The Moral High Ground

Politics has always been a matter of morality to me. I know politicians lie: I think you’d be hard-pressed to find one who doesn’t. Victories are exaggerated, the nature of or reasons for defeat manipulated, everyone is begging for money all the time but no one wants to admit it. I would like to live in a United States where the amount of money legally permitted to be spent on an election was severely limited and campaigns could only last for a certain amount of time, but our reality being what it is, I’ll take Elizabeth Warren identifying herself as being of Native American descent based on family lore over Aaron Schock using his government expense account to recreate Downton Abbey in his senate office and to go to the CMA ceremony any day.

Probably due to having grown up in the South, for a long time I had the distinct impression that the Republicans were the party of morals and family values, while the Democrats were self-aggrandizing, their fondness for money second only to their thirst for power. When I was about five I came home from school and recited the pledge of allegiance for my parents, altering one key phrase–I managed to change “and to the Republic, for which it stands” to “and to the Republicans, for where they stand.” My mother, despite still being a conservative at that point–at least as far as U.S. politics were concerned–had a fit; she did not forbid me to continue making the pledge at school when required, but she made very sure I understood what it was I was saying and that the Republicans were in no way synonymous with the Republic.

This perspective started to shift during the attempt to impeach Bill Clinton. I could understand finding him repellent for his inability to keep it in his pants; I could understand, and did myself, question bitterly his leadership skills when he launched airstrikes against Iraq, as I personally was convinced that he did so as a distraction from the allegations about his womanizing. What I couldn’t understand were the complaints that he was unfit to lead because of his womanizing. I’ve always been fascinated by histories of monarchies, particularly that of the British royal family, and as a teenager branched out to biographies of more recent political and military leaders. Many of the most revered of these men had affairs by the dozen. Horatio Nelson. FDR. Douglas MacArthur and possibly George Patton (with his niece, ugh). Churchill was known to have had at least one affair (very likely more), but I’ve yet to hear anyone fault his leadership on that score. You can desecrate your marriage vows and still be a good leader.

It isn’t so much that I think moral relativism is necessary in a political context; it’s that I don’t see how it can be avoided if we are to make useful choices, given the scope of the choices we have to make when we vote in an election. I believe that Bill Clinton used his position to persuade women to indulge his sexual proclivities, and I find that repellent, but in terms of scale it doesn’t match the vicious, degrading, and often physical harassment that Donald Trump has bragged about, let alone the credible claims of rape that have come from several women, including his ex-wife and another woman who was a child at the time of the alleged assault. Could Hillary have granted greater access to the President in return for donations to the Clinton Foundation, the proceeds of which she did not personally benefit from? Possibly, but I haven’t heard any convincing evidence that she did so (if you disagree, please feel free to enlighten me), and if the story is true, in no way does it compare to Trump’s refusal to divest himself from his businesses and the numerous ways his hotel empire opens him up to direct violations of the emoluments clause. If Hillary had won the electoral college as well as the popular vote, there would have been no immediate drastic change in the situations in Syria or the Ukraine, there would have been no quick fix for the military and moral quagmires that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 set off, innocent people would have continued to die. If she had won, however, Putin would not have immediately intensified its assistance of Assad and attacks on Ukraine. Fewer people would have died. As I heard someone else point out recently on Twitter, I would far rather have spent the next four years arguing and wishing and voting to push Hillary further to the left than waking up every morning wondering if WWIII has started and if we still live in a republic rather than a dictatorship.

The U.S. has never truly had an inviolate moral high ground. The extermination of the native inhabitants of North America, slavery and later Jim Crow, the imperialistic acquisition of Hawaii, the voyage of the St Louis, the Vietnam War, the invasion of Iraq–we’ve never had a spotless record. What we did have was a government that didn’t silence people who spoke out against it; dissent has always been present and loud, whether it attracted only a handful of listeners or grew to such influence that it started the Civil War. Now I and the millions of other people who voted for Clinton are genuinely scared we are going to lose this. Putting aside all questions of financial corruption, climate change, women’s reproductive rights, and creationism being taught in school, if Trump’s refusal to denounce Duterte and his open admiration of Vladimir Putin doesn’t scare you, either you are not paying attention or you lack any shred of moral integrity, full stop. Even disregarding the allegations against Putin that are supported only by circumstantial evidence–the blowing up of apartment buildings, the manipulation of Russian state oil companies, the fifteen or so journalists he is suspected of having had killed–we have plenty of evidence that he’s an authoritarian dictator with no interest in preserving freedom of speech and no respect for the concept of innocent lives. He was not troubled by the distraught relative of one of the sailors lost in the Kursk disaster being involuntarily drugged live on television as she demanded answers from the then deputy prime minister; he has demonstrated that he is quite willing to kill hostages along with terrorists in the event of a crisis, as happened in the Dubrovka Theatre crisis and the Beslan school siege. If we have to work with Russia because it is better not to have the country as an enemy, because there are people who depend on the oil and gas that Russia sells to European countries, because the citizens of a country should not be conflated with its leader(s), that is one thing. It is quite another to hold up Putin as a leader to be admired and even emulated, as Trump has done.

In the months since the election I’ve started to separate Trump supporters from conservatives and Republicans as a collective group. There are plenty of Republicans–not least a number of the party’s most prominent leaders–who would not vote for Trump, even if they couldn’t bring themselves to support Clinton either. There are those who supported Trump and started to regret it as soon as two weeks after the election; there is the celebration on the part of the stridently anti-semitic, xenophobic, neo-Nazi demographic, of whom I expected no better. What troubles me most are those who have watched the actions Trump has taken in the weeks since his election, the steady stream of lies, deflections, and misinformation coming out of the White House and across Twitter, and yet continue to argue that all this is acceptable because of “the conservative agenda,” believing that said agenda is morally desirable and benefits everyone. I have often wondered what this conservative agenda is–the rise of Trump has proven that it is not in fact about fiscal conservatism, an admiration of honesty and marital fidelity, or a disdain for corruption and authoritarianism. The only thing it seems to be nowadays is the privileging of private (corporate) profit over the collective good, respect for personal autonomy, and human life itself. If the U.S. is to preserve the Constitution, let alone any shred of moral integrity, it’s a damn good thing the people are rising up against Trump’s Putinesque, Bannon-directed “conservative” agenda.

Rotisserie Chicken: The Best and Worst of America

Things are awful, people are awful, the world is a terrible place and I want to cry: these are my general reactions to my daily doses of the news. The United States, like a complicated new baking recipe, is a fabulous idea but in the early stages of its development, a hot mess. Which brings me to rotisserie chicken.

Look. I know the food systems in our country are a tangled web of special interests, subsidies gone wrong, the degradation of most of our arable land, and animal cruelty on an unspeakable scale. I don’t eat a ton of meat and I try to find sustainably (or at least humanely) raised meat when I do buy it.

Yet there are days–long hours of hard work at the barn, or hours spent trying to write with nothing to show–when I realize I should probably feed myself, and that my husband would appreciate me including him in the effort so I shouldn’t just eat popcorn, and it’s really irresponsible and expensive to order out, and I’m exhausted, and I want something that tastes like Real Food but I absolutely do not want to cook it, that I remember rotisserie chickens exist.

What a soothing product. What a shining beacon of American-ness. Sometimes they just make everything right with the world: they are available everywhere, they are consistently good and sometimes delicious, and they are appallingly cheap (often 30, and as much as 50, percent less than the cost of a similarly sized raw chicken where both are sold).

America! How did we invent this miraculous product? Of course, the food item itself is probably one of the oldest known to humanity, but why and how has this become a ubiquitous quick dinner solution across our nation?

(I should note that the quintessentially American rotisserie chicken does, as do most of the best food traditions in the western world, owe a debt to France. Apparently, the notoriously food-fickle Napoleon was kind of an addict. For instance: “When he rode out of Cairo on Christmas Eve to survey the Suez isthmus, the only provisions he took were three roasted chickens wrapped in paper.”)

But I digress. ‘Murica! The Washington Post wrote a piece a couple years back claiming that our national trend began with with the expansion of the Boston Market food chain in the 1980s. A grocery store economics site says the store chickens are so cheap because many markets are just getting rid of food that wouldn’t otherwise sell (i.e., reaching sell-by dates). Some stores do have dedicated rotisserie chicken programs in order to churn out as many as possible. I assume stores discovered that folks would come in for that one low- or no-margin product and leave with many other more profitable ones. I know that’s what happens to me whenever I cave and stop in at Costco or Whole Foods on the way home.

Photograph by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
Photograph by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The 1980s timeline makes sense to me. The ’80s were when women–overwhelmingly the ones doing the food shopping and cooking–entered the work force full time in droves. There was suddenly demand for fast food that tasted like you might imagine home-cooked food would taste if you’d never had it. Plus, that’s when a lot of chains were making the jump from regional to national.

So this is a foodstuff that grew in popularity as America became steadily more connected coast to coast and as our food systems deepened into the painfully contorted knots first tied by ag policies dating to the Great Depression. Rotisserie chickens simultaneously reflect one of the great goods of America (affordable abundance) and one of the great evils (refusal to address the true environmental and health costs of underpriced goods).

After the initial still-hot dinner meal, I have my leftover guilty pleasure chicken on top of salads or grains, mixed into pasta, or nibbled cold out of the container because I’m a monster. I knew a woman who bought a Market Basket rotisserie chicken every single week, got two meals out of it, then made stock. What do you do with yours?

If this post has left you craving some, don’t worry, you can watch a full length movie of one roasting thanks to Netflix. Or, you know, visit the Costco Rotisserie Chicken official Facebook page. Like you do.

The Friday Fave: Writing Letters


I am an only child, and when I was growing up there were only a couple of other kids my age in my neighbourhood, so I spent a great deal of time playing on my own. One of my odder games was to sit down with one of my mother’s old fountain pens and pretend I was writing letters, immensely long sermons of letters in copperplate, the way I saw people doing in the costume dramas my parents watched on Sunday nights. The only problem was I couldn’t write in cursive at that point, let alone copperplate, so I mostly just scrawled loose lines of spikes and loops over good printer paper that I probably hadn’t bothered asking permission to use. I’d like to say I was three or four years old during these escapades but I was probably old enough to know better.

When I was in second grade my teachers announced that my class would be doing a pen-pal project with another second-grade class in Burkina Faso. I was captivated. Not only would I finally get to write a real letter–not just a Christmas card to a family member–I loved the idea that something I was going to write would be sent to someone on the other side of the globe, whom I’d never met. (I had it in my head that we would each be paired off with one other student in the other class–it didn’t occur to me that the other class full of students was likely much bigger than ours, and whatever we wrote and received would be shared by all the students.) When the planned exchange fell through due to political events, I was terribly disappointed–I’d been practicing my penmanship and studying Africa on the globe for weeks. I still wanted a penpal.

I got one eventually, later the following summer, although we only managed one letter each. I remember that her name was Chrissy, but not much else–I have entirely forgotten how I made contact with her, what state she lived in, and who found her address for me, but I still have her letter.

After that, letters were the part of summer I most looked forward to. I gave up attempting to make my handwriting look like copperplate, at least for the time being, but I wrote as much as I could. One stretch of two or three weeks was spent writing tortuously long recaps of All My Children episodes to one friend spending the summer in New York, because I was certain she wasn’t able to watch it where she was. I don’t know where I got this idea. Another summer was the year of a postman in Florida assuming that I was my best friend’s “little boyfriend” because I had taken to plastering stickers all over the back of the envelopes.

I started collecting volumes of letters by my favourite writers and artists. One Christmas my mother gave me the Oxford Book of Letters, still a favourite possession, to which I started adding hand copies of letters from other volumes when I found that it didn’t include Sullivan Ballou’s last letter to his wife. I was about sixteen, and took this as an almost personal affront, being convinced that it was the loveliest letter ever written.

I met Margaret by chance at my senior prom, and we hit it off instantly. I was due to leave for Scotland in a few months: transatlantic phone calls being both impractical and prohibitively expensive, and email being a thing but Internet access being unpredictable, letters were our only reasonable means of keeping in touch and getting to know one another better. So I started writing more letters. Lots and lots of letters.

Letter box
Some of Margaret’s letters to me

I don’t imagine they were particularly good, my imaginative life at this point being dominated by equal parts Shakespeare, Emily Bronte, Matchbox 20, and Sarah McLachlan. There were tearful letters and homesick letters and plenty of angst about boys, in between being breathlessly enchanted by living in such close proximity to the North Sea and plenty of Mediaeval ruins. There were also, later, drunken letters, which must have been dreadful to read. Sometimes I still want to go back and read these; the rest of the time I think it’s much better for my present and future state of mind that I never do. I’d probably die of embarrassment.

I lost a great part of my will to write at the end of 2001, so addled by anemia that I usually lacked the energy to concentrate. I started relying on email and phone calls more, and lost the discipline to make it to the post office when I did manage to finish a real letter. I made sporadic attempts and recovering my old drive to write letters over the next several years, but it didn’t come back properly, not like it was.

Writing Desk 1

After my mother died I lost most of my interest in writing any sort of personal document at all; whatever inspiration I had went into fiction, where I didn’t have to think about my actual situation and surroundings. I still haven’t resumed my journal, but a couple of months ago my itch write letters came back with a vengeance. I took possession of my parents’ old escritoire–it had been used for storing excess stationery and dried-up pens for most of my life–and all the good writing paper my mother collected but never used, and returned it to the purpose it was designed for. The hutch is still home to some of my mother’s favourite china, but the desk is all mine now, one place to keep my pens, journals, and letter paper and nothing else. It is the nicest place I’ve ever had dedicated solely to writing, and has done a great deal to re-ignite the joy I once found in focusing on what to say to another person.

We are in danger of losing letters as an art form, but I don’t think the rise of email and social media is the culprit. It started to decline at the same time that reading challenging novels and poetry for enjoyment did, which occurred long before we all got access to the Internet. Letters are so much more than a means of transmitting information; for the writer, they can be exercises in introspection, a means of illuminating how we feel about an event or another person, for ourselves as much as for our correspondent; for the reader, they capture something of the writer’s spirit that can’t be communicated over the telephone.

They are also invaluable documents of the past, both in the sense of our shared cultural and national histories and our own personal and family histories. Even the most trivial of comments shed light on the personalities that wrote them. In going through my family’s collection of photos and letters, I found a postcard that my grandfather wrote to his mother when he was away on a scouting trip, aged perhaps 13 or 14, about a century ago now. I never got the chance to know my grandfather well, and fragments like this are invaluable to me.

There’s a great trend these days for devoting all one’s disposable income and time to experiences rather than things, but it bothers me that along with the laudable impulse to be less materialistic we’re forgetting all sense of permanence. One tenet of the anti-immigration argument is that a high number of immigrants inexorably and irretrievably changes our culture (as though time and innovations in technology don’t alter anything). We inexorably and irretrievably lose our culture and our past because we don’t read enough of it, not just recent commentary on previous centuries but the letters and records that have survived. One of the Internet’s greatest blessings is how easy it has made it for us to rediscover and access those documents. Letters are one of our richest resources for learning about where we came for and growing as individuals, and I still continue to hope that it never quite goes out of style. So write a letter. Write to your family the next time you go out of town, in addition to the necessary emails that you’re alive and well. Write to loved ones who live out of state or across the country. If you are so moved, you can take part in awesome projects like this and write to random strangers. Also, there’s nothing quite like finding a handwritten letter in the post, amongst all the sales catalogues and bills.


The Friday Fave: The Supersizers

I’ve never been much of a fan of reality TV, with one exception–I try to watch at least one episode of any historical reenactment series I come across. (Some turn out to be dreadful, and I abandon them.) I haven’t seen them all, but I’ve found several over the years. I’ve been interested in history all my life, particularly in how people lived with different social mores and without the medical and technological advances that we enjoy. (I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m a huge fan of costume dramas?)

This is by far the best of the lot, as far as I’m concerned, although I don’t think the term “documentary” really applies, and “The Supersizers Go…”, a reference to Morgan Spurlock’s torturing himself by (allegedly) eating only McDonald’s food for a month, isn’t the best of titles. That said, I really really wish I’d found it sooner.

The show follows Giles Coren, a food critic, and Sue Perkins, a comedian and now co-host of the Great British Baking Show, while they spend a week at a time eating, dressing, and investigating the hobbies, fads, and social constraints of specific time periods. The first series is devoted to different eras in British history; the second includes a few other places in Europe.

I suppose it’s ostensibly a cooking show as much as anything–it goes into cooking methods, serving styles, and eating habits in considerable detail, and employs professional chefs to recreate dishes from each period. Each episode starts and ends with a doctor assessing how the week’s diet has impacted the participants (this is the only similarity to Spurlock’s documentary). In the interim, there is some eating, some dressing up, and Coren and Perkins try out unusual activities such as trying to seduce a (very patient) volunteer with foods thought to be aphrodisiacs in the eighteenth century and applying cosmetics from eras past. There is also a lot of drinking. A lot of drinking. Sometimes at every meal. Because Britain’s reputation as a nation of heavy drinkers is not a new thing–even during the centuries when most of Europe drank beer at every meal because water and milk were unsafe unless boiled, the British were accused of drinking too much.

It is hilariously funny.