So I’m feeling that empty feeling one has after Christmas or New Year’s Day or after the last episode of this season’s ‘The Americans.’ Like, wow, that was great and exciting and emotional and now…I’m so down without it. But I have started to realize that I find it bittersweet for another reason: the actor who plays Stan Beeman reminds me so much of my late brother. So much. So I like watching him because it’s a bit like having Alan around, but then it’s so tragic when he’s gone.
I am grateful that ‘The Americans’ does not appear to be going the way of Homeland, the most recent season of which seemed, as my Significant Other put it, to have been written by Barack Obama. For those of you who didn’t watch Homeland this season: first of all, congratulations; second of all, it revolved around a terror attack on New York City apparently committed by an Islamist but actually committed by rogue CIA agents who – naturally – got some help along the way from Mossad.
I am well aware that the left has won the culture wars and that the viewpoints espoused in movies, television and media are going to reflect this fact. But one grows weary. Heck, even my beloved Hawaii Five-0, a show I have long enjoyed because it generally avoids politics and simply shows great-looking cops shooting bad people, had an episode this season where an impending terror attack apparently planned by an Islamist was actually planned by right-wing extremists (somehow affiliated with the government and military, of course).
But ‘The Americans,’ thankfully, has resisted the urge to make communism seem benign and misunderstood. It’s too intelligent for any such nonsense. Oh, it contains its fair share of moral equivalencies, and its share of “no context given” comments: for example, when Elizabeth (as the show’s resident true believer, she is responsible for many silly and baseless assertions) points out that the US can’t be trusted because they are the only country to have used a nuclear weapon. Er, yes, but, you know, some context would be useful here. It wasn’t as though Harry Truman got up one morning and said, “Oh heck, I’d like to nuke someone peaceful and kind today.”
In fact, Elizabeth, with her endless yammering about “justice” and constantly using her interpretation of that word to justify terrible acts, reminds me a lot of the social justice bullies of today. You can draw a line, I believe, from her 1980s-Soviet-totalitarian-bromides to today’s fascism of the left (and make no mistake, it is fascism). And I mean, you can draw that line in real life. I refer here to those lefties who are – and who have long been — pathologically anti-Western.
Enough about such clowns – let’s get to this season of ‘The Americans.’ It has had as its theme, food – the want of the USSR, the excesses of the US. Philip, who way back in the first season was talking about defecting, makes a comment about how the endless fields of wheat in Kansas (where he and Elizabeth are on a mission) remind him of home. “Why,” he asks, “can’t we feed our own people?”
This is an excellent question. The series’ writers have constructed storylines around corruption in the USSR as the main reason for the food shortages. On a micro-scale, yes, that may have been the case. But, of course, the macro-picture, the main reason the USSR could not feed its own people, was that it did not have a free market. So far, this has not been clearly articulated in the show, but at least the writers of ‘The Americans’ have moved away from the absurd notion – hinted at early on in the season — that the United States was planning to try and starve the Soviets (or any other people). One of the best moments this season was when the Jennings realized the US was not only not trying to starve everyone, but rather, was trying to feed everyone. Anyone who knows America and American idealism would not be surprised by that. As my Significant Other said, as we watched that episode, “Twenty years in America and Philip and Elizabeth don’t know America at all.”
They really don’t. (Not to mention that it was their own government that had deliberately starved people in the past.) They will be in for quite a surprise when/if they return home. Gabriel, I think, is beginning to understand one thing about America – it has already won the Cold War. That is how I interpreted the scene where Gabriel visits the Lincoln Memorial before announcing that he has decided to leave. He knows the Soviet jig is up-ski.
Oleg has already returned home, and is getting his own share of surprises: seeing how messed up the food situation is; seeing the embedded corruption; hearing colleagues say matter-of-factly that they have to send someone to prison for ‘treason’ even though all that person did was tell the truth about something or voice a political opinion. But his biggest surprise is learning that his mother had been in a gulag after the war.
Philip has his own revelation about the gulags this season, when he discovers — from Gabriel — that his father had been a guard in one. It causes Philip to view his childhood memories differently: those boots his father brought home one night, for example, were they stolen from a prisoner?
So I tip my hat to the show’s writers and creators…but one cannot stop celebrities from being morons, can one? Alison Wright, who so magnificently gave us the tragedy of Martha, revealed herself in an interview to be not so magnificent when it comes to political/historical analysis. In this interview, she claims – referring to the execution of Nina Sergeevna Krilova on the show – that the Soviets were more ‘humane’ than we (i.e., the United States) about such things because they just snuck up beyond you and shot you in the head. Whereas, you know, we put you on death row and make you wait.
Well, yeah, but we also give you a lawyer, an appeal system that is not a joke and that doesn’t amount to a kangaroo court, and plus, we have the added bonus of actually having to prove our charges against you! Fairly certain that makes us more humane.
Gosh, maybe Martha belongs in the Soviet Union after all.
JFK would have been 100 tomorrow. Here’s a clip of him dealing with the press. At about the 55 second mark, May Craig — a great journalist and one of the few women at White House press conferences 50 and 60 years ago — asks him a question about equal rights for women. His reply is terribly charming and witty and were any president today to try it they’d get blasted by the angry mob. The whole clip is full of gems, so watch and remember — this man would NEVER be selected as presidential candidate for the Democratic Party today. You can also get a sense of why, as my father once told me, more people were weeping on the street when JFK died than on VJ-Day.
Here is some good — no, excellent, deserving-a-Pulitzer — journalism.
Here is some garbage journalism, from, of course, the CBC. This is an actual paragraph from an actual CBC report on the Iranian “election.” (I am too mortified to link to the story.)
Rouhani is a reformer who, in addition to signing the nuclear deal, has opened his country to the world and loosened restrictions on the country’s citizens.
If you’re not watching The Americans you are a fool, and not just because it is the best show on TV. It is also a show that uses music magnificently. Last night’s episode featured Mark Bernes’ song, Cranes. Absolutely haunting. (Note: It says ‘with English subtitles,’ and yet, I see no subtitles in any language. That said, I know the song is about World War II Soviet soldiers being reincarnated into cranes.)
…we all need a little Jacques Brel now and again.
It took an Australian writer to sum up the recent (tedious) Canuck kerfuffle about “appropration.” Read his comments here.
That is all.
In 1987, Klaus Barbie was being tried in France for crimes against humanity, crimes committed while he was in charge of the Gestapo in Lyon, between 1942 and 1944. That same year, I was living in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne and working as an au pair. I looked after a three-year-old girl named Raphaelle, whose parents were physics teachers at a Parisian lycee. They were about as warm as one might expect physics teachers to be, but at least they left me to my own devices most of the time. They considered me debrouillarde, meaning they believed I could figure things out on my own. They complained to me a good deal about their previous jeune fille, who was British and not so debrouillarde. She cried a lot, they said with a snort of derision. I cried a lot too, but not in front of them.
When not in class I was ironing (while watching either the Barbie trial or Charlie’s Angels in French), or vacuuming or picking Raphaelle up from school and giving her her goutee, an after school snack. It usually consisted of baguette and nutella. Yum. And to think – French people were forever trashing Americans for eating too much junk.
When not studying French poetry or grammar, or doing my jeune fille au pair duties – I had never ironed so much in my life, but at least I had learned how to make a decent vinaigrette (indeed, I learned what a vinaigrette was) — I was enjoying my flat near the rue Mouffetard and the surrounding pleasures. I lucked out with Raphaelle’s family; they owned a small apartment in a trendy area in Paris’ fifth arrondissement which they used for their foreign nannies. They themselves lived a few streets and a couple of metro stops away.
Previously, I had worked for a family who had stuck me in the more traditional chambre de bonne, or maid’s room. Chambres de bonnes in Parisian apartment buildings are usually on the 6th of 7th floor and can’t be reached by elevator, meaning your thighs and glutes get a great workout, off-setting (up to a point) all the brie, baguette, wine and Lindt bars you are taking in your first time in Paris. They are also small — only a chambre, not a flat — often cockroach-ridden and their inhabitants have to share a bathroom with others on the same floor. Not all inhabitants of these rooms are foreign girls eager to fall in love in France. Some are men going through a divorce, immigrant workers, derelicts or the general down-and-outers in Paris. When you are 20 or so and sharing a bathroom with an underpaid Tunisian or an alcoholic Brit, it can be frightening.
So life near the rue Mouffetard was a joy, a respite amidst my Parisian heartaches and the horrors of history. And speaking of, by mid-June of 1987, I was fixated on the Klaus Barbie trial. It was being televised – a rarity for French television – and it was not only the talk of all media, but the talk of the town. Few French failed to have an opinion on the matter, usually as passionately held as their views on wine, cheese or the moral, cultural and intellectual inferiority of Americans. Every French school child could (and can still, I imagine) recite General de Gaulle’s Appel a la Resistance of June 18, 1940, and Barbie was responsible, after all, for the death of France’s resistance hero, Jean Moulin.
But he represented something more than that – a schism from way back. I knew a bit, at that point in my life, about l’affaire Dreyfus, about the great divide it had caused (or perhaps revealed and entrenched) in French society, and about how that schism had never truly healed, manifesting itself again under Vichy. France was a country where the respected documentary about the Nazi occupation of France, The Sorrow and the Pity (Le Chagrin et la Pitie), was not permitted to be shown on French television until the 1980s (it had been made in 1969). To say the topic was “touchy” among the French was one of life’s great understatements; to say that French memories of the era seemed to be either creative or selective (or both) was to state the obvious.
This is near as true now as it was two decades ago. In her 2011 book, La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, Elaine Sciolino writes, “An example of France’s amnesia is a plaque affixed to the wall of the Hotel Lutetia, an Art Deco landmark on the Left Bank in Paris. It identifies the hotel as the reception center for returning deportees and prisoners of war in 1945; it says nothing about its sinister role between 1940 and 1944 as the Paris headquarters of the German Army’s intelligence operations during the Occupation.”
On an anecdotal level, I know that virtually every adult I met in Paris claimed to have a parent or grandparent who hid Jews from June 1940 to August 1944, or claimed to have done so themselves. It made me wonder how any French Jew of the time managed to get deported, since apparently, virtually the entire population was engaged in helping them escape persecution. How on earth did the Vel D’Hiv round-up ever happen? Where on earth did the French police find the Jews they rounded up that day, since the latter were all hidden, tucked away safely under the wing of French courage?
Still, I could not have imagined that some people, after nodding sagely and agreeing that Barbie was a bad man, would add that, “mais les Juifs ne sont pas comme nous.” But Jews are not like us. This was also what French people often said to me about the many Muslims who lived in France. Whether that were true or not, what on earth had that to do with anything? I was also astonished at the number of people who felt the intervening years and Barbie’s age somehow mitigated if not the crimes themselves then the need to prosecute. (In the late 1990s, French collaborator Maurice Papon was allowed out of prison due to his age and ill health, a kindness Papon did not allow his victims.)
During this time I also became aware of Jean-Marie Le Pen, a man who referred to the Holocaust as a “detail” of history; who wanted to put AIDS patients in sidatoriums. (The French acronym for AIDS is SIDA; sidatorium sounds creepily like crematorium, something that did not escape notice at the time.) When his daughter came onto the political scene she cut her father off from the National Front, making many wonder if she was doing it for reasons of political expediency or because she really disagreed with him about sensitive issues. Well, one didn’t need long to suss things out: during this campaign, she has denied France’s role in the war-time deportation of Jews. She has denied facts of history.
This is my winding way of saying that I hope that Macron wins today — I suspect he will, but one must never be too sure. People are saying that he will be a bit of a Chirac, which would be ok, I guess. Chirac was the first French president to state in so many words that France was guilty in the fate of its Jews. This was not a position that was going to get him many votes, so while there is much I didn’t like about him — the oiliness, the reflexive anti-Americanism — I will always credit him for that.
Of Macron I know little, but I like that he appears to be free-market friendly (by French standards) and also that he has ruled out unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.
My thoughts, of course, are of no import to the French. They will do as they wish and I wish them well. I lived in Paris for nearly five years and I have visited France several times since. I have an uncle buried in a Canadian War Cemetery there. For me, France will always be a slice of home, of family.
When I study in Italy, this man is my music teacher. I could not be luckier — attending his lessons is worth the cost of the trip to Italy and then some. (Yes, his last name does mean ‘sp*ders,’ the creatures of which I am so afraid I cannot even write out the word. This tells you how marvelous he is — normally I could not sit in the same room with someone so named. But he is worth it.) Please enjoy this clip in which he discusses Lutheran music, the Reformation, Bach, and in which he uses my absolute favourite hymn, A Mighty Fortress is our God, as a point of discussion.