Trump and the Borgias: The Stuff of Great TV

Image of Jeremy Irons in the television series The Borgias as the PopeFive hundred years from now our present political confusions, conflicts, and outrages will become the stuff of high melodrama.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone would look back on this period of American history as entertainment, but they’re bound to, I expect.

Not Singin’ in the Rain entertainment, but certainly something like Wall Street or The Big Short.

That’s what’s happened to the legacy of Rodrigo Borgia, a.k.a. Pope Alexander VI, and his family of mistresses and illegitimate children. I’m nearly done with the third and final season of Showtime’s The Borgias. Created by Neil Jordan and starring Jeremy Irons as the lascivious, ambitious patriarch, it was advertised as “The Original Crime Family” to draw explicit connections to The Sopranos and The Godfather.

If the stories are true (which, to be fair, some historians are challenging), this Spanish family treated the papacy as a tool for acquiring power and wealth rather than as a profound spiritual responsibility. Rodrigo bought the papacy with a mule-train of gold, sold cardinal’s hats to increase the Vatican coffers, hosted elaborate orgies—even kept mistresses whilst pope. His son Cesare was an amoral cutthroat who wouldn’t flinch at assassination and regularly betrayed people—he became, in fact, one of the “heroes” of Machiavelli’s Prince.

Conflicts of interest and nepotism were almost de rigeur for this family. Foreign entanglements were an explicit strategy. [Read more…]

The Madding Crowd

Why is it that we so often gain courage or cowardice to do bad from other members of a group, but seldom the courage to do good? Why is it that the herd instinct kicks in mostly when the object is to tear something to shreds, like beasts? Or when we’re put in fear by a despot and cannot dare to be different from the rest of the craven lot who cower in the shadows, too terrified to stare him down? But when it comes to doing good, it is rarely the case that such a thing is done by cooperative effort.

Only mass catastrophes seem to prove the exception, and even then it is not so much the altruism of the crowd that proves influential as the jarring circumstances that jolt us into a selfless mode. More often than not, the good person must stand alone; the bad always has company.

Sadly, it is not particularly shocking that the American university campus, in increasingly numerous instances, has perverted one of its essential purposes—to provide a free exchange of thought and a civil place for debate. Instead of honoring the constitutive American right of free speech, however unsavory that speech may be in its particular iteration, we now have barbarous crowds who rampage over anything with which they disagree. The “heckler’s veto” has ended all discussion, as those who scream the loudest and shout the hardest foreclose any chance of civil discourse. [Read more…]

Share If You Agree

black and white film image of a bowler hat suspended over a bed of tall daisies I have had it with the rage.

It might drive me off social media.

At first, I thought it might just be a problem of living in metropolitan Washington, D.C., where the strident opinions held by many are usually interlinked with what they do for a living. No such luck, though: I’ve been on trips to Mississippi, California, and Texas in the past couple of years, and it has been just as bad there, too.

This social pose has driven me crazy for the past eight years, the ongoing and incessant braying that has filled up my Facebook notifications, the “Honk if I’m Paying Your Mortgage” and “I’ll Keep My Guns and Religion, and You Can Keep the Change” memes, which also appear on bumper stickers that I have to follow on the Beltway. [Read more…]

I Am an American

Shot of three buildings taken looking upward. Behind them, you can see the blue sky with a few clouds. The building in the forefront is to the left of the screen, tan, and has large windows. On a pole strung from the side is an American flag. The flag hangs limply. To the right of the frame, a tall metallic looking building with cross-cross panels of light and dark fills the sky. Behind the flag, in the background, is a tiered building that has a turret and tower at the top.I refresh the page, I refresh the page, I turn away for a few minutes, I teach a class for seventy-five minutes, I sit in a meeting for sixty minutes, and on the way to the meeting, on the way back to my office from the class, with my iPhone in my palm, at the computer on my desk, I refresh the page, I refresh the page, looking for the latest news, hopping over to Facebook for reactions to the morning’s tweets, back to the Times for an update on the latest leak and his response to the leak, looking for the next lie, on alert for the latest outrageously offensive remark.

These are my days now, my nights.

Work is an interruption. A chat with a friend is a partial interruption—for it’s impossible to get through even a short chat without a sigh, without alarm, without reference to what he’s doing and who he’s doing it to now. Picking up my prescription, reading what I’ve assigned my class (Joy Harjo! The Buddha’s Brain!), FaceTime with my grandson—these are interruptions, distractions.

I am a citizen now. I turn my attention back to the news.

What am I doing? What am I doing with you, news, what are you doing with me, news, not the full range of news:  Travel, Arts & Leisure, Sunday Styles, but the single-pointed concentration on news and opinion pieces on that man? [Read more…]

Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Our Rumbling Nation 

This is an age of the world when nations are trembling and convulsed. A mighty influence is abroad, surging and heaving the world, as with an earthquake. And is America safe? Every nation that carries in its bosom great and un-redressed injustice has in it the elements of this last convulsion.

As I was reading these lines from the final page of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I couldn’t help thinking of the current rumbling earthquake in our country. Though not yet with physical violence—or not much so far—we seem to be experiencing a sort of civil war.

Or, more accurately, an uncivil war.

This isn’t why I pulled Uncle Tom’s Cabin off my shelf and began re-reading the yellowed pages of my 1981 paperback edition. I’ve been interrogating the hundreds of books on my shelves: am I going to read you again, or am I going to throw you out, or pass you on to my church’s second-hand sale?

I hadn’t read Stowe’s 1852 masterpiece for decades, so figured it was time to give it another try. Though sometimes sentimental or melodramatic, it does hold up: it paints a multi-faceted picture of the various forms of evil that the institution of slavery took.

It’s commonplace (though true) to say that our country is still living with the after-shocks of this evil.  How many of the people who voted for Donald Trump did so in the spirit of backlash of having to live for eight years under a Black president? Of course, people’s motivations for voting are too complex to single out one factor.

Yet in campaigning, Trump did play the racist card. And so far, as President, he has slapped much of the deck onto the table: Mexicans, Muslims with non-European ethnicity, Native Americans who are resisting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. [Read more…]