Thursday, March 31, 2016

Man in the High Trump Castle

Too bad Phillip K. Dick isn’t around anymore. What would his Man in the High Trump Castle look like in terms of a picture of the United States under President Trump? Of course there would be an enormous wall running all along the border with Mexico and the complexion of the electronics gadgets that people own would also be radically changed since they would be fewer and more expensive with protective tariffs making it impossible for Chinese or Japanese products to be sold in the US. Now you would pay double for your MacBook Air manufactured here in the States and of course double for your Honda, Toyotas and Subarus. But what a good thing this would be since there would be much more intensive share-a-ride programs which would also lessen traffic. As for cellphones and computers, Americans would become much more communal and in fact large kibbutzim would open up expressly to enable middle class families to stream their favorite Amazon series. While there wouldn’t necessarily be more rich people, the same old ones who were rich would continue to get richer in order to facilitate more supply side economics. In fact Donald Trump himself would become so rich that he could employ both Polish workers and Americans on all his jobs and keep everyone happy. This would be one of the most important consequences of trickle down economics. Now on to foreign policy. President Trump's treatment of captured terrorists would rival any of the excesses of the Inquisition. Tomas de Torquemada would be proud. For every beheading, in fact, another jihadist would be placed in the Large Hadron Collider and turned into a Boson. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth would be an important element of our justice system. There would be no more problems with Kim Jong-un as North Korea would be no more. Yes, the bad news would be that the population of the country would be annihilated, but the good news would be that there would be no need to worry about whether our sanctions were taking effect. Similarly, Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda would all have virtually disappeared along with the territories in which they once operated. Oh, finally on the matter of health care. Naturally Obamacare would be successfully repealed and President Trump would be reassuring about the fact that everyone would be taken care of, though some would claim his assurances were as worthless as the paper on which some graduates claim their degrees from Trump University have been issued.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Austin City Limits: The Philosopher's Rock

photograph of The Philosopher's Rock by Hallie Cohen
You might want to visit the Philosopher's Rock next time you're in Austin. It’s located in Zilker Park and commemorates the regular meetings of the naturalist Ray Bedichek, the chronicler and folklorist ,J. Frank Dobie and the historian Walter Prescott Webb who gathered regularly in a kind of Socratic discussion to hash out the problems of the world. It’s the perfect complement to Austin’s famed capital dome which portentously captures your eye as you  gaze down Congress Avenue, one of the city major thoroughfares. One of the side pleasures of visiting the Philosopher’s Rock is the proximity to Barton Springs Pool, a natural wonder resulting from underground streams that afford a respite from the city’s burning summer heat. When you first see Barton Springs you think you’re looking at a very large swimming pool, until you realize, the pool is natural and surpasses Olympic proportions. Like a lot of things in Texas, it’s larger than life. The Zilker Botanical Garden is another nearby attraction which amongst its many delights also includes a taste of Japanese horticulture in a Texas setting. Austin may be landlocked, but it’s not lacking in water sports. On a warm night you can join the crowds lined up against the fence of the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge (famous for harboring the largest urban bat colony in the North America) to watch the sculls racing up and down Lady Bird Lake, whose paths are always filled with joggers running with or against the tides. Wonder what the philosophers would have said? Is the world in a constant state of flux, as Heraclitus argued, or is it stoic and unchanging, the view of Eleatics, like Zeno, whose famous paradox, about the tortoise and Achilles might find a fertile testing ground in this famed legislative seat.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Austin City Limits: Do What I Say

LBJ  Presidential Library (photograph by Hallie Cohen)
When Lyndon Baines Johnson left office he travelled around Austin in a Lincoln Continental with the Seal of the Presidency on the door and two flags on the front. The Lincoln Continental it should be pointed out was the limousine used at the funerals of both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the North Korean despot and father to Kim Jong-un "Deeply Hated, but Present: a U.S. Touch at Kim's End," NYT, 12/28/11). Vladimir Putin has been compared to a reptile ("The Accidental Autocrat," The Atlantic, 3/05) but Johnson exhibited the territoriality of a dog, famously shaking his beloved "Jumbo" at colleagues who were unfortunate enough to be in his proximity in the congressional bathroom. Johnson died of the a massive heart attack at the age of 64, but in the last two years of his life he held court in the replica of his Oval office that was recreated in the LBJ Presidential Library. Both the limousine and the office are still on exhibit today in the library, which is on the campus of the University of Texas adjacent to the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs. Johnson recorded all his phone calls and you can hear him berating Adam Clayton Powell and jollying up the Washington Post’s Katharine Graham. But one of the most dramatic parts of the library is the floor to ceiling manifolds of all the bills Johnson managed to get through congress. You might be one of those whose view of Johnson’s legacy as being stained by his prosecution of the Vietnam War (remember "hey, hey LBJ, how may kids have you killed today?") but if nothing else the library points to his huge contribution as a Roosevelt Democrat who earned his stripes in the gritty hard boiled world of Texas populist politics. Lyndon Johnson championed the Great Society which would eventually comprise The Civil Rights Acts of l964 and the Voting Rights Act of l965, Pell grants, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities,  Head Start, VISTA—in short the world of entitlements which Republicans have spent decades trying to do away with and which they are still fighting to remove today. Johnson’s biographer Robert Caro is quoted as saying: “Abraham Lincoln struck off the chains of black Americans but it was Lyndon Johnson who led them into voting booths, closed democracy’s sacred curtain behind them, placed their hands upon the lever that gave them a hold on their own destiny, made them, at last and forever, a true part of American political life.” Johnson wrote his own epitaph in his final State of the Union address in l969 with these words: Now, it is time to leave. I hope it may be said, a hundred years from now, that by working together we helped to make our country more just, more just for all of its people, as well as to insure and guarantee the blessings of liberty for all of our posterity. That's what I hope. but I believe that at least it will be said we tried." Would another way to describe Johnson's legacy simply be, "do what I say, don't say what I do?" But what kind of a politician employs the kind of ballot fraud that Robert Caro claims went into the l948 senatorial election? How is pure unmitigated ambition countermanded by a sense of purpose? Here was a man who plainly wanted to make his mark but to what extent was the opportunism mixed with a bona fide vision? The LBJ Library Presidential Library is a historical treasure and testament to the complex character of the 36th president of the United States.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Austin City Limits: Wagon Train

photograph of Austin Food Trailer by Hallie Cohen
Every city has its indigenous style of food. In Philadelphia you have the cheesesteak. Chicago is famous for deep dish pizza. In Austin it’s not the what is served (although Austin boasts establishments like Torchy's Tacos where President Obama recently made a pit stop), so much as how it’s served which is in trailer courts—that will probably remind you of the way covered wagons used to huddle together around the campfire on  westerns like Wagon Train. Picnic benches are set up in dirt and gravel lots that lie in the shadow of rentals, like The Coldwater, obviously named for another Austin institution, the spring fed Barton Springs Pool. The independent spirit of Texans and particularly Austin dwellers is often reflected on the advertising. Here are some sample inscriptions from one trailer: “It’s been our pleasure to insult you,” “Gluten allergies? Really? Cowboy up, you wussy.” “We got the goods, we don’t need to be nice.” And  here are some specialties from that self same traveling kitchen. The Shiner, the Lone Star BLT, the Spicy Southwest Reuben, the Texas Mesquite Turkey. The atmosphere is definitely put up or shut up, but you won’t be disappointed. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues might or might not be the mantra for these hard working chefs.

Friday, March 25, 2016


In his l968 film Skammen (Shame) Ingmar Bergman tied the personal to the political in exploring the emotions of a couple who escape war torn Europe by living on an isolated Island. Bergman famously lived on the Island of Faro though that didn’t spare him the shame of pursuit by Sweden’s tax authorities and the humiliation of self-imposed exile to Berlin as a result of the scandal. Shame is a potent emotion in many Bergman films and it's certainly a universal. Shame was also the title of Steve McQueen's 2011 film in which Michael Fassbender played a sex addict. Remember those childhood dreams of being caught with your pants down and how they anticipated the humiliations of adulthood in which you lived in fear of having your foibles exposed? You may have acted like a coward when you wanted to be a fearless tough guy. You found yourself troubled by an attraction to someone of the same sex when, however enlightened you might have been sexually, you still gloated over being straight. At the end of the film Bergman’s protagonists Eva (Liv Ullmann) and Jan (Max Van Sydow) find themselves on a boat riding through a sea of bodies.  In this crossing of a figurative Styx even their Charon has perished; their purgatory is to drift without direction to the underworld. “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” says Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus. But what is the eponymous shame that constitutes Eva and Jan’s literal and metaphoric hell and is it real? You are ashamed of being naked because there's nothing to cover up what you’ve become, what you are. Bergman made his film during the height of the Vietnam war and of course if you are responsible for the My Lai massacre you have something to be ashamed about. But the average human being suffers from a shame that’s an embarrassment at being. Even if they aren’t guilty of any crimes, no one wants to be known, no one wants to have their limitations exposed. “Like a dog,” he said. It was as if the shame of it would out live him,” are the last lines of Kafka’s The Trial.