Impromptus

The upstate blues, &c.

Sign at the mostly unused Kodak factory in Rochester, N.Y., in 2013 (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)
On a Simpsons parody, anti-Semitism, inequalities, and more

I recently spent a few days in upstate New York — at Nazareth College, outside Rochester. Wonderful experience. I jotted a few lines about it in an Impromptus, here.

Last Sunday night, The Simpsons aired an episode called “D’oh, Canada.” The family took a trip to Niagara Falls, going through upstate New York. Homer sang a hilarious song — a parody song — about the region: its economic woes, its culture, its depopulation. A video is embedded in this article.

I shared the video with a friend of mine from upstate: He laughed his hiney off. We both agreed that an upstater, or more than one, on the staff of The Simpsons must have composed the parody. It has that kind of knowingness — a wicked, yet affectionate, knowingness.

Officials in the region acted in various Chamber of Commerce ways — how could they not? “Come to the fair!” said organizers of the New York State Fair.

That is a splendid experience, by the way. I went last September. Wrote about it here. At the same time, I did a “Syracuse Journal,” here. Let me quote one item from that journal, please.

On Saturday, late in the morning, I have a walk downtown. So many beautiful places. There’s no one but me and assorted vagrants. Most of them squint, glower, and smoke. Almost all of them have smartphones. There is everything but tumbleweed here.

Some neighborhoods in the city are now dilapidated, but you can tell that they were once something — handsome and prosperous.

The sight of Syracuse is a bit sad to me — because Syracuse seems like a city that was, rather than a city that is. I am familiar with such cities. We have a lot of them in my native Midwest. What can you do?

That is the subject of papers and books and prayers …

Yup.

For eons, there have been jesters, pointing out uncomfortable truths. (Sometimes the jesters are unfair and wrong, to be sure.) The Simpsons has performed the function of jester.

• Reading about Robert Caro, I thought of Richard Wagner. Hear me out. In order to set up my point, I’d like to quote from a Wall Street Journal article, published in February. Here we go:

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro will publish a book in April looking back at his life’s work.

Some of his fans would rather that, at age 83, he finished his life’s work.

Mr. Caro has written four volumes about President Lyndon Johnson, and his devotees have been waiting since 2012 for the next and final installment. So the coming release of “Working,” a memoir of his professional life, has been greeted with raised eyebrows.

“Jesus, Bob, you’ve left your fans hanging,” says Joe Kolman, a 64-year-old writer and documentary filmmaker in Queens, N.Y. “Have mercy on us! Reminisce all you want after you finish!”

Jim Sather, a retiree and former attorney who lives in a Chicago suburb, says he isn’t sure “Working” was a wise use of Mr. Caro’s time. “What the hell is he writing that book for?” says Mr. Sather, 71. “I’m not getting any younger and neither is he.”

Now to Wagner. Some years ago, I gave a speech about him, saying that he had, among other things, great confidence in his longevity. In his ability to finish his work. There was a sense of destiny about him. (Of course, he was an egomaniac.)

He started The Ring of the Nibelung, his great tetralogy (four-parter), in 1848. He finished the first two parts, “The Rhine Gold” and “The Valkyrie,” fairly rapidly — by 1856. He started on the third part, “Siegfried” — but then took a break. What? Yes — a long break.

He wrote Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Those two masterpieces took him about ten years. And then he resumed The Ring, finishing “Siegfried” and moving on to “The Twilight of the Gods.” He completed his project in 1874, 26 years after he had begun.

That’s confidence, baby.

• Wagner makes a good transition to anti-Semitism. In its international print edition, the New York Times published an anti-Semitic cartoon. Bret Stephens wrote about it: “A Despicable Cartoon in the Times.” The subtitle: “The paper of record needs to reflect deeply on how it came to publish anti-Semitic propaganda.”

This column was published in the Times itself, mind you — it is Stephens’s employer. How many other publications would allow one of their own to wallop them in their own pages?

Later, in an editorial, the Times walloped itself: here.

After the publication of the cartoon, a lot of us Times-bashers had a field day. (Though no one bashed the Times more effectively than the Times itself.) Are we as alacritous when something comes up on the right, however?

When I say “we,” I mean conservatives.

At the end of last year, The Weekly Standard was killed off by its owner. American Greatness magazine rejoiced. Referring to the Standard’s founding editor, William Kristol, the editor and publisher of American Greatness wrote, “Now, Kristol and others have moved on in search of a new host organism.”

That, of course, is language straight out of the ’30s. But did anyone on our side — anyone on the right — object? There was hardly a peep.

It could be that the offending writer knew not what he was doing. Sometimes that happens. I have written about it a fair amount. In 2008, a Republican congressman from Georgia said that Candidate Obama and his wife were “uppity.” After a reaction, he said he had no idea. A lot of people found this hard to believe. When I wrote about the issue, some readers e-mailed me to say, “I don’t generally think I live under a rock, but I had no idea either.”

Let me give you a memory. A long time ago — 2005 or so? — we at National Review were publishing a piece blasting George Soros. We commissioned an illustration that showed Soros as a spider, crouching on a map of Europe, spreading his web. Some of us were a bit uneasy about this illustration. But we didn’t want to be overly sensitive either.

I showed the cartoon to Mike Potemra. He said, “You know who else drew Jews as insects, don’t you?” (He meant the Nazis, of course.) We ditched the cartoon in favor of a boring old photo.

The Hungarian government, among others, is not so punctilious.

• Lately, I have seen a spate of articles on income inequality. This is a perennial issue, of course, but it has come up a lot in recent days. I myself am fairly relaxed about income inequality — if society at large is doing well. If all boats are rising, so to speak. But many people can’t abide the “gap”: the gap between the richer and the poorer. It is a mental thing, mainly.

Say I make $20,000 and you make $30,000. Someone comes along and doubles our wages. Now I make $40,000 and you make $60,000. The gap between us is twice as great. I don’t care. A lot of people do, trust me

I like to quote Daniel J. Hannan, who once wrote,

Would you rather live in a 1000 square foot house where everyone else’s was 800, or a 1200 square foot house where everyone else’s was 1400? I sometimes think it’s the most elemental question in politics. Where we stand on equality versus prosperity depends, more than we usually admit, on personality traits rather than logic. We start with an intuitive feel for what makes sense, and we elevate that instinct into a principle.

Margaret Thatcher gave an unforgettable performance regarding the “gap.” She was taking questions in Parliament. In reference to her socialist opponents, she said, “They would rather the poor were poorer, provided the rich were less rich.” She had some hand gestures to go with it.

To have a look, go here.

People often speak of “the wealth” — as in “control of the wealth” and “fair share of the wealth.” As though there were a bag of money or pot of gold somewhere. Fort Knox? “The wealth” is a cousin of “the pie.” These words betray a fundamental economic misunderstanding, from which a world of trouble comes.

You remember the Jeffersons theme song, right? It is a minor masterpiece. The ending lyric is, “We finally got a piece of the pie.” Wonderful lyric — but an economy is not a pie. If your slice is big, mine is not necessarily small. We’re not fighting over crumbs. An economy is as big and varied and flexible as people are allowed — by the rules of a free society — to make it.

End of sermon (for now).

No, one more word! In a free society, the rich will get richer and the poor will get richer and inequalities will be vast. Again, some people can’t abide this — and this is why a liberal economy, a free economy, will always be under attack from the ignorant, the malicious, the demagogic, and the power-seeking.

Beware, chillen. Beware of those demagogues, left and right.

• Earlier this week, I had the privilege of seeing Arthur Brooks’s new film, The Pursuit. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute. His film is about capitalism, and its relationship to human dignity and progress. It is a beautiful, wise film — traveling to India, Denmark, Appalachia, and elsewhere. Arthur is an evangelist for a free economy and freedom at large. He is especially good at explaining the moral aspect of capitalism — something poorly understood.

The Pursuit is a real service, to all of us.

• Ooh, I’ve got a lot more items for you, but I’m running long, and you don’t have all day, I know. Maybe two more items? Real short?

I loved this article on Josh Rosen, the young quarterback in the NFL. He has just had a bit of adversity — having to do with a trade. One of the things he said was, “I’m fine. It’s not like I’m some child soldier in Darfur. I’ve had it pretty good. I think it’s time I had some legitimate adversity handed to me.”

A neat guy, judging from this article.

• On Twitter, John Noonan, a national-security man, said, “I was just thinking, ‘Hell, I’ve been reading Impromptus for 15 years now.’” Impromptus began in 2001 — March, I believe. I said to John, “What took you so long?” I then related a little story.

In her retirement, I was talking to Leontyne Price, the great soprano. I said I had attended 13 of her recitals. She said, “So few?” I said, “I got a late start” (owing to my age).

• Just one more, if you don’t mind. The name of this company, on the side of a van, made me grin:

“Figlia” means “daughter” (in Italian). “Figlia & Sons” is kind of a funny phrase. Is the family name “Figlia”? Or is someone saying, in a sly way, “my daughter and my sons”?

At any rate, I appreciate your “tuning in” today, dear readers, and I’ll catch you later.

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