict between Pope Boniface VIII and Phillip IV of France was particularly vicious. Both were tyrants, and eventually they pretty much destroyed each other. Tyrant or not, I found myself cheering for Phillip IV. And frankly, I think we should be grateful to every king who ever told a pope to kiss his ass, including Henry VIII of England. Henry was a tyrant, but at least he freed England, early on, from the tyranny of Rome (if not from the soon-to-come Puritan Cromwell and the Reformation).

I considered reading more about this war between kings and popes in the 13th Century, but I realized that what I was really interested in was the history of tyrants. That led me to a quite new book on this subject, Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror.

Newell is skeptical of the idea that there is an arc of history that bends toward justice. His evidence is stark enough. That’s that some of the worst and most murderous tyrants in history are from the 20th Century. Newell describes three categories of tyrants: garden variety tyrants, who exploit a country for their own fun and profit; reforming tyrants, who often use their tyranny to do some good; and “millenarian” tyrants, who have some kind of mystical vision of a heaven on earth that can be achieved only by terror and genocide. As examples of reforming tyrants, think of Alexander the Great, or some of Rome’s emperors. The millenarian tyrant, Newell believes, did not exist until relatively recently. Robespierre was the first, followed by Stalin, Hitler, Chairman Mao, and Pol Pot.

Wikipedia’s definition of millenarian is: “the belief by a religious, social, or political group or movement in a coming fundamental transformation of society, after which ‘all things will be changed.'” In our time, millenarianism has particularly close connections to Christianity.

Newell’s book was published in 2016, too early for Trump. But Newell has a great deal to say about Vladimir Putin, whom he describes as a “reformer and kleptocrat with a dash of the millenarian.” Among Putin’s worst deeds, Newell cites Putin’s treatment of Ukraine. I Googled to try to discover what Newell thinks of Trump, and all I found was this article from 2016, before Trump even took office. Newell writes that, though Trump is a demogogue “who mirrors the worst qualities of the mob,” Trump is not a fascist, as Robert Kagan had argued in the Washington Post. Newell’s point is that it’s wrong to compare Trump with a Hitler or a Stalin, who were responsible for the deaths of millions. Fair enough.

If you asked me, I would say that Trump is a garden variety tyrant. Trump is a kleptocrat, in it for the money and power and the pleasure of dominating others. Trump is far too stupid and idea-free to have any interest in reform. And though many of Trump’s base (evangelicals who think that Trump was sent by God, for example) are millenarians, Trump is just too petty, lazy, and self-absorbed to be a dreamer or utopian.

Speaking of Trump, I have been as absorbed in the slow train wreck of Trump’s destruction as I’m sure the rest of you have. I haven’t posted about Trump for more than a week because events are moving so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. Plus, I think that the media (that excludes Fox News, of course) are getting things about right. Impeachment has become a media circus, a roadside crash from which we can’t avert our eyes, just like Trump’s campaign in 2016. Trump rode the media circus up back then, and now the media circus will ride Trump all the way down. There’s a sick justice in that. Television ratings enabled his rise, and now television ratings will drive the exposure of his crimes and the spectacle of his fall.

Though I admit that I am enjoying the Schadenfreude of watching Trump supporters’ taunting and gloating turn into panic and rage, I’m also trying not to gloat — not yet, anyway. I believe that Nancy Pelosi was right to say that impeachment should be respectful, solemn, and worthy of the Constitution. Not until that process is done, and the last helicopter comes to carry Trump away, can we break out the champagne and ring the church bells.

The next book I’m reading is coming in the mail today. The book is This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, by Peter Pomerantsev. Pomerantsev had an important op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday. The article is “Rudy Giuliani Welcomes You To Eastern Europe: So much about the Trump administration seems pulled from the playbook of a post-Soviet kleptocracy.” I have long been a student of propaganda, always interested in reverse-compiling propaganda to try to work out whose purpose, and what purpose, it serves. In the 1970s, I spent hours listening to propaganda on shortwave radio, including Radio Moscow. The state of the art in deception and propaganda had passed from Hitler’s Germany to the Soviet Union. But something fundamental has changed between the Soviet era and the Putin era. Pomerantsev puts his finger on it. Once upon a time, propaganda contained ideas, and its purpose was to persuade. The new state of the art in propaganda is not about persuasion. It’s about keeping us confused — so confused that we give up on the idea of objective truth. This perverts the media and paralyzes the work of democracy.

As I have said here before, it’s no longer regarded as “serious” to use the word propaganda. As an academic friend said recently in an email, “We’re not allowed to study or discuss propaganda.” It is bold for Pomerantsev to even use the word propaganda in the New York Times. As I see it, we are all swept up in a world war of propaganda (Pomerantsev calls it information warfare), but for some reason we’re not supposed to talk about it. I believe this is because our mainstream media remains stuck in dangerous journalistic ethic that requires it to repeat lies in the name of fairness and balance. This ethic is at last being challenged. Jennifer Rubin wrote about it yesterday in the Washington Post: “The media figured it out, just in the nick of time.” That’s also what we saw on Meet the Press last Sunday, when Chuck Todd berated Sen. Ron Johnson because Johnson wouldn’t answer a question and instead kept repeating “Fox News conspiracy propaganda stuff.” Note that Todd also used the forbidden word propaganda.

I remain optimistic that, when the dust settles, Donald Trump will be in prison, the deplorables will go off and sulk in their stinky corners rather than gloating in our faces, and the media will have learned a lesson about letting liars get away with lying. But we need to buckle up, because we’re not there yet.

I’ll have a review of Pomerantsev’s book soon.


Update:

Before I leave the subject of Trump and tyranny, we should remind ourselves of a point that is a little outside the scope of Newell’s book. That’s that tyrants — especially tyrants of the millenarian sort — appeal to a frighteningly large portion of the population. Tyrants depend on these people for their political support and for getting the dirty work done. Both Stalin and Hitler were widely popular, as is Donald Trump.

The history of meanness and the history of tyrants really are the same. The photo below was taken in a lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963. You can be pretty sure that those white teenagers in the photo are now old white Republicans who have hitched their meanness to Trump’s tyranny.

This is about law and justice, not politics


It is not surprising that, the morning after Nancy Pelosi announced the beginning of formal impeachment against Donald Trump, the blither-blather in the media is all about politics. Impeachment certainly has political consequences. But must we agree that the impeachment process as specified in the Constitution is inherently a political rather than a legal process? To make that claim is tantamount to saying that facts and the law don’t really matter, that only the polls matter, or how senators would vote if the House sends impeachment to the Senate.

Nancy Pelosi’s short statement yesterday was a masterpiece. Clearly she was speaking to history, focused on the law, the evidence, and the Constitution. No doubt Nancy Pelosi has done, and is doing, plenty of political calculus. But politics is secondary. Regardless of the political consequences, Donald Trump must be taken down because he is a dangerous criminal whose goal is to turn the American democracy into a Russia, with Donald Trump as the American Putin. Even if bringing Trump to justice is somehow politically damaging to the Democratic Party, as some of the blither-blather predicts (I disagree), then impeachment must be done anyway. As Nancy Pelosi said, no one is above the law.

One of the factors that makes this morning’s blither-blather ridiculous is the assumption that the impeachment investigation in the House of Representatives won’t uncover and prove the facts of Trump’s crimes. It will. Those facts will be devastating to Trump and will horrify the American people, with the exception, of course, of the 22 percent or so (the “base”) that will unquestioningly follow Trump all the way to hell.

Regular readers here know that my expectation for a long time has been that Donald Trump is going to prison and that he is not likely to even finish his term, let alone run again in 2020. I hold that view simply because Trump has committed so many crimes in so many jurisdictions. His being installed in the White House surrounded by goons gives him many ways to throw sand into the machinery of investigation and justice. Part of his strategy is to posture as such a Big Man that the law and mere snowflakes in the Democratic Party can’t touch him. But Trump will be brought to justice, and he will go to prison. If he doesn’t, then the American democracy and the rule of law will have been defeated. We will have become Russia. But I don’t believe that will happen.

You can be certain that the Republican Party is doing political calculus. For example, yesterday the U.S. Senate was very quick to hold a 100-0 vote on a resolution calling for the release of the whistleblower report to Congress. That was a warning to Trump about how quickly the Republican Party will turn on him, when that becomes necessary. It will become necessary when Republican political calculus sees that Trump is going down and that Trump must be thrown under the bus to try to salvage the 2020 election. My expectation continues to be that Trump will resign sometime before March 2020, when the first state primaries will be held. An earlier resignation would benefit the Republican Party, because states with early primaries have filing deadlines in late 2019. The Republican Party has repeatedly shown that party power is all that matters. The moment Republicans determine that Trump is a loser, they will turn on him. The Republican Party will do everything it can to avoid chaos in fielding a new candidate for 2020 after Trump goes down.

Yes, Trump will be looking for some kind of deal in exchange for resignation. But no deal will keep him out of prison, because his crimes in New York State cannot be pardoned or bargained away. Trump’s dream, of course, is a criminal dynasty with Ivanka or Junior up next. But they’re going to prison, too.

I am not claiming to have a crystal ball. I hold the views I hold because I believe that the law is much bigger than Donald Trump, because many of his crimes have already been exposed (if not yet proven and displayed to the American people) and are sufficient to keep him in prison for the rest of his life, and because I see Nixon’s resignation as a template for what the Republican Party will do upon concluding that Trump is doomed.

Nigel Tranter


I wish I could say that the prolific historical novelist Nigel Tranter left us with a rich and readable lode of historical novels set in Scotland. Unfortunately, I cannot say that, having just finished Sword of State.

Sword of State opens in the year 1214, when the young Patrick, the 5th Earl of Dunbar, is sent by his father to take a message to the even younger King Alexander II of Scotland, who has just ascended to the throne. The two young royals immediately become fast friends. For the remainder of his life, Patrick was friend and fixer to King Alexander.

Tranter cranked out something like 90 novels in his long life. He died in 2000 at the age of 90. Sword of State has a 1999 copyright. Tranter wrote this novel when he was approaching 90 years old.

As a novel, Sword of State fails. Many of the most important ingredients of a good novel — mystery, subplot, suspense, emotion, complexity — are missing. What kept me going is that I greatly liked the characters, and it mattered that they were once real. Tranter’s career as a writer started with an interest in castles. So there is plenty of castle atmosphere. Clearly Tranter also was fascinated with maps and terrain, and my guess is that he visited and was familiar with most of the settings. Detailed topographical maps of Scotland would make a handy guide when reading Tranter. As with Tolkien, I learned new words for types of terrain and water, such as “mull,” “kyle,” and “burn.” This novel would be quite rewarding to a reader whose main interest is what life might have been like in 13th Century Scotland. But its weakness as a novel is that the narrative, long on exposition and short on action, follows a simple and single trajectory as Tranter checks off the main events in the lives of Patrick and Alexander. Characterization, and some of the dialogue, is pretty good, though.

According to the Wikipedia article on Tranter, his novels are “deeply researched.” No doubt that is true, though I wonder what his sources were. This taste of Tranter left me wanting to know more about early Scottish history.

If this novel has a villain, it’s the church. This does not surprise me. My guess would be that Tranter would agree that the Celtic world would have been vastly better off if the church had never existed. Tranter’s churchmen are greedy for land, money, and power. Popes should have names such as Avarice III or Ruthlessness VI rather than, say, Celestine IV.

I was angry when I finished this book, because of how Patrick died — miserably and uselessly, far from his Scottish home. He was killed in the Seventh Crusade. This crusade was sponsored by Pope Innocent IV, who pressured kings, including of course Alexander, to send money and men to fight “the infidels.” This particular bit of madness and genocide by the church cost 1.7 million lives.

Pope Innocent IV, by the way, was executing a decree written by Innocent III, Quod super his: “Innocent decides that if a non-believer refuses to accept and adopt the teachings of Christ, he is not truly a full human being and therefore is undeserving of humane treatment and subject to force.” This decree was used in the 19th Century to justify American genocide against native Americans. Some kinds of people never change. Today’s politics and the theologies that go along with it didn’t just come out of nowhere, did they?

Video: the Isle of Lewis and Harris


Here’s my video from last month’s hiking trip on the Isle of Lewis and Harris. I decided not to add a music soundtrack to this video. You’ll hear what the camera heard — mostly wind and water. This is a high-definition video, but you should be able to select lower definition in the toolbar if your Internet connection is slow. But watch it on a big screen, if you can.