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“Religious liberty” is just another rightwing lie

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Next time you hear a radical Christian complaining about attacks on “religious liberty,” you should know this: They’re lying. It’s not “religious liberty” they want, it’s permission for them to indulge in the orgies of racial discrimination, homophobia and anti-choice they enjoy with an almost sexual relish.

Keep that in mind when you interpret the latest Supreme Court decision on “religious liberty,” in which the extremist Catholics on the court decided it’s more important to allow superspreader events in churches than to keep Americans alive in this age of COVID-19. The five justices who struck down New York State’s limits of church attendance all were Roman Catholics of an extreme rightwing bent: Alito, Kavanaugh, Gorsuch, Thomas and Coney Barrett, possibly the most radical of them all, whose ties to the shadowy “People of Praise” cult means she subscribes to the notion that “wives must submit to their husbands.”

If this was the year 500 B.C. that might have been an acceptable belief, but in America, in the 21st century? Yet that’s what you get when you allow Biblical literalists to run things. And yet, this Republican violation of the Constitution’s separation of church and state is nothing new. Republicans have been trying to decades to promote the views of extreme rightwing Christians and enshrine them into law. Forty years ago, for instance, President Ronald Reagan sided with Bob Jones University, a fake university that was in reality a madrasa for young evangelical, rightwing propagandists, in a lawsuit the school filed against the I.R.S., which correctly denied Bob Jones tax exemptions on the basis that the school was little more than a racist institution disguising itself as an educational institution. That was but a foreshadowing of dozens of similar cases in years to come, including that notorious Kentucky county clerk, Kim Davis, who cited her own bigoted Christian beliefs in refusing to register same-sex couples for marriage. Davis, who was widely and properly reviled by most Americans, was strongly supported by other rightwing Christians who believed that their views on love and marriage should be allowed to trample on the rights of all Americans to love whom they choose. For instance, the president of the Kentucky State Senate, Robert Stivers, actually had to audacity to assert that, as a result of Obergefell v. Hodges (which legalize same-sex marriage), “the Supreme Court ruling has completely obliterated the definition of marriage.” Just whose definition of marriage, he did not make clear, but I will: the conservative Christian definition.

What we, as Americans, are going to have to reckon with, sooner rather than later, is this ongoing, concerted and dangerous attack on our historic democracy by extremist elements among the evangelicals, Pentecostals and Coney Barrett-style rightwing Catholics. They wish (and they make no bones about it) to un-do our democratic, non-sectarian principles and establish instead a theocracy in America that can only be described as Taliban light. No, they don’t want to chop off the hands of thieves, but if given the power they seek, would they force gay men to be castrated, the way the Nazis did? Certainly, there have been such suggestions from insane people over the years.

It doesn’t take much imagination to take the homophobic attacks of radical Christians like Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum and Franklin Graham and extrapolate them into a full-fledged national attack on LGBT people; indeed, while most of the Supreme Court Catholics have the sense to stay quiet about their views, two of them, Alito and Thomas, blasted Obergefell v. Hodges in the name of—you guessed it—“religious liberty.”

It should be concerning to lovers of freedom and democracy when religious fanatics, at the highest levels of government, feel unconstrained in expressing such notions of repression. These haters are limited only because our democratic system of checks and balances prevents them from the full, brazen exercise of the power they crave. One of the reasons why Trump was such a threat was because he attempted to demolish that system of checks and balances. He was largely unsuccessful, but if he continues to stoke hatred and fear among rightwing Christians during his post-presidency, and then if he runs for re-election in 2024 and wins, we’ll have the biggest fight imaginable before us. It will be a choice: Do we allow our Constitution, with the democratic liberties it guarantees, to run America? Or do we shred that sacred document, and turn our country over to the Ayatollahs who would destroy it?


An interview with Melania Trump

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I’m pleased to announce my new interview with departing First Lady Melania Trump. We met in her Sitting Room in the White House East Wing. Looking radiant in a Chanel asymmetrical chemise, shocking pink in color and decorated with aubergine crescent moons and her grandmother’s sapphire brooch, Mrs. Trump was warm and welcoming as she offered me croissants and coffee. I began by asking her if she’ll miss living in the White House.

MT: Why would you ask that, darling?

SH: Well, because your husband was defeated for re-election, so you’re going to have to move out by Jan. 20.

MT: Oh, don’t believe the rumors. My husband was re-elected in a landslide. We have no plans to leave the White House. You really need to stop listening to fake news.

SH: So you believe he won?

MT: Of course! Ask the lawyers. Ask Rudy—he’ll tell you. And Kayleigh. Don’t you just love her? I call her the nice Kellyanne Conway. Would you like a petit-four?

SH: No, thank you. I’d like to ask you about your former life in Eastern Europe. It’s often said you were an “escort” prior to marrying your husband. What did you do as an escort?

MT: I entertained wealthy businessmen and diplomats.

SH: How did you entertain them?

MT: Oh, you know, stuff.

SH: Can you explain?

MT: I’d much rather talk about my husband, and the things he has accomplished for America. He’s the best friend the Negroes have ever had, you know.

SH: Could you see yourself becoming an escort again, now that you won’t be First Lady in 56 days?

MT: Again, I don’t know what you’re talking about. My schedule as First Lady is already planned through next August. We’re giving a State Dinner at the White House on Feb. 6 for President Erdowan, of Turkey, one of my husband’s good friends. Would you like a ticket?

SH: But Mrs. Trump, on Feb. 6, the President of the United States will be Joe Biden.

MT: Who?

SH: Will you live in Mar-a-Lago, Mrs. Trump?

MT: I like Mar-a-Lago very much. I love to walk barefooted on the beach, looking for pretty seashells. I love wearing a billowy sea-skirt that blows in the breeze. Sometimes I bring my favorite Secret Service agent, ____ [name withheld], and we play behind the sea wall.

SH: Do you have any hobbies, Mrs. Trump?

MT: Oh, yes, I love puzzles of all kinds. And can openers.

SH: Do you have a favorite mammal?

MT: I love hamsters.

SH: Did you do the decorating here in your lovely Sitting Room?

MT: I did! Just like Jackie Kennedy. She’s my role model and hero for a First Lady. My sense of fashion and hers are quite similar.

SH: Who’s your most un-favorite First Lady?

MT: Oh, that awful cow, Michelle Obama. When we moved in, the White House was filled with dust and grime. I think the Obamas hate America. Of course, he wasn’t even born here. Do you know, when they lived here the White House stank. They had the most awful people coming to visit. The Oval Office smelled like sweat.

SH: Did you like Barbara Bush?

MT? Who?

SH: Were there any First Ladies you admired, besides Jackie Kennedy?

MT: Another petit-four?

SH: Many people have commented on your husbands lie’s. Does it bother you that he’s untethered to reality?

MT: Tell me a supposed lie that Donald has told.

SH: The biggest inaugural crowd. Mexicans are murderers and rapists. Obama was born in Kenya.

MT: Fake news! He never said any of those things.

SH: I’m afraid we’re going to have to end this conversation, Mrs. Trump. You’re not willing to deal with reality.

MT: It’s been very nice taking with you. Another petit four?


Troubled thoughts, one week after the election

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I think I hit a new emotional low today. As if things weren’t depressing enough, what with the pandemic, Gus dying, and me staring my mortality in its dark face, I heard something that dreadful Mike Pompeo said, and it really freaked me out.

“There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration,” he announced, with a smirk, at a press conference. He used the same phrase, “counting every legal vote,” that Trump’s slave, Kayleigh McEnany, has been using, a phrase implying that Biden’s five-million vote plurality was illegal. And he implied that Republican governors will make sure that electors from their state disregard the election results and instead appoint Republican stooges.

When I heard that, I had to go out for a walk.

The weather has turned chilly here in Northern California, after a spectacular six months of paradise, so I bundled up against the wind. And walked, and walked, and walked for many miles. My head and heart were so troubled. I really am not ready for a coup d’état by Republicans, but it looks like that’s what they’re planning. If we’ve learned anything about Trump and his storm troopers after four years, it’s that he means what he says—and when he says he won’t accept the results of the election, we have to believe that he won’t. He has the power of the Pentagon (including the National Guard) until Jan. 20, 2021, and I don’t doubt that he’ll use it if he feels like he needs to.

He also has the power of the millions and millions of “proud boys,” QAnons, and other white militia types, many if not most of whom have weapons and know how to use them. We elite coastal wimps, of course, do not have weapons, so if it comes to that, what are we supposed to do? History, so the old saying goes, is written by the winners. Trump and his lackeys understand that perfectly well. They’re prepared to be Genghis Khan, or Sherman riding through Georgia, pillaging, looting, burning and destroying everything in sight.

Look: Trump himself said, on Fox “News” (where else?), that America’s problems will only be “solved…when the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell, and everything is a disaster, then you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be, when we were great.”

His acolyte Steve Bannon—now banned for life from Twitter for threatening to murder his political opponents—said the same thing.  “Lenin,” he answered, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

Their game plan is clear. It’s right there in plain sight. Burn it all down. Values, institutions, the Constitution, the opposition Democratic Party, the government, the federal agencies, the courts, the media, Hollywood, the LGBTQ community, foreigners, Muslims, liberals, and all the rest that they hate. And what would Republicans do when loyal American citizens resist their assault? “Put heads on spikes,” Bannon saidin other words, behead—Christopher Wray, the F.B.I. head, and Dr. Fauci. He would then “put [the heads on pikes] at the two corners of the White House as a warning to federal bureaucrats. You either get with the program or you are gone.”

Why are we not taking these psychopaths,Trump and Bannon, at their word? They said these things. Why do we assume they’re just indulging in hyperbole? They’re not. These madmen are for real. They cannot be stopped using ordinary means. No court decision will deter them, no complaining on MSNBC, no editorial in the New York Times, no Twitter appeal from Rob Reiner, no peaceful demonstration by the  National Federation of Democratic Women, no March on Washington, no letters to the editor, no appeals to Gavin Newsom or Kamala Harris, no Lincoln Project. If the Republican thugs think they can get away with a coup, they’re perfectly happy to do it, convinced as they are they will win. They’ve studied the history of revolutions, and they know that the best way to take over a government is to ruthlessly overthrow the old government, install themselves, and intimidate the citizenry from doing anything about it.

And these are the thoughts that so troubled me on my walk. I admit that I’m pretty depressed lately. I’d like to see some light at the end of the tunnel, something to give me hope that Biden and Harris will be inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2021, and we can restore normalcy to America (and that the pandemic will go away, and Gus’s tumor will shrink). But right now, I’m just not seeing any of that.


Notes on Some Wine-Review Books: Cabernet Sauvignon

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California Cabernet Sauvignon—specifically Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon—became “branded” in the public’s mind much more quickly than any other wine in history. How this happened was relatively straightforward, although that does not make the accomplishment any less noteworthy. The grape has been grown in California since the mid- or late 1800s and there are records of its wines winning awards in Europe more than a century ago. But Cabernet really hit the international Big Time after the 1960s.

By then, jet travel, international trade and famous wine critics had become part and parcel of wine’s economic milieu, so that it was far easier for a wine to build up a global reputation than it had been in, say, the 1700s, when Bordeaux ever so slowly became coveted. One factor, seldom-cited, that contributed to Cabernet’s budding reputation was the intervention of another Britisher, the wine merchant and bon vivant, Harry Waugh, whose “Wine Diaries”—a series of memoirs he wrote beginning in the early 1960s—were enormously influential among a small but important group of wine influencers. Harry (everyone called him by his first name) was a delightful man, Edwardian in his fusses and manners. I traveled with him through Washington State in the early 1990s, at a time when, already quite elderly, he was a bit gaga (I mean no disrespect), in a sweetly doddering way. Our hosts, the state’s Wine Commission, asked me to “keep an eye on him,” so as to make sure he did not wander off somewhere and come to harm during our travels throughout Washington’s extensive wine country. By then, I already owned most of his Diaries; his writing style—laconic, deadpan, completely without fluffery, as modest as its author—influenced my own a great deal. But Harry’s contribution to Napa Cabernet Sauvignon was in spreading its glories to his compatriots in Europe: the merchants, nobility, business titans and writers of London, Paris and Bordeaux, who first heard of, and tasted, Heitz, Louis M. Martini, Beaulieu, Robert Mondavi, Freemark Abbey, Charles Krug, Inglenook, and other Napa Valley glories, through Harry’s good graces. Premium wine requires a cult of aficiendos to bring it to acclaim, and Harry was the seed germ of California wine for that international jet set.

My introduction to California Cabernet Sauvignon was not from Napa Valley but from a decidedly less august place, Monterey County. In the cold winter of 1979-1980, while living in an unheated apartment (I was a struggling student) in the foggy southwestern part of San Francisco, I bought a 1977 Almaden Cabernet from that Central Coast region. Monterey did not have a good reputation as a wine region, nor Almaden for a winery. Yet the bottle was cheap, and so I decided to make my very first-ever wine note with it. I remember sitting down at a little writing table with the bottle and the wine glass beside me and writing, my fingers frigid in that chilly apartment, that review (I no longer have it), which was the genetic forebear of so many others to follow. I do not recall what I wrote but that is unimportant. What counted was that I did it—focused on the wine, gathered my thoughts, sniffed, swirled, tasted, retasted, resniffed, reswirled, retasted, all the while struggling to find the words to describe what my senses were experiencing.

From my reading, it had become evident that Cabernet Sauvignon was the important wine in California, and Napa Valley the important place to grow it. Not long after that, I made my first trip to the valley, in the company of my cousin, Maxine, and her husband, Keith. We went—I recall it distinctly, because, more than 30 years later, I was to go to work for its parent company—to Freemark Abbey, where an amusing incident arose that illustrates the truth of the old slogan, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” I knew of Freemark Abbey’s pedigree and was intent on tasting its very finest Cabernet Sauvignon. The lady at the tasting bar offered me a glass of something labeled “Cabernet Bosché.” I turned my nose up. “That is not Cabernet Sauvignon,” I insisted, suspecting trickery. “Yes, it is,” she insisted. “Then why is it called ‘Cabernet Bosché?’” Perry Mason was closing in for the kill. “Because ‘Bosché is the name of the vineyard,” in the commune of Rutherford. “We named it ‘Cabernet Bosché’ to honor the vineyard. It is our very finest Cabernet Sauvignon.”

But stupid me was not to be put off. No, I said, I want to taste Cabernet Sauvignon; so the very nice lady gave me a glass of the winery’s regular Cabernet Sauvignon.Well, that is how one learns, through mistakes. Years later, when I worked for that parent company, Jackson Family Wines, and they asked me to put together a museum for a new visitor’s gallery they were constructing at Freemark Abbey, I came across, in old files that looked like they hadn’t been accessed for decades, the original paperwork for the use of the Bosché vineyard’s grapes. Someone initially decided to drop the accent aigu on the final “e,” fearing it would be too much for Americans. Someone else—one of the winery’s founders, as I recall—argued to the contrary; and the accent aigu was restored, as well it should have been.

My early tasting notebooks nonetheless contain very little fine Napa Valley Cabernet, for the simple reason that I couldn’t at that time afford it (it has always been expensive). The first one I did review that you could call upscale was Clos du Val’s 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon, which I had in the summer of 1986. I recall nothing of the circumstances of my acquisition, nor did I record the price. Perhaps I bought it at the little wine shop on 24th Street in Noe Valley, where I was then living. Clos du Val, founded by a Frenchman, Bernard Portet (whose father, I believe, had worked at Latour or Lafite), was located in the Stags Leap District of the valley, on the Silverado Trail, and had a reputation for being more “Bordeaux-like” than other Napa Valley Cabs, which is to say, lower in alcohol and as a consequence less ripe, less lush, but perhaps more ageable. I liked it well enough, but it didn’t bowl me over, and I wrote “I just wish I had waited another 4-5 years.” The tannins, you see, made the wine hard. I have since tasted plenty of Clos du Val Cabs, including old vintages up to twenty years of age, and I think that tannin problem, and a certain rustic nature, always bothered me. Bernard wanted to make a more linear, elegant wine; so did most of the other Europeans who established wineries in Napa Valley. I remember, with delight, when Jean-Noel de Formeaux (who was Belgian, I think, not French) began his Chateau Potelle project, on Mount Veeder. He told me he found most Napa Valley Cabernet to be “like Tammy Faye Bakker,” the T.V. evangelist’s wife, famous in her own right, who painted her face with scads of rouge, eye shadow, eye liner, fake spidery lashes and goopy, smeared red lipstick; it all made her look rather like a drag queen. Jean-Noel’s (“Jonny Christmas”) point was that in his view Napa Valley Cabernet was freakishly overdone in every respect. He wanted, he explained, his wines to be more like the sleek, pulled-together women of Paris and the Bordeaux quai and less like poor, satirical American Tammy Faye, no longer with us but whose memory lives on in certain breasts.

Another Clos du Val instance comes to mind which suggests an approach to blind tasting, and how sometimes success in guessing comes not necessarily from what you taste but how you deduce. This was around 1995. Somebody put together a tasting of current-release Napa Cabernets at the old Hawthorne Lane restaurant, then one of the trendiest in San Francisco. At the end, our host announced a special contest: we would taste a single wine, wrapped in a brown paper bag; whoever identified it would win dinner for two at the restaurant.

The tasting had been of Napa Valley Cabernets, so I assumed, for better or worse, that the “blind” wine would be of the same genus. I at once knew it was older, from the color—orange around the meniscus, or rim—and the aroma, which had matured into the “bottle bouquet” of an aged wine. Yet it still contained hard tannins, and a fair amount of acidity. I estimated it to be around 18-20 years old. Hmm. Who was making wine like that in Napa Valley in the 1970s? Only one winery came to mind. It was a good, ripe wine; the 1978 vintage was famous for ripeness. I guessed 1978 Clos du Val. I got two out of three points right; the blind wine had been the reserve, not the regular, and so I did not get the dinner for two. Unfair, I thought. Sic transit gloria. But it was satisfaction enough.


Countdown to Election Night!

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I’ve made my plans for election night. I refuse to watch it on T.V. alone—it’s going to be too gut-wrenching. So I’ll go up to Lauren and Fernando’s place. I’ll bring a bottle of Aperol, the Italian liqueur I’ve been enjoying lately, which is similar to Campari but a little sweeter, and also some Perrier to mix it with (over ice, of course). And a snack: maybe pizza. Then we’ll settle in.

I’m nervous as f**k, as is every Democrat in America. This could go either way. It could go in several different directions at once. Judging from my conversations with folks, everybody seems to anticipate some kind of chaos, with the most general expectation being that Nov. 3 and the following weeks or months will bring an unprecedented period in American history. Of course, it’s possible that all this catastrophizing is simply that; the election will go off smoothly, whoever loses will concede to the winner, there will be no explosions in the streets, and that will be that.

But if you believe that rosy scenario, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.

Every time it looks like Biden is a shoo-in, something happens to make me worry. A new poll appears that shows Trump winning the general election. Or a poll showing the Senate remaining out of Democratic control. Or a new report on Republican/Supreme Court voter suppression. It’s interesting to speculate on what happens if Biden wins but Republicans (and McConnell) retain Senate control. It’s a lot more emotionally satisfying to think of Biden winning and the Senate flipping. First thing I would do, were I the new Senate Majority Leader (presumably Schumer), is to institute proceedings to expel McConnell. The U.S. Constitution allows that. Article 1, Section 5 says

“Each House [of Congress] may determine the Rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member.”

The thing is, we Democrats have a powerful thirst for revenge. (Most of us, anyway. I sure do.) After what McConnell did to Merrick Garland, he has to be made to pay. Expulsion would be the minimum. Just throw his sorry, chinless ass out. We also want revenge on Trump himself and on his children. All of them. The most satisfying outcome would be for a complete Democratic takeover. Then both Houses of Congress could begin their investigations—into Trump’s taxes, his violation of the emoluments clause, his using the presidency to enrich himself and his family, the collusion with the Russians and everything else. Congress could vote to release the entire Mueller Report to the public, and all the other “secret” documents Trump’s lawyers have been fighting to keep private. Then, too, the civil lawsuits against Trump and his family could be filed—the sexual assaults, the hush money payments, the Chinese bank accounts, the tax dodging, the crooked real estate deals, the whole sordid private life of a disgusting man. I don’t want to hear anyone issuing any Rodney King-type “Can’t we all just get along?” pleas, and that includes Biden, who sometimes, in his urge to unite the country, seems a little too anxious to let criminals off the hook. While we’re at it, the House can expel Devin Nunes (assuming he wins re-election, which he’s almost certain to). He represents one of the reddest parts of California, the inland area of Fresno and Tulare counties, which is 72% white (including “Hispanic”). Nunes got nearly 58% of the vote in 2018, and despite his violent malpractice during Impeachment (when as the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee he transmitted secret developments personally to Trump in the White House), his agricultural base loves him because they’re terrified of “the situation in Los Angeles” spilling over into their idyllic little inland enclave of white middle-classness.

Thing is, if I lived in a tranquil non-urban setting, I’d probably be a little paranoid about the problems of the urban areas (like Oakland) coming into my neighborhood. But I like to think I’m smart enough to understand that you can’t build a wall around Fresno (or anyplace else) and expect to shut the rest of America out. We’re all in this together, to quote a much-overused but accurate saying, and if America can’t figure out what to do about poverty, then we’re just going to continue to drift apart into separate, non-equal constituencies. This may work for the short haul, but not over the longer one, and we’re already seeing how brushing off this problem of unequal income has taken a terrible toll on America. Folks in truly rural areas like the Dakotas, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming—the reddest of the red states—may think they can throw up an electrified, barbed wire fence around their perimeter, but they can’t. Not forever, and not even for much longer. It is true that white people are going to have to make some sacrifices in order for us to “form a more perfect union.” But people of color have been making sacrifices forever. It’s time to share the burden. Look, I’ve been listening to a lot of country music lately, and although I’m a city guy through and through, I “get” it. (Charlie Daniels is basically the musical distillation of Trumpism.) But a C&W song is one thing; governing is another. You can’t just take drug dealers and hang them from a tree in some Georgia swamp. That’s called lynching.

Well, we’ll find out soon enough who wins and what happens. Six days. Go Biden/Harris, go Blue Tsunami, go all you Democratic challengers to Senate Republicans. Just as I continue to have hope for Gus, so I have hope that this Republican nightmare will be overthrown, and we’ll be able to get on solving America’s problems.


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