Category Archives: Culture

Ancient Ruins and a Week-and-a-Half-Long Food Coma: Reflections on Italy

I went to Italy for vacation, which is a thing that people apparently do to “relax” and “enjoy themselves.” I am unfamiliar with these concepts, but I figured I would give it a try, as per this video

While I have plenty of thoughts on pasta in Italy (it’s amazing), sandwiches in Italy (they’re amazing), and pizza in Italy (it’s fine), what was most notable about Italy — and Rome especially — was the overlapping histories from ancient to the present. The Colosseum makes a great photo-op, the various Fora are impressive, and my side trip to Ostia Antica, the ancient port city accessible by train, was fascinating; it was, however, a poor choice to explore all of these ruins—which almost by definition have no roofs—in the blistering 100 degree heat of the Italian summer. I guess this is why they wore togas. (I did not pack a toga.)

But it is not just that Rome has this incredible history; rather, you can feel in the streets how each successive source of political and cultural power wanted to lay claim to the inheritance of this tradition. The act of turning the Pantheon — literally, “of all the gods” — into a Christian church (only one supreme being, last time I checked) is one example of this. So too is how many of the key churches and other important political buildings preserve the remnants of ancient Roman columns as part of their facade to show the direct connection between themselves and the tradition of Rome itself. 

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of Mussolini’s fascist regime, which undertook major physical alterations of a city whose center otherwise feels somewhat unchanged from earlier eras. Mussolini bulldozed a wide lane between the center of his government and the Coliseum so that he could see the structure directly from his office. Mussolini’s government was not just a response to the crisis of modernity in the early 20th century; rather, it claimed to be the inheritor of the great history of Rome.

I took a brief pit stop at EUR (Esposizione Universale Roma), a business district that was the model for Mussolini’s vision of a new, Fascist Italy. The district features extra-wide roads; imposing, sprawling structures that overwhelm a normal human scale; and plenty of monuments and manicured parks. It feels empty and cold, even in the 100 degree heat. It also feels imposing and hostile, showing the power of massive architecture and efficiency over the potential for narrow, complex, and unplanned human interaction.

At the heart of EUR is the Palace of Italian Civilization, better known as the Square Colosseum. Perched at the top of a hill and towering over everything around it, the gleaming white building features Colosseum-like arches covering the outside of a cubic tower. It is a modern building, yet it is designed to invoke all the power of ancient civilization. (Ironically, it now houses the headquarters of luxury fashion brand Fendi.) Not only do the arches mimic those of the Coliseum, the building is ringed by Romanesque statues invoking the virtues of the Italian people, as well as horse-riding statues at each corner featuring Castor and Pollux of Greek and Roman mythological fame. The virtues of the contemporary Italian population, the building suggests, are features of Italian Civilization that date back to its unique founding. Embracing the claims to this civilization and its founding gave Mussolini the authority to root his political power in tradition.

The power of civilization and history brings to life the writings of Hannah Arendt, who focused on the experience of Rome as the key example to highlight the importance of authority — or its lack thereof — in the modern world. Rome, she argues, shows how political authority throughout history has always sought to tie itself to some kind of historical or civilizational “founding.” The Roman vision of political authority lay entirely in the past, she says, “in the foundation of Rome and the greatness of ancestors.” Arendt writes:

The authority of the living was always derivative, depending upon the auctores imperil Romani conditoresque, as Pliny puts it, upon the authority of the founders, who no longer were among the living. Authority, in contradistinction to power (potestas), had its roots in the past, but this past was no less present in the actual life of the city than the power and strength of the living.

Those who lay claim to authority did so on the basis that they were inheritors of the past, of the founding, of something external to which they alone could appeal. Authority begets obedience without resorting to pure and unmitigated force and is essential for effective rule.

The pervasiveness of Christianity, too, she argues, follows the same script. If the innumerable churches that dot every street corner of Rome — and the fact that nearly all of the major works of art for 1000 years in Europe are “Madonna with Child” (or “Madonna with Child featuring John the Baptist”) — show that the power and authority of Rome passed down into the hands of the Church, the Church, too, attempted to stake a claim to inheritance of the Roman founding. This stood out to me in how the churches, sculptures, and art intertwined themselves with ancient civilizational symbols (not only Roman but also Egyptian; see the hieroglyphics on statues in downtown Rome, for example). Arendt argues that this is part of the continuity:

The extraordinary strength and endurance of this Roman spirit or the extraordinary reliability of the founding principle for the creation of bodies politic were subjected to a decisive test and proved themselves conspicuously after the decline of the Roman Empire, when Rome’s political and spiritual heritage passed to the Christian Church. Confronted with this very real mundane task, the Church became so “Roman” and adapted itself so thoroughly to Roman thinking in matters of politics that it made the death and resurrection of Christ the cornerstone of a new foundation, erecting on it a new human institution of tremendous durability. 

In a city like Rome, where the lineage of history is so palpable, the power of continuity is unmissable. Even when new political orders are founded on rejections of the past, they still try to absorb the existing authority of the past while superseding it. This was what was so fascinating about Rome: from the pagan, pantheistic Roman Empire to the hyper-religious medieval Church to the Fascist rise and fall, every successive generation overlaid their authority on that of their predecessors. This was especially true in physical space, where they tried to situate themselves on the same ground as the prior regimes, and in the symbolic art and architecture, with direct references to sucking up the power of the past. Walking through the streets, it is not possible to easily separate between the ancient, the medieval, and the modern, for they all overlap and lay claim to each other. 

The power of the authority of inheritance is not limited to ancient Rome. Because I spend a lot of my time thinking about China, I cannot help but make reference to a similar phenomenon further East: Mao’s decision to put the heart of the Communist government in Beijing. As the writer Simon Leys pointed out (and which I wrote about here), Mao explicitly chose to put a massive monument in the center of Tiananmen Square, right at the heart of the line of power from the gates of the ancient city. 

The point of this decision was to appropriate the power and authority of the imperial space, thus connecting the authority of Mao’s government to the millennia of imperial rule. Leys writes, not concealing his frustration with the decision to ruin Beijing in the process: 

The brutal silliness of the Monument to the Heroes of the People, which disrupts and annihilates the energy-field of the old imperial space by trying to appropriate it, epitomizes, alas, the manner in which the Maoist regime has used Peking: it has chosen the old capital in order to give its power a foundation of prestige; in taking over this city, it has destroyed it.

So, too, the contemporary Chinese leadership has put extra effort into drawing a direct connection between the history of Chinese civilization and their own claims to power. The CCP claims to be the inheritor of Chineseness, not only through occupying the physical space of Beijing but through attempts to connect the philosophy of the Party with the ideas and history of Chinese tradition. Just as successive waves of Italian political leaders tied the virtues and authority of ancient Rome to their own rule, contemporary Chinese leaders are attempting to do something similar to bolster their authority — which, Arendt says, is central to understanding politics in any era because it “gives the world the permanence and durability which human beings need precisely because they are mortals.”

Let me finish by saying one more thing: the pasta in Italy is amazing. What are we doing wrong in America? Perhaps our pasta lacks some kind of foundational myth. Or we just overcook it. 

Obligatory thoughts on Ted Lasso

I have a natural affinity for soccer, puns, and especially soccer-based puns—so it should come as no surprise that I am predisposed to like Ted Lasso. And I do: watching season one was the most fun a person can have this side of The Great British Bakeoff. Season two, though? Well, with season three of Ted Lasso on the horizon, it is about time that I offer my unsolicited opinions on season two. (It’s not even worth a spoiler alert because the season aired a year ago, and if you haven’t watched it by now, you’re not likely to suddenly purchase an Apple product solely for those free three months of Apple TV.)

My first complaint with season two is mostly a personal one. The best parts of season one are the jokes about soccer and about England, and the best parts of season two are the jokes about soccer and about England. The moment when they discuss how all the fields are different sizes at Wembley is hilarious. When Ted finds out the NHS is free and is confused about how a country could provide health care without charging an arm and a leg — comedy perfection. And my favorite line of the entire season is when Ted reads Dr Sharon’s letter to himself in front of her and his only comment is, “You spelled favorite wrong.” I giggled with delight. The premise of the show—as stupid as it sounds—is just really, really funny.

The second season of the show mostly moves beyond this premise, which is probably the correct decision to make from a writing point of view. It does seem reasonable to conclude that it is not possible to do an entire second season of a show based on a premise that basically boils down to someone mixing up “American football” with “futbol.” I acknowledge this. An idea like this really should never have made it out of any self-respecting writers’ room. But no matter how stupid the premise sounds, it is still extremely funny. When the show moves away from this premise, it loses something essential that makes it cohere.

Seriously — the only things better than the first season of Ted Lasso are the original NBC commercials introducing Ted Lasso. They never get old.

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Obligatory thoughts on Don’t Look Up

If having a take on Ted Lasso was the defining feature of “being a writer” in America in the first three-quarters of 2021, having a take on Don’t Look Up was the defining feature of writerdom for at least the final four-to-five days. Here is where I show that I am a real “writer” who is “relevant” because of all of my thoughts about topics that are part of the zeitgeist.

Similar to Ted Lasso (on which I have written many thoughts; perhaps I will publish them at some point, but don’t get your hopes up that I will do so any time soon. I prefer to publish only after things become irrelevant—it’s a personal brand thing), the critical response—and the critical response to the critical response—to Don’t Look Up are more revealing and intriguing than the content itself. Most sentient viewers, from what I’ve seen, agree that Don’t Look Up is not a piece of high art by any stretch of the imagination. It is blunt, in-your-face, and heavy-handed in its satire; if the movie attempted to look up the word “subtle” in the dictionary, it would not be able to find it, even if the page was already turned to words from “submarine” to “succor.” Like a Shakespeare play, you already know the plot before it starts, and there is no chance of some hidden meaning or unexpected twist at any point in the movie.

Most critics, though, still find something to dislike in the movie. Conservatives tend to dislike it because it reeks of the condescending, smarter-than-thou liberal harping about Donald Trump and the stupidity of Americans. The movie’s parallels to Trump are, like the rest of the movie, not subtle: the chant “Don’t Look Up” mirrors the cadence of “Lock Her Up,” and the fictional president, brandishing a MAGA-like hat, makes cultural appeals to supporters (who are described as “white working class”) and claims the cosmopolitan elites (the “not cool rich”) are trying to take their country away from them. They are portrayed as rednecks who eat up the president’s rhetoric and willingly blind themselves to reality until it’s too late.

Liberal critics hate it because it is so devoid of subtlety that it does not even pretend to think that it might be “art”—and because liberals, too, are targets of unabashed satire. It is not Trump and his followers who are obviously to blame for America’s failure to prevent its own destruction; instead, liberal elites are part and parcel of the country’s collective failure. The media and the entertainment industry, in particular, are complicit. They are keen to avoid uncomfortable ideas, partisan disagreements, or anything serious, lest it hurt their profits or their access to power. Both new and old media are so caught up in self-congratulatory ladder-climbing and an insatiable need to drive clicks and generate profits that they have lost all conception of any kind of larger public good. Everything is superficial entertainment, and exposing the truth is driven by a desire for personal recognition in the halls of power than serving society.

The editors of the not-New York Times newspaper (whose font looks rather similar to that of the New York Times and which seems to command the same respect in the media world as the New York Times) seem like they are the good guys: they are ready to break a big story in the name of public interest, to hold our government accountable. Yet it soon becomes clear that all they really value are click-through rates on their stories (replete with fancy consulting presentations about what stories are getting clicks) and looking respectable with political elites. “The Daily Rip,” the hottest talk show in the DC politico world, is the movie’s highlight. The show’s tagline—”keep it light, keep it fun”—succinctly encapsulates the thin (and thinning) line between politics and entertainment. The fact that the entire media ecosystem fawns over the show and would sell their souls to get an appearance on it is indicative of what the movie’s writers think of the world of media, both old and new.

This is a far cry from a David Foster Wallace-level critique of the unstoppable allure of television or The Entertainment—but if you accept that the movie is a polemic from start to finish, it’s moderately entertaining. A comet is not a perfect metaphor for climate change, and there is really only one joke that is genuinely funny: the repeated bewilderment that a three-star general charges them for free snacks. But it is hardly a terrible movie, and anyone with even a modicum of experience in the elite world of DC media will confirm that at least some of the barbs are well-deserved.

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