A New Reading of John Ashbery’s Three Poems


There are books that fall on you like a building. You’ve survived but you’ll never forget where you were standing when it happened. I was 25 when I read John Ashbery’s Three Poems, about to turn 26. I read it a second time three years later and took some notes which I still have. I’ve wanted to read it again, but my marked copy takes me back to that time, and my youth, and the person I was.

I felt the need for a clean copy, free from my notes. It took a while to find the one I wanted.

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three good things

The mockingbirds have not been silent in my neighborhood, but I have allowed this space to go silent while pursuing other projects, one of which I wish to share here in good time.

In the meantime, rather than allow another idea for a blog post to go unused, I’ve decided to make haste and leave it here. For I have continued, while pursuing those projects, to perceive and respond to things I feel are worth sharing. Here are three good ones.

Less than a week ago driving to work in the wee hours sleepily taking in the remnants of the all night jazz selections something came on that grabbed me and pulled me right in. I made a mental note of the artist’s name and came back to it via Google several days later. The track I heard, Idle Talk, was from an album called Foxing Hour by the KoMaGa Trio. Their playing is so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes:

The video here was uploaded by the harpest and composer, Motoshi Kosako. Check out his channel. He is an extraordinary musician, composer and improvisor.

The second good thing I’d like to share is another trio. John Zorn has been one of my biggest inspirations for a long time. He is too prolific for me to keep up, and his label, Tzadik, is always releasing something, but when I caught a glimpse of his album Calculus I knew that this was something else, something special, something above and beyond. Calculus is an album of two pieces composed and arranged by Zorn and played by the Brian Marsella Trio of Marsella on piano, Kenny Wollesen on drums and Trevor Dunn on bass. I was familiar with Wollesen from other Zorn recordings, and Dunn is a living legend, being an original member of Mr. Bungle. But I had never heard of Brian Marsella. Zorn compositions and arrangements, stellar playing by a trio of master musicians as intimate with each other as it gets–that’s all fantastic. But for me what pushes this record over the top is Marsella’s playing in particular. I haven’t been this enthusiastic about a musician since, well I can’t remember when.

And now the third, and since it is a piece of literature my problem isn’t finding the words but stemming the flow of them. I’ve had my eye on that Library of America edition of the stories of John Updike for a long time, more for the early stories than the late ones, and, I must admit, in part for the amazing Alex Katz portrait of the author that decorates the slipcase, and have been ready to pull the trigger on a copy. Then, just about two weeks ago I stopped into a thrift store and found a hardcover copy of the early stories published by Knopf in 2003. This is the edition with Updike’s arrangement of the stories. Library of America did the sensible thing of arranging them in chronological order of publication. Updike had his own way of doing it and in the index of titles in the back he gives the date of the first draft that was sent to a publisher. It just has his personal stamp all over it and that has an undenaible charm lacking in the Library of America edition.

I could not plow through the stories because the third one, Pigeon Feathers, stopped me cold, had me thinking for a whole day. Because I didn’t really relate to any of these people. I was puzzled by the end. What exactly happened to David? Was it as complete as it seemed? Is that possible, can a person change so fundamentally so fast? But what kind of a change. Wasn’t it more of a collapse? A crushing. A caving in. And all the clues, like those beautiful pigeon feathers laid out in the open so carefully by the master storyteller just sitting there like brilliant puzzle pieces in the sun, glistening. Put it together!

David is smart and sensitive and inquisitive. His family has stopped doing any of the three. They’re his role models, his world. There’s no love in his world. The grandmother is a creature, a thing with a claw and a beak, to be hidden, to be shoved out of the way. The puppy, normally an object of love, is just another moving breathing thing in the way, underfoot like grandmother. She’s just waiting to die. The dog was born to die. The father’s favorite expression: “this reminds me of death”. They’ve already died, because they’ve stopped thinking despite their knowledge, and stopped seeing the beauty all around them. Why should David be the only freak? Sure they put a gun in his hands. It’s the only thing they know how to do. Kill it. It’s a story about how a child loses his soul in a man and woman-made hell on paradise itself.

Can a person’s star really collapse that quickly and completely? You’ll have to decide for yourself. I have. But some good things you keep to yourself.

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Chinese Whispers

a person’s words may live on
like the Not I Mouth,
a pensum in froth
on endless repeat.
But what is heard
depends on the auditor
and information relayed
may not resemble prior use.
What does this mean
but that all language acts return
to the ocean of discourse
from which they came?
The strongest voices are those
with chorus fantasia that
take the longest time
to get back to
the original question:

Did you know you can Chinese whisper yourself? “Chinese Whispers” is the name of an old parlour game. Google it. It’s the name of a poem and a book by John Ashbery, the name of my poem, and the subject of this post: Chinese whispering yourself. I’ve done it. Come to think of it, all Googling might be a form of it, and all poems might have it as their title. Anyway….

Some time around 2001 I was in a bookstore and I recall seeing a little book by John Ashbery entitled As Umbrellas Follow Rain. I did not purchase the book when I saw it, thinking the price was steep for the package. I never saw the book again. More and more I began purchasing books online and over the years had made it my business to buy every new book of poetry Ashbery published. Whenever I had come across the title As Umbrellas Follow Rain I’d dismiss it. It was that mini book I had once seen, a thing, to paraphrase Jasper Johns, my mind already knew. In my mind it was that mini book containing a single poem (a poem to be found in a full length collection I already owned), a collector’s item, hence its hefty price (and I am not a collector). I must have repeated this process dozens of times over the years until one day a few weeks ago a photo of the book on eBay made me pause. This did not look like a mini book. The description did not designate it as one, but a standard sized book with enough pages for a whole collection. And now I’m hip to that fact. But I was positive I had seen a mini book all those years ago. How could I have made that mistake?

I thought about it and realized I had Chinese whispered myself. It’s the only explanation. It must have happened like this: later in the year of 2001 when Chinese Whispers came out I bought a copy and when I came across the poem entitled As Umbrellas Follow Rain a little bell must have rung and I must have formulated my incorrect image of As Umbrellas Follow Rain the book at that time. The existence of a mini book with that title containing the single poem, a collector’s item (and I am not a collector), made more sense than that of a whole other collection coming out in the same year as Chinese Whispers—a collection, mind you, made up almost completely of poems to be found in Chinese Whispers, a collection, moreover, that only the most ardent collector would want a copy of, and which I am very fortunate to have found

or the title of every poem ever written.
Is that hubris, ignorance, or both?
If you have to ask….
But I can afford it, that’s
obvious. Though I try not to be.
That’s just me.
And you, you’re another story,
obvious to some, and
to others (always others)
it’s like a game of Chinese whispers
—or whiskers. The whiskers that came,
to paraphrase Schwitters. I always think of him
whittling on a dirt road
(well, not on a road, but in the road on a piece of wood),
or playing with a field mouse.
Thank God some of his works survive,
though the ones in porridge were doomed
from the start.
Right from the very start.
Someone should have warned him about this,
the decay, the various notions of degeneration.
But nobody knows anything
that can direct the course of a life
until it’s lived,
and then

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The Life of Poetry: Reading Kenneth Fearing

How much time should you spend on one book? The answer depends on the book, of course, what that book means to you and what you are getting (and hoping to continue to get) out of it. For one person one lifetime won’t be enough to plumb the depths of the King James Bible. That bottomless book may be the collected plays of Shakespeare or something else. I cannot envision a time when I won’t be reaching for Maldoror, or Spring and All, or The Book of Disquiet. On the most basic level, the time you spend with one book is the amount of time it takes to read all of the words within it. But what of the words that allude to other words, indeed to other books? What of the words that produce an itch you can feel but can’t quite locate? How much time do you spend with that book? How about a slim volume of poems that only takes an hour or two to read? Are you done in an hour or two? Surely not.

The questions multiply, suggesting other questions, other answers, other books.

I have been spending a lot of time recently with Kenneth Fearing: Selected Poems, the Library of America edition, #8 in the American Poets Project published in 2004. Currently this is the only edition of Fearing’s poetry that is easily available. Used copies are common, and a copy in new condition can still be found. Everything else is long out of print and rare. An affordable copy of the complete poems published in 1994 in paperback is impossible to find. It should be in print and as easy to acquire as a complete edition of Frank O’Hara. It’s that good.

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Book Gift Recommendations

None of the arts are more varied or bewildering than the visual arts. For that person in your life who would like an overview, I don’t know of a better one than The Art of Looking at Art, or a better or wittier guide than Gene Wisniewski. Buy this richly illustrated art book for that person who doesn’t know where to begin. Buy it for yourself as a refresher. There are bound to be many juicy details in this book you have missed or have forgotten.

It is my wish that after Biden’s inauguration, Trump’s face and name will be completely forgotten for a time, for at least a year. The time will come again for us to remember, for we don’t want to blindly repeat hisory. And Scientists and Poets #Resist will be a valuable document from this deplorable time. It is a collection of poems and scientific essays that incorporate the seven terms banned by the Trump administration from official Health and Human Service documents: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based”. One of my three poems incorporating those terms is included.

For the poetry readers on your list Chris Tysh’s Hotel des Archives is a must have. For me, Chris Tysh is the most exciting poet I’ve come across since Anne Carson, and she deserves to be compared to Carson, she’s that good. Hotel des Archives brings together Tysh’s three “transcreations” of Molloy by Samuel Beckett, Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet, and The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein by Marguerite Duras, which the blurb on the back cover describes as “verse recastings”. I am reticent to speak for now about the third, not having read the Duras novel. But I am very familiar with the Genet, and Beckett’s is a favorite. In fact, Beckett may be my favorite author, so when I say Tysh has accomplished something extraordinary–and original–I am not speaking out of ignorance. She has brought a new voice to the novel while managing to remain faithful to it. That’s some kind of magic. I’ve written about her recasting of Genet here, and by the way that book, published by Les Figues Press, is a beauty of a book. But Hotel des Archives has all three transcreations and it’s a great book.

It would be unfortunate for anyone’s introduction to Waiting for the Barbarians to be the movie released earlier this year. It’s not a bad film, just another one in a world of films. But the novel by J. M. Coetzee, first published in 1980, is not just another one in a world full of novels. It’s a great artistic achievement, certainly one of the twenty best novels I have ever read. And so–if you’re intrigued by the movie but haven’t yet seen it or read the book, do yourself a favor and get the book now. Thank me later.

OK, I’m a fan and I’m biased. But that can be said about all of my recommendations, indeed about virtually everything I’ve written on The Mockingbird Sings. And Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements by Bob Mehr isn’t simply a book about my favorite rock band, or even one of my favorite poets, the band’s lyricist Paul Westerberg.

Paul Westerberg, sketch by Mark Kerstetter

It’s a riveting read, like the car crash you can’t look away from. I read somewhere that Westerberg told Mehr if he was going to write that thing then he had to tell the whole story. Thank you, Paul. It’s all there: the drunken and musical highs, the drunken and musical lows, the thrill of dancing on the edge, the crushing defeat of death. And so it transcends cultural history and is more than a uniquely American story; it’s a story about heart and soul. I can’t recommend it enough.

If you prefer your books on an e-reader, Books We Live By has been publishing the novels of Michael Brodsky. He’s the Louis-Ferdinand Céline of our time. Yeah, I said that. The novelist we have needed and I have been asking for–that uncompromising scream in our American Night–has been with us all along.

On a personal note: Of all of the books I have read in 2020, the one that I suspect will linger in my mind as a “little souvenir of a terrible year” will be the poem Clarel by Herman Melville. Mostly I suppose it’s the heavy sense of limbo and uncertainty and doubt that suffuses the poem that does it. But also coming at the very end of a very long poem it’s the sense of a veil lifting, of new life just about to bud. I write this the day after the Electoral College made Biden’s victory secure and the first COVID vaccines have been administered. This is hoping for the best for everyone in 2021.

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A Story About Time or Why I Wear a Mechanical Watch Every Day

When I was a kid I liked wristwatches and had a couple of Timex hand-winders in my possession. One, a small plain white dial piece with Arabic indices and a strap of gray with black speckles, I liked to wear because it made me feel intelligent. I was a man who knew the time and had somewhere to go, there alone in my bedroom gazing at books through my plastic sunglasses with the lenses poked out because that also made me feel intelligent. Another, a dive-style watch, sat in its plastic stand on my desk in the cubicle at the Christian school I went to for 6th grade. There at the head of my studies it not only kept me apprised of the time, but, because it was sporty, was a constant reminder of the life that awaited outside school. By senior year I had put watches aside. Without money or prospects, time had stopped for me. When at twenty-one I was finally able to leave home and live on my own in a big city for the first time I could not afford a watch at any price. But I wouldn’t have wanted one anyway. Intensely anti-materialistic and anti-mainstream-anything, I owned one pair of jeans with a broken zipper and the fly sewn shut and no underwear or a hat and gloves to go out into the cold. Jewelry to me was a disgusting display of decadence. In particular the idea of making a note of the time on a wristwatch was repugnant to a romantic who refused to be in step with the world but also afraid to recognize another year gone by and no art sold, no books published, another year more certain no one would write a biography of this artist. Easier to say, fuck time.

Time itself worked away on my attitude towards time; no doubt it does that to everyone. Yet the notion of wearing a wristwatch remained foreign to my adult life until last year when that suddenly and strangely changed. I will tell how I went from someone who couldn’t stand the idea of glancing at the time to someone who, well into his fifties, wears a watch every minute of the day. When I don’t sleep with it on, putting on a watch is the first thing I want to do every morning and taking it off—if I do—the last thing before sleep. Watch enthusiasts often allude to an organic connection to mechanical watches, especially those with an automatic movement. But I have never heard or read an explanation or description of this connection. So I will provide one.

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Learn the Art of Looking at Art with Gene Wisniewski

As Gene Wisniewski explains in the Preface to his book, The Art of Looking at Art, published in October by Rowman & Littlefield,

This book grew out of a seminar…. Entitled the Six-Hour Art Major…. Its ultimate goal is to help participants to understand art more from the artist’s point of view, by giving them the opportunity to experience a concentrated version of the typical art school curriculum. [p xiii]

The Art of Looking at Art is a book for those who, at whatever stage of life, have taken an interest in art—here the visual arts—but after a brief survey may be puzzled as to where to enter such a vast and complicated world. It is also a book for artists or art educators to gift intelligent and curious friends or family members who desire a primer in the visual arts, a single book that can serve as an overview, something comprehensive but condensed with well-chosen details and written with the layperson in mind. I would also argue it’s good for art experts as well. You may already know something about Michelangelo, but it just might be that he, the statue David, or the Sistine Chapel are cliches lodged somewhere in the back of your brain. Even experts may have looked so many times at the same things that they stop seeing them or worse start saying the things about them that everyone else has said: one big echo chamber. One must even learn how to see cliches. A fresh reminder of Michelangelo’s difficulties and superhuman dedication as told by Mr. Wisniewski will bring it upfront and alive.

An overview of this breadth is a tall order, perhaps in the end an impossible one, but Wisniewski has done an admirable job, an act of historico-cultural collage, weaving examples from the present day together with those from all periods of history across the globe (with a focus on Western art). As with any great act of collage, the trick is to pick the right examples and place them in a manner that satisfies the mind. To do this he brought his own extensive knowledge in the arts, as one who has studied it and made it, together with the patience of a researcher and the enthusiasm of an art lover. Above all it is his voice, his conversational tone, his wit, that will keep you reading. Wisniewski has a wonderful down-to-earth manner of describing works of art. The stars in van Gogh’s Starry Night look like “oncoming headlights through a smashed windshield” [p 156]. He calls out Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon as the ugly thing it is—“The women look like they’re assembled from odd bits of cut-out construction paper, in tones of fleshy pink, brownish purple, and a color like raw pork chops” [p 141]—then explains why it’s a historically significant painting nonetheless. In the end he wins you over as the right kind of guide to reveal that the labyrinths of art can if not be conquered by one person then at least traveled not only with impunity but with delight and nourishment. In the process he provides practical insights on how to embark on these travels on one’s own.

Perhaps it’s the sense that a novice could use encouragement or reassurance that, even while the intertwining paths of art provide endless journeying, one need not surrender to a feeling of being utterly lost that he states at the end of the Introduction, “don’t worry—all will be explained in time.” An expert might smile at this statement. But the fact is, Wisniewski is not the kind of teacher who hits the student with a barrage of facts polished off with definitive explanations. What he does instead is to show that if one wants to learn how to really look at art one has to meet it halfway. You don’t just put yourself in front of a painting for what you “hope is an acceptable amount of time” [p 1] and wait for it to speak to you. Even a baseball game, Wisniewski points out, requires a knowledge of the rules to appreciate. Why should something as complex as a painting be approached in the offhand manner that art is whatever you like or everyone’s a critic? Lots of people play basketball too, Wisniewski points out, but there’s only one LeBron James. The more you know about basketball the more you appreciate why that is. If that is true of basketball how much more so in the vast world of art? Far from the pedagogue know-it-all, he’s the friendly mentor that you want and respect because he knows it’s challenging understanding art, and difficult to say the least living the life of an artist. In the chapter This Is Your Brain on Art he writes,

When an artist is that frustrated, getting a little distance and clearing their head is undoubtedly the wisest course of action. Is this what I do? Of course not. [p 131]

In fact it may be in part because of the vastness of the labyrinthine art world that the beginner despairs of even making the initial attempt. Wisniewski shows that an attempt can be made. The Art of Looking at Art is such an attempt. Meet it halfway, even when you don’t get it, even if your first reaction is repulsion, even if it seems an ocean too big and wild to dive into. You don’t have to be Michelangelo to make an attempt. But if you bring your own strengths and individuality to art, if you approach it the way an artist does it, with curiosity and a willingness to experiment, then you just might find it’s the adventure of a lifetime. This is the biggest lesson of The Art of Looking at Art, chockfull of juicy details, practical advice, wit, and a lifetime of experience.

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Gombrowicz on Beauty

Art is what we do. Culture is what is done to us.
—Carl Andre, 1967

I have concluded my second tour of Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary but I don’t know how to conclude my notes. Reading the Diary was a consistent challenge, so the difficulties of “absorbing” it linger. But Gombrowicz’s challenges are of a nature that defy absorption, if by that we mean we have learned a lesson and can sum it up and those tidy phrases can stand in for the book itself while we move on to the next one. If we have been paying attention Gombrowicz has contrived to prevent our fixing his text into a final form that can be a stand-in or represent the text itself. We will have to let it irritate us. We will have to go back and reread it. We will have to live with it.

What else is behind his deeply ambivalent attitude toward the fine arts? He is a novelist first and foremost and certainly that medium was his chief tool in making himself, in building himself a citizen of the world. And while it is true he did not disparage the art of novel making nearly to the extent he did the other arts, one can’t help but sweep all of the arts into his overall view that life takes precedence over any of the final forms of artistic statements.

I do not believe that long box-office lines can lead anyone to art, one has to make it oneself, I want to see it not on the stage but in eyes, smiles, lips, and speech. . . . [p 141 This and all subsequent quotations from Diary Volume Three, Northwestern University Press]

Pictures, statues, and other wonderful things exist only so that people know they exist . . . and one does not pay any more attention to them than one pays to radiators and ventilators. [p 152]

I began today’s entry with a quote by Carl Andre from around the same period as Gombrowicz’s final Diary entries not to contrast and compare the two* but because I think Andre’s statement perfectly encapsulates a primary Gombrowiczian idea. There are worlds in those two brief sentences, and we get an idea of those worlds when we read Gombrowicz. I am made by the world in ways and to degrees that I find unacceptable. How can I fight back? How can I make myself? How can I exert an influence?

It is far more important that I make art than remain an observer of art that has been made. And it is imperative that I recognize the importance of life over art, life before art, life first. I don’t live to work. But I have a job to get the money to live. And I’m not alive to be an artist. But I make art to help me live.

That should be enough to “conclude”. But the pebble is still rattling in the can and I haven’t even addressed it in these notes. One has to look at Gombrowicz’s fascination for youth, for the beauty of youth, for its inferior and indefinite qualities. One has to look at the way in which being an artist was for Gombrowicz tied to a fascination for youth.

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2 Minutes & 3 Seconds

No one tells me when to fly
2 minutes & 3 seconds
on a white plastic shield
so long’s it’s not an N95
can’t stand’em, won’t face’em
I’ll sit here & won’t budge
till I’m diametrically opposed
to this position
& then I’m steadfast
in flight from definition
through the screen holes
of media scrutiny
a genuine fake
till I’ve licked up
claimed for mine
the trodden people’s
sweet time.

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Fine People on All Sides

A Tale of Two Heathers
in memory of Heather Heyer

In this world we do not speak of Heather’s tears.
She was not crushed on Fourth and Water
by a Challenger in burning Fields
of white crosses emboldened
by a president who cannot assess the potency of words
on a populace of persons but not a People.

We the people have no statuary.
All parks are emancipated from bad art
and all eyes are on the global snapshot:

e pluribus unum.
Fields do not drive, but grow.
In our world, Heather lives.

The “Unite the Right” rally took place on August 11 and 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. White supremacists clashed with “counter-protesters” and one of the latter, Heather Heyer, was killed on the 12th when one of the former, James Fields, drove his car into them. Trump released a statement that day condemning hatred “on many sides”, not calling out white supremacists in particular. On August 13 a WH spokesperson claimed that Trump was condemning white hate groups and he in fact did so the next day. But the day after that, Tuesday August 15, he walked his comments of the previous day back, reiterating his “many sides” position, making his infamous “very fine people” statement.

Joe Biden cited those comments on the 15th of August as marking the moment he decided to run for president. In the first presidential debate between Biden and Trump, September 29, 2020, Trump responded to a question about race relations by talking about law and order, and when specifically asked to condemn white hate groups he refused to do so. Instead his, “Proud Boys stand back and stand by” comment was widely received, most significantly by the Proud Boys themselves, as a call to action, to stand by and get ready.

Days later cartoonist Scott Adams remarked that it has been debunked many times that the “very fine people” statement was a failure to condemn white supremacist hate groups, suggesting that reading the transcript reveals it unequivocally. Trump lost his vote, he claimed, because of the president’s failure in the debate to point out the lie that he had not condemned white supremacist groups. And if one goes to the full video of the press conference one can read thousands of responses that echo Adams’ claim: Trump did indeed condemn white hate groups. And you’ll find the same sentiment by conducting a simple search on Twitter, call it the “fine people hoax”. In this scenario the news media hates Trump, distorts his messages and spreads lies. Every day the left repeats the lie—‘Trump said neo-Nazis are very fine people; Biden’s campaign is based on a lie’.

According to Adams nothing would have been easier than pointing out the lie in the debate, it was “money on the table”. And Trump could easily win his vote back. All he has to do is say the magic words. Words, the right words at the right time, would seem to matter.

Any account of the events in Charlottesville on the 12th of August reveal an explosive and chaotic scene. Trump’s words, all of them, from one day to the next, did not quell that disturbance, but let it burn and arguably disturbed it further. His words did not serve to heal and unite even when—and you can read the transcripts—he specifically calls for healing and uniting. Why is it that he did indeed condemn white hate groups but that message has been completely buried? Adams and other conservatives put the blame entirely on the news media. And they might not be blameless. But you can read the transcript. More importantly you can view the video of the full press conference. Condemnation of white hate is not the overriding theme that emerges. And the image that some Trump supporters would like to promote—of a fair-minded man finding good and bad on all sides—does not stack up either. The net effect of Trump’s words is as chaotic as the events in Charlottesville on that day. 

It all hinges on the phrase “fine people” and what defines a fine person to you. According to Trump—it’s also in the transcript—Robert E. Lee is an example of a fine person. Removing a monument to him is tantamount to “changing history” and where will it end. Jefferson and Washington were slave owners, will we remove all statues of them? Unite the Right demonstrators carried confederate flags, swastikas and chanted racist slogans. It was one of their number that killed Heather Heyer. And in that context Trump was quick—aggressively so—to bring the counter protesters into the same plane of blame as Unite the Right. They shouldn’t have been there. They didn’t have a permit. They were shouting, rude, aggressive. In doing so he brought Washington and Jefferson onto the same moral plane as Robert E. Lee. The message that comes through is not condemnation of white supremacy, but sympathy for support of a monument to Robert E. Lee and an aggressive, driving concern to direct blame toward the other side, those protesting a proud display of white power. The message comes through loud and clear: sympathy and support for a history of white dominance. Yes, even though the words are there: white supremacists should be condemned. Trump buried his own words. In like manner he capitulated to the outcry against white supremacy in a tweet on the 14th of August, and then buried his own statement the next day. He’s erratic but in the end clear about where his sympathies lie.

The argument that Trump is fair-minded, that he looks at blame and virtue on all sides, seeing bad and fine people everywhere—just doesn’t hold up. If his sympathies lie with white supremacists—despite tepid and equivocal condemnation—if honoring a monument to Robert E. Lee is equivalent to being attentive to historical accuracy, then “making America great again” can seem to be advocating a return to days of white dominance. Fine people on the other side of this view have reason to be concerned. At the very least, any Trump supporter who maintains that their president is not racist must admit that as long as these interpretations are so prevalent among those who have seen the unedited videos and read the transcripts, then Trump is a poor communicator, lousy at uniting the people, a terrible leader and does not deserve a vote.

I’m on the side of those fine people who, however flawed, still reach for a United States. There was room here for understanding, however polarized “right” and “left” seem to be. Missed opportunities all around. Bad moves by fine people on all sides. At another time, in another context, the statue debate has genuine merit. But we need a better president and a climate of civil discourse for that.

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