Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Thirty Percent Problem

As an educator this summer means many hours spent tying my brain into knots with anxiety. Over the next few days I expect to hear from my school, my wife's school district, and my children's school district about plans for fall. I pray that they are in some way compatible, since we are having to make shit up as we go all along. 

There's a deeper reason for that, of course. The United States has simply opted not to have any kind of national response to the pandemic. This is by design, since the president just wants people to go back to doing what they did before, thinking this will boost the economy and help him win the election. It also fits with his complete inability to build up, the man is only capable of destruction. 

When I have my daily anxiety attacks one thing I keep thinking about is how little will change even if Donald Trump loses the election and leaves office. A great number of Americans, I would estimate thirty percent, simply refuse to take the virus seriously. I've seen pictures and heard accounts from friends in some parts of the country where people do all kinds of activities in crowded, indoor areas without masks. Even here in New Jersey, which has suffered horribly from the virus, I will see people go into stores wearing a mask on their goddamned chins. 

This is not merely lax behavior, it is rooted in how deep our political divide has come. As plenty of others have pointed out, the thirty percent I mentioned before has reached "epistemtic closure." The people in that group simply do not trust ANYTHING that comes from outside their conservative world. This is not a matter of stupidity or ignorance, but a willful construction of an alternate reality. That's why presenting facts or educating will not matter. In fact, as with climate skeptics and anti-evolutionists, it only confirms their viewpoint if they are challenged and forced to defend it!

Social media and the segmentation of news into sources like talk radio, Breitbart, Fox, and OAN mean that the thirty percent has a constant stream of misinformation to confirm their membership in their community and distrust all those outside. Younger people might change their minds when exposed to other viewpoints, but as for the old, forget about it.

This means that even with a Biden presidency putting a national response in place, it would get nowhere. The militant minority could easily stop it. In fact, our political system is set up to let that happen. The unrepresentative nature of the Senate, the Senate filibuster, gerrymandering, and federalism all allow this thirty percent outsize power. A mask mandate and closures will simply never be undertaken by most Republican governors. What then? 

If Biden wins or he loses I predict that this disease will be endemic, killing and killing and killing and never stopping. There will be ebbs and flows, highs and lows, but it will always be here. And even if there is a vaccine developed (which I am skeptical of) enough of the thirty percent will refuse to take it and thus make it far less effective.

We've reached the point we have been traveling towards for years. The United States of America in its current state is ungovernable. There won't be a civil war, just decades of being an ever-burning dumpster fire of a country, like many of our neighbors in the Western Hemisphere. It turns out we aren't all that exceptional after all. 

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Reasons Why Trump Is A Descendant of Reagan

I saw news this week that the Reagan Foundation, which manages the Gipper's library, has requested that the Trump campaign stop using Reagan in its fundraising materials. It's hard to tell how of this is the usual guarding of a dead public figure's image when the people in control of it don't profit, and how much of it is rooted in genuine dislike of Trump. In any case, the issue is a good time to remember that Donald Trump is very much part of Reagan's legacy.

It's important to see this, since there are many centrists who look back to the past and want to believe that Trump is some kind of aberration. Instead, he should be seen as the culmination of the path the Republican Party and conservative movement have taken in the last sixty years. Reagan, the most revered figure in the party and the movement, is a big part of this story.

To start with the obvious, Trump has lifted Reagan's 1980 campaign slogan "Let's Make America Again" and taken one word off. The similarities go beyond that, however. Here's a short but sweet list of examples:

  • In Reagan's famous 1964 speech for Barry Goldwater, "A Time For Choosing," he equated the Great Society with communism, the kind of base level red scarefear mongering that Trump and the Republicans do today. He also dismissed statistics about Americans going hungry by saying "they were on a diet." That "joke" showed the downright mean and nasty side to his personality beneath all the sunny smiles. 

  • Immediately after getting elected in governor 1966 Reagan sought to repeal the Rumford Fair Housing Act, a law that prohibited housing discrimination in California. National bans on discrimination would not be in place until 1968. Reagan claimed he was only defending property rights. Trump's recent Twitter diatribes about the suburbs being banned due to housing integration if Biden gets elected fall firmly into the same tradition. 

  • When MLK was assassinated in 1968, Reagan responded by calling King's death "great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they'd break." He basically said King brought it on himself. It's the kind of trollish, mean-spirited response to someone's death I could totally hear coming from Trump's mouth. As president Reagan dragged his feet on establishing Martin Luther King Jr Day. Even as he passed the bill, he wrote to a John Birch conservative that the holiday's support was based "on an image, not reality." What was this "reality"? I assume that Reagan followed Bircher logic and assumed King was a communist. The same article I linked to shows that Reagan refused to say whether he thought King was a communist or not. 

  • In 1980 when running again for president Reagan gave his first post-convention speech in Neshoba County, Mississippi. This happened to be the location of the murder of Schwerner, Goodman, and Cheney in 1964 at the hands of the Klan. It was one of the most well-known atrocities of the civil rights era. In this speech Reagan infamously gave a full-throated endorsement of "states rights," a common euphemism for segregation. 

  • In running for president Reagan also loved to use racial resentment when discussing welfare. He often used the case of real-life Linda Taylor to perpetuate the "welfare queen" myth. He also referred to a "strapping young buck" buying a steak with food stamps. All of this reinforced the fraudulent idea that whites were the only people earning an honest living and that Blacks just freeloaded off of them. This racist formulation is at the heart of Trumpism. 

I could go on and get into Reagan's policies as president, from gutting public housing to hobbling the Justice Department's civil rights division. I think you get the idea. While he was more willing to embrace immigrants than Trump, his politics were suffused with white resentment. Reagan's skill was burying it under bullshit and a smile. Trump has made the subtext the text, and until the deeper roots of Trumpism are torn out of the political Right, it will keep coming back. 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Hope On Opening Day

The opening day of baseball season is usually one of the happiest days of the year for me. It comes in with the spring, a sign of hope and new life. During the season baseball is my daily friend, a needed and consistent quotidian diversion.

This spring was the worst of my life and there was no baseball to cut through the despair. April, when even the Mets could be in first place, brimmed over with mass death and fear. That month here in my Jersey town the obituaries came fast and hard. I longed for any kind of dumb distratction and my favorite go-to was gone.

It is surreal to see a baseball season starting today in the blazing heat of the dog days of summer, which is normally the fulcrum of the long 162 game slog. I guess that's only appropriate, since every other facet of our lives has been thrown into flux. Now's usually about the time that the teams that have failed to reach contention pack it in and sell of their parts for prospects at the trading deadline. As a Mets fan I normally start to lower my expectations and look forward to seeing how well the late-season call-ups from the minors can do. Sometimes there's a moral victory or two to be had, like Dominic Smith finally getting able to play again after an injury and smacking a walk-off home run in the last game of the 2019 season.

Opening Day is always a time for unreasonable hope, when every team is in contention and reality has yet to dash any dreams. I am less concerned this day about my team, however, than in the players and personnel of all the teams being safe. Just as my fears are different this year, so are my hopes. I hope less for a pennant, than for a sign that we can somehow return to life and that our efforts to start opening things with safeguards in place can actually work. (As a teacher, I am particularly vested in this.)

I honestly don't know if trying to have a season in this conditions will work or not. Right now I just need some hope and something positive to look forward to every day, so I will just try to forget about the stakes and enjoy having my daily friend back again. This morning my daughters made little banners for Opening Day, and one of them is growing into a certified baseball nut. I look forward to hot summer days inside watching the games and talking baseball together. I haven't felt this cautiously hopeful in weeks.

Play ball

Baseball Ephemera To Enjoy

This gospel song using baseball as a metaphor for living the good life by Sister Wynona Carr gets my hands clapping every time.

If being a Mets fan means being satisified with moral victories, that Dominic Smith home run to end last season is one of the all-time great moral victories.

I love lame, shoddy baseball cards, and the 1983 Fleer card of Jim Kaat may be the best.

YouTube exists so that people can make a video re-enacting the end of game 6 of the 1986 World Series with Nintendo's RBI Baseball.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Waiting For January Isn't Good Enough

In many respects Donald's Trump victory in 2016 was a fluke. His opponent was historically unpopular, he lost the popular vote by three million ballots, and won the electoral vote based on razor-thin margins in three states. His failure to do anything to expand his base of support, combined with an absolutely calamitous response to the coronavirus, means he is way down in the polls to a candidate who is barely campaigning.

It is very tempting to assume Trump is going to lose the election and to be hopeful about a new direction come January. However, I increasingly feel that this attitude is encouraging a dangerous complacency. And no, I do not mean complacency about winning the election. I am thinking that the damage Trump will do between now and January will be unbearable. 

As long as he is in power, there will never be a unified national response to the coronavirus. What that means is tens of thousands more unnecessary deaths. Furthermore, Republican governors take their cues from him, and they are currently pushing to open schools and prevent mask wearing. 

If Trump loses the election in November, I cannot imagine what kind of horrific things will happen in his lame duck session. I can see massive conservative court packing and midnight appointments, along with pardoning of cronies. That's the best case scenario. We could also see a nationwide application of the use of paramilitaries, as we are seeing in Portland. Or the intentional destruction of the postal service to prevent voting by mail or disrupting its process. 

There needs to be a show of force in the streets. Trump's Republican enablers need to understand that they have to choose between him and popular wrath. Some of them actually seem to be wavering in the blood oath they signed with him in 2016. Now is the time to force them to make a choice, and in making that choice make decisions to prevent tens of thousands of deaths. Saying "go vote" and waiting until January won't cut it. 

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Where Were You In '73 (Newest At Tropics Of Meta)

As some folks know I have been working on a research project related to the 1970s for awhile now, and for the first time I published something related to it beyond this blog. The piece is over at Tropics of Meta, and it's all about the pop culture nostalgia wave of the 1970s and how it reflected a reactionary political dynamic we are still living with. Please check it out!

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Down By The Seaside

This morning I decided to do something I'd longed to do since the summer started. I got up at 5:30 and drove my daughters to Asbury Park to walk the beach before the crowds showed up. I hadn't seen the sea since February, and that was only the Chesapeake Bay.

For someone who grew up in landlocked Nebraska, I have quite an abiding obsession with the sea. When I think of retirement (an impossible dream, I know) I always imagine a cottage in a seaside town. I even have a research project related to sea travel that I have not yet totally abandoned. It's not merely because the ocean is exotic to me as someone who never lived on a coast until I was in my mid-30s. My love of it comes from growing up in the rural Nebraska plains, but out of familiarity. There is something in me that responds to an endless sky like the one I knew back home. It is a reminder of my mortality and smallness, but in a comforting way. What size are my problems, really, underneath a sky that goes on forever?

This morning my children were initially reluctant beachcombers. They complained when I said what we were doing last night, they complained when I woke them up early this morning, and they complained when we were in the car on the way down there. However, when we arrived, they stood still and silent on the boardwalk, staring at the water. The ocean and blue sky under a newly risen sun was truly something to behold.

One we got across the wide beach to dip our toes in the water, something in me seized up and I almost broke down in tears. The cool salt breeze and beauty of water and sky before me were almost too much to handle. In a broken, shitty world gone wrong the sublime had still not abandoned me. After feeling so hopeless for the past few weeks this spark of joy was almost too much to handle, like someone breaking a long hunger strike with a multi-course feast.

I composed myself and stood there, the sun's rays dancing on the waves, which were big and choppy this morning, their roaring ringing in my ears. My daughters were giggling and grabbing mussel shells while dodging the bigger waves. One of them ran up to me and said "Daddy, I want to do this tomorrow!"

Me too, kid. Me too.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The 75 Year Ride Is Over

Ironically, given the low state of American right now, this year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II and the United States' ascendance to the status of the world's most powerful nation. Even during the Cold War battle with the Soviet Union, this was the case. On this diamond anniversary in 2020, we are marking the end of that status.

The United States has become a laughing stock to the world with its Covid response. The election of Donald Trump was already a sign that this country was no longer fit for world leadership, now we are only seeing greater confirmation of that fact. The Dubya years had already killed this nation's credibility, which Obama managed to resurrect. Now that the world has been twice bitten, there's no way to fix the damage.

One of the great paradoxes of my life is that the United States in the past thirty years has gone from the uncontested victor of the Cold War to this lowly state. The only real explanation is that the Cold War win was more about surviving a war of attrition than a vindication of the American system. The Cold War also managed to paper over some political differences that now threaten to disintegrate the nation.

The 9/11 attacks could have been another such point of unity, but by 2001 conservatives had given up on consensus. Instead, the attacks were used as the pretext to launch a Foreverwar, one we are still waging all these years later. The conservative imperitive to hold onto power by any means necessary has necessitated the abrogation of democracy. Bush and Trump, the presidents who have done so much damage to the nation's international standing, both came into power with a minority of the votes due to the electoral college. Conservatives have used the Senate and the courts to stop reform, and gerrymandering and voter suppression to keep their opponents from winning elections.

Gerrymandering, judicial veto, the undemocratic Senate, and the electoral college are all baked into our Constitutional system. One of this country's most important but quietest failures until now has been its inability to update its political frame of government. No newly independent nation today could have something like the Senate filibuster -much less the Senate- as part of its system and be considered remotely democratic. Our Constitution, even with the amendments added in, is still Democracy 1.0. It is an operating system behind the times, prone to failures, and causing constant crashes.

The high standing of American power in the world after 1945 has a lot to do with the failure to make a truly democratic system. Generations of Americans since have thought of themselves as members of the world's most important nation, if not necessarily the best. That belief in American exceptionalism has made it difficult to change the fundamentals of our system, or even to get people to understand just how bad they have it compared to other countries in the world.

The Cold War and beyond trumpeting of "American freedom" meant totally ignoring reality. In the United States of 1945 a huge portion of the population wasn't even allowed to vote on account of race. The civil rights movement finally changed that in 1965, but the Shelby decision in 2013 effectively undermined it.

Ironically, the nations fostered by the United States would end up being better examples of democracy. When the Federal Republic of Germany was created in the late 1940s, it had the opportunity to build a democracy from scratch. Its system guarantees not only rights to free speech, but also to health care, housing, and education. Other democracies started expanding the rights of their people in this way after 1945, but the United States refused. Now we face a pandemic where the government is forcing people to work because it does not have a safety net in place to keep people at home without starving.

So what now? Even if Biden wins the election, the fundamentals are broken and won't be changed. The only possibilities for change can happen when Americans reject the self-image of the nation forged in 1945. The days of the "American Century" are over now and aren't coming back. I deeply hope for what Lincoln called "a new birth of freedom." My prediction is a sclerotic, dying empire that much like the UK or Russia will be seen as a dysfunctional nation incapable of forgetting past glories that can never be relived.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Newest Episode of My Podcast

Well, I finally recorded another podcast. I've been too busy and depressed under quarantine to work up the energy to do it. I am happy with how this turned out. I discuss Les McCann's "Compared to What," a Kinks live album, and give a strong recommend to the latest by Soccer Mommy.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Hazy Thoughts in the Summer Malaise

Too much on my mind

Summer, true summer is here now. Those days when it's so hot that I don't want to be outside despite the sunshine and when I feel constantly uncomfortable in the outdoor heat or in the unnatural air conditioned interior. The un-cooled interiors, which become unbearably stuffy, manage to bring in the worst of both worlds. Afternoons on days like this are to be endured, rather than enjoyed.

Today I had the depressing realization that I am already fantasizing about next summer, since this one is going to be a wash and the coming school year promises to be the most dangerous and difficult one yet. So much of my mental space this summer is taken up by the fall, both in terms of work I am doing for the school and in the constant churn of anxiety that dominates just about every waking hour of my day.

Even in the best of times summer brings a case of the blues. After the trench warfare of the school year, which demands every ounce of energy I can give, the indolence of summer is hard to handle. I end up with too much time on my hands and too much time spent at home. It allows my mind to wander to things I was too busy to think about during the school year. Memories of old fuckups and failures come dancing right into my consciousness, replaying humiliations and mistakes from decades ago.

This quarantine summer means being at home even more and even fewer outlets. I've tried to channel my energy into cooking, cleaning, and gardening, which has helped a little. The challenge of putting my mind at ease is harder this time around due to my constant worry about the state of the country. If I sit around long enough I just keep thinking about how the pandemic is getting worse after a hundred thousand people have died. I think about how a mass movement for racial equality has ended up with yet another culture war about statues. The economic situation is bad and I know plenty of people who have lost their jobs. At times like this I almost long to be one of those millions of vapid people so disengaged from the world to be troubled by it.

And yeah, I know it could be worse. I had a family member back home with the virus but they're fine now. As tough as my job will be next year, at least I still have one. It's been good to have all this time with my wife and kids. I was able to go out to Pennsylvania last week and see two old and very dear friends and kayak on a lake, play cards, grill meat, and drink whiskey. Music has been an important consolation, as always. It's amazing how much great new music is out there right now. Be that as it may, no song is really speaking to me as much right now as a golden chestnut by The Kinks, "Too Much On My Mind."

All I want right now is something to look forward to. I have no clue when that will ever be the case again.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

The 1988 Election's Long Shadow

This Bush ad is eerily like something out of the Soviet Union, and features the worst song ever recorded

Someone younger than me on Twitter today was asking why Michael Dukakis lost the 1988 election to George Bush so decisively after having a large lead in the polls after the Democratic convention. This particular election is obscure, especially to people who didn't live through it. Howeverm this was the first presidential election that I could meaningfully understand, so it has stuck in my mind pretty much ever since. I also hadn't really developed a political viewpoint of any kind yet, so I sort of watched it in a detached kind of way. (By 1992 I'd figured out that despite my conservative upbringing that I was a progressive, soon to be social democrat.)

In ensuing years I think it was an election that did a lot of damage to the Democratic Party, because the party took the exact wrong lessons from it. It's also a strange election, since it occurred in a far less partisan time when major swings could happen much easier than they do now.

When pressed for reasons why Dukakis lost, this is what I would list:

  • A lackluster campaign that failed to establish a coherent narrative, e.g. the tank photo shoot
  • The candidate's lack of charisma and passion
  • General animus against northeastern liberals with ethnic backgrounds
  • The Willie Horton ad
  • Relatedly, the context of the War on Drugs
  • Anger over Iran-Contra had faded and Reagan's approval went back up
  • Roger Ailes helping Bush become a nasty political street fighter while using rhetoric ("kinder gentler nation") softer than hardcore Reaganism
I still remember the presidential debates when Bush called Dukakis a "liberal" with a sneer in his voice. Dukakis seemed to be embarrassed by the title instead of proudly defending his record. (This brilliant SNL sketch summed up the feeling of besieged liberalism at the time.) The Willie Horton ad was an even more infamous moment where Dukakis failed to strongly fight back against a nefarious and racist attack. 

The Democrats responded to this defeat by taking away the exact wrong lessons. Instead of realizing they needed to be strong and not back down to Republican bullshit, they assumed that they needed to preempt those attacks by being more conservative. Hence Democrats decided to get "tough on crime" and pass thing like the Clinton crime bill. Bill Clinton's "triangulation" strategy in office was, in many respects, the response to 1988. 

For years and years Democrats ran away from pushing a progressive agenda, seeing that as something inherently unpopular when in fact many of these ideas have broad support. For example, voters in red states like Oklahoma and Nebraska have passed Medicaid expansion ballot initiatives. Nebraska and Arkansas voters approved increases in the minimum wage. Democrats have been so afraid of their own shadows for so long that they are failing to capitalize on things they support that are very popular because they assume people don't want them. Would you vote for someone with that little confidence in themselves? (They're worse than me trying to date in college.)

The 1988 election also set this weird precedent of trying to be the party of decency in the face of Republican chicanery, with the implicit assumption that the voting public would reward virtue. Just as Dukakis did little to push back on scurrilous attacks against him, John Kerry said little in public about the Swift Boat lies, figuring that the truth would speak for itself. (Bill Clinton was more robust in his responses, but to be fair he actually did a lot of the things he was accused of!)

The other big lesson of needing an appealing narrative didn't quite sink in. Bill Clinton and especially Obama figured that out, but Gore, HRC, and Kerry never did. One of my big fears about Biden is that he will do the same, will run on "I'm not Trump," and that won't be enough. He like others in the Democratic leadership are of an older generation formed in liberal defeat in the 70s and 80s. I really hope they still aren't fighting 1988 in their heads, unable to forget the one that got away but without truly understanding why.