A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1904
January 15, 2018

How Many Enemies Do We Need

MONTPELIER – Mark Twain cautioned long ago: “Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel.” Not bad advice; not only should we avoid squabbling ,if possible, with a newspaper publisher, but in general consider who it is we’re challenging. I’ve followed the suggestion studiously most of my life. I’ll never forget the night a local boy picked a fight with a short, quiet young man at the bar of our pleasant little village saloon in northern New York. Too late, he discovered the young man was a favorite sparring partner of Carmen Basilio’s. Whoops! Those still living who were there speak of the brawl with awe.

Cyrano de Bergerac – portrayed most memorably by José Ferrer in an Oscar-winning performance – bore an outsized Pinocchio nose and a huge chip on his shoulder. An irrepressible romantic, poet, and duelist. he, too, picked his enemies carelessly. In the end, alone, but still defiant, he’s done in by those he’s offended – not in the open with rapiers, but with a rumbling farm wagon driven by midnight goons.

I mention these examples because the United States, under our Dear Leader, seems to be picking fights with almost the entire roster of nations on the planet and alienating the rest. Given that it’s probably not a very good idea, we need to wonder why. Is it simply a resurgence of isolationism, à la 1938 (an equally ill-timed withdrawal from world affairs), a chronic fit of presidential pique, or the misbegotten illusion that we’re better off going it alone? In any case, it’s troublesome.

Mother and I had the good fortune to be in France during the Clinton-Lewinski investigation and again during the presidency of Barack Obama. We found that the French, at least, follow our domestic affairs as closely and astutely as we do. They opined that forty million dollars (the cost of the Clinton investigation) was rather a high price to pay to nail down an incident of fellatio. Our François Mitterand, they proudly pointed out, has two wives. A street vendor selling crêpes from a cart gave us a thumbs-up when we answered that we liked our president a lot, but when we responded to a question about “Boosh,” grabbed himself in a way that would have done our present executive proud.

The president occasionally points out proudly that the whole world is watching us. That’s true; but the whole world is also a sucker for multiple-vehicle pileups on snowy interstates. And the rest of the world is more or less quietly getting on with its lives. Thwarted – or at least greatly inconvenienced – by the flaps over its northern border, Mexico has quietly turned southward and made lucrative trade deals with Argentina. While we argue over DACA, the budget, environmental regulations, and infrastructure, China is rapidly expanding its renewable energy programs and begun building a railway link across Kazakhstan to Europe that will revolutionize existing trade patterns. A prince of the British realm is being married and has apparently decided, in defiance of protocol, not to invite the president of Britain’s “closest ally.”

Most of us will admit that when we turn on the news, we’re half-hoping to be treated to the latest outrage by our executive. No other president has so dominated the news as has this one. Reminds me of an old cartoon showing Jack and Bobby Kennedy on a cloud in Heaven. Bobby, peering downward, says, “Looks like Teddy’s running again.” Jack answers, “What’s he done now?” Every day I find myself asking, how many enemies does Donald need? Why bother to antagonize people you don’t need to?

The primary campaign opponents he savaged with epithets seem to have swallowed the insults and decided to play nice. But why thump on the defeated candidate, Mrs. Clinton, unless to divert attention from something he or his campaign has done? Why fly in the face of recent history and the wave of the future by demanding transgender folks be demobbed? Why – can you imagine being one of his lawyers cautioning restraint? – accuse the Trump University case judge of bias because “he’s a Mexican”? Why threaten South Korea with changes in our relationship just when we need them most? And why – just the most recent flap, which may be eclipsed before this reaches print – betray so much prejudice by asking why we can’t stop admitting immigrants from “shithole countries” in the Caribbean and in Africa?

There seems to be utterly no Administrative concern for events in Yemen, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Myanmar, and others that could profit by our charitable attention, rather than having to listen to boasts about our bigger-button ability to create a worldwide holocaust. The other two national inhabitants of North America have been noticeably reticent in their criticisms, though the Mexicans reasonably object to the president’s characterizations of them as rapists, murderers, and thieves; and Canadians often object to our Internet-fueled canards about their national health system. They both seem to think of us as quarrelsome neighbors likely, some night, to burn our house down, and theirs along with it. How many more enemies do we need? The more we create, the harder it is for us to keep up with the rest of the world.

Photo by Willem lange