Impromptus

Mad dogs, flutists, &c.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis re-enlists members of the Third U.S. Infantry Regiment during a ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in September. (Photo: Technical Sergeant Brigitte N. Brantley)
On diplomacy, the FBI, ‘fake news,’ the GOP, Macron, and more

Reading about Jim Mattis, I thought of Frederick the Great. As this report tells us, Mattis visited troops at Fort Bragg. (He is the secretary of defense, as you know.) He said that “storm clouds are gathering” over the Korean Peninsula. He said that diplomacy has the best chance of preventing a war if it is backed up by arms — a strong, capable military.

“My fine young soldiers,” said Mattis, “the only way our diplomats can speak with authority and be believed is if you’re ready to go.”

Do you remember Frederick the Great? “Diplomacy without arms,” said the king, “is like music without instruments.” It might have been natural for Frederick to think of this simile, as he was a serious musician: a flutist and a composer.

With every passing month, Jim Mattis strikes me as one of the wisest men in our public life.

•  For those troops, Mattis had a book recommendation: T. R. Fehrenbach’s This Kind of War: A Study in Unpreparedness (1963). It, too, is about the Korean Peninsula.

•  On Twitter, some people have been circulating a tweet from November 3, 2016 — five days before the presidential election. It was written by Sarah Sanders, who is now President Trump’s press secretary. She said, “When you’re attacking FBI agents because you’re under criminal investigation, you’re losing.”

Remember the circumstances: James Comey, then the director of the FBI, dropped a bomb on Hillary Clinton eleven days before the election. In a letter, he said that the investigation into her e-mails was being renewed. (Two days before the election, he said there was nothing to it.)

These days, of course, Trump & Co. are attacking the FBI vigorously. (Trump & Co. are under investigation.)

The older you get, the more you realize that principle plays just a small role in politics. Ethics are strictly situational. They depend on what jersey you’re wearing. They depend on which way the wind is blowing.

In 2016, the Kremlin of Vladimir Putin worked to elect Trump and defeat Clinton. Therefore, the Democrats are screaming bloody murder and the Republicans are shrugging, or making excuses. The Democrats want to get to the bottom of it; the Republicans want to “move on.”

If the Kremlin had worked to elect Clinton and defeat Trump, Republicans would be screaming bloody murder and the Democrats would be shrugging, etc. They would be back to their old mantra, “Move on.”

This is human. It is also a shame.

•  On Sunday, Trump tweeted, “The Fake News refuses to talk about how Big and how Strong our BASE is. They show Fake Polls just like they report Fake News.” Trump has long capitalized nouns (German-style). But the capitalization of adjectives such as “Big” and “Strong,” I’m not sure I’ve seen. Anyway, I want to make a point about the “Fake News” tactic.

Trump’s men have picked it up. His ambassador to the Netherlands is Pete Hoekstra, and in an interview Hoekstra was asked about statements he had made in 2015. He said, for example, that there were “no-go zones” in the Netherlands, because of violent Muslims. In the interview, he denied making these statements, accusing his interviewer of “fake news.”

The interviewer then played videotapes, proving that Hoekstra had made the statements. So where, the interviewer wondered, was the fake news? Hoekstra then denied having accused the interviewer of fake news, which he had done just moments before.

This is Kafkaesque — or rather, Trumpian. But what happened later is not Trumpian at all: Hoekstra apologized.

To read about these matters, and watch videotape, go here and here.

•  Charlie Dent is a veteran GOP congressman who has chosen to retire. He had some interesting things to say about his party. In former times, he said, he was scolded for not being pure enough — for not being doctrinaire enough. These days, it’s different.

“It’s not about ideology anymore. It’s about loyalty to the president. Now the litmus test has changed. The issue is loyalty to the man, to the president. And for some, you know, loyalty is not enough — you have to be angry and aggrieved.”

Dent would know far more about this than I do — contrary to what people often say, politicians, more than anyone else, have their finger on the pulse of the public — but his words line up exactly with my own experience.

(I have been quoting, incidentally, from this article.)

•  Reading a report out of Paris, I thought, “Macron may be in a Romney position: reviled as a barbarian by the Left and reviled as a ‘cuck’ by the Right.” The report begins,

It’s getting colder, the clock is ticking and regional authorities are scrambling to meet President Emmanuel Macron’s deadline: get migrants off France’s streets and out of forest hideouts by year’s end.

The report continues,

That won’t likely happen, and Macron’s government is now tightening the screws: ramping up expulsions, raising pressure on economic migrants and allowing divisive ID checks in emergency shelters.

One more paragraph:

Critics contend that Macron’s increasingly tough policy on migrants — though wrapped in a cloak of goodwill — contradicts his image as a humanist who defeated an anti-immigrant populist for the presidency, and has crossed a line passed by no other president in the land that prides itself as the cradle of human rights.

You see what I mean? I can tell you for sure that the Right — certainly of the Trumpian, Orbánite flavor — despises Macron. The Left seems no less enamored. But will others, who don’t belong to either camp, appreciate him?

•  This is an article about Charles Dutoit, the Swiss conductor, who has been accused of sexual assault. Though the topic of the article is very serious, I wish to make a language point, or a language-related point: The article says that Dutoit has been accused by “three opera singers and a classical musician.” This brings up the old question, Are opera singers classical musicians? Are they musicians?

I’ve seen newspapers that have two different headings, two different categories: “Classical Music” and “Opera.” This could be for mere convenience — obviously, Fidelio, let’s say, is an example of classical music — but the division is interesting nonetheless.

Many years ago, talking to Leontyne Price (the great soprano), I referred to her as a “musician.” She stood up (she had been seated) and said, “Thank you for calling me a musician.”

On another occasion, I made a mistake. I had heard a performance of Bach’s B-minor Mass, and was praising certain singers in it. I added, “The musicians were good too,” meaning the orchestra. A singer who heard me was none too pleased.

On the subject of sexual harassment and assault, I want to tell you something. I once asked Beverly Sills — another great American soprano — about Georg Solti, the late Hungarian-born conductor. She answered, “You’re looking at the girl who broke his hand!” Solti had chased her around a piano. She had slammed the lid on his hand — meaning he didn’t conduct that night.

•  I thought of something over Christmas. A long time ago, I heard a wife say this about her husband: “When he gets within 25 miles of his mom’s house, he becomes completely helpless.”

That rings true, right?

•  Speaking of homes — I have a great place-name for you: Hog Jowl Road in Chickamauga, Ga. I know a man who lives on that road.

•  Stay in the South for a moment. Did you see this video? It’s of a peanut farmer, attending a Roy Moore rally in Alabama, to protest. (To protest Moore and his brand of politics.) The man had had a lesbian daughter, whose picture he held. She killed herself. He maybe hadn’t treated her so well. He was filled with regret. This video is one of the most intense, and intensely human, things I have seen in a long time. The best moviemakers in Hollywood couldn’t have produced it.

•  An actress named Hiep Thi Le died. I read her obituary in the New York Times. Age nine, she escaped Vietnam, becoming one of the “boat people”:

Her father had already left the country, and her mother arranged for her and a younger sister to steal away aboard a fishing boat.

“We were just told by my mom that we had to go look for Dad,” she once told an interviewer, “and that he had gone to someplace called America, which we interpreted was the city across the river, since it had lights.”

Thanks for joining me, dear readers, and see you soon.

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