Choices and Observations: Reengaging with the U.S.

costco interior

As most of you know, it costs a lot to live here, and not just in dollars. To live in the United States these days you constantly adjust your thinking about what you buy or don’t buy. And because the political situation is such an imponderable mess, you just put on your blinders each day.

My kids live in Charlottesville, certainly not (in most ways) a typical U.S. town. Home to a major university and a lot of wealth, there are maybe 8,000 black people (19% of the total population) living at the lower economic end. White people mostly live firmly separate lives from them, and those with bucks enjoy a kind of preppy culture, fed by the university and its traditions.

My kids have two boys, aged 4-1/2 and 1-1/2. They recently bought a big new house and are living the good life, though there are always money concerns. They buy a lot of stuff. Costco is the staple of life for folks like this, and it’s one of the great success stories of Charlottesville. The store size and the immense quantity of stuff available boggles the mind of a Mexican vecino.

Costco’s prices are good though you have to buy in quantity. Everything is big, including the shopping carts. The quality is excellent, the store help quite accommodating. People love the concept—and talk about it. At a dinner party I heard much about the variety of wines, cheeses and gourmet items. What a massive consumer culture informs the U.S.!

Politically, the left-right split normally prevents any kind of political commonality, so people here generally tune out its nasty cultural implications, disregarding them because there are no obvious solutions and because the triggers are hidden and dangerous. For liberals, it’s easy to talk about the latest Republican outrage or laugh at Matt Gaetz, but such conversation can be short-lived. Ventilating just doesn’t get you very far, and one gets fed up with the negativity.

So the genteel side of life in Charlottesville controls a lot of what happens here. And that’s not all bad. I know some music faculty here, but it’s hard to imagine far-out jazz finding an audience. Still, a jazz scene somehow flourishes, often minus black people. All the extremist splits in American society are here, most of them covered over. Cultural survival requires it.

The Vicissitudes of Air Travel

In a few days I will proceed to Virginia on a family visit. This will take me through four airports in 17 hours, with boring layovers, overpriced food, and hordes of germ-laden yahoos. You know the drill. I love my family, so these are costs that must be borne.

I also love airplanes—anything but the Boeing 700 series and most commercial airliners. They embody the very definition of a hostile environment: uncomfortable constricted seating, bad food, and hordes of germ-laden yahoos. Close to 200 people in an aluminum tube breathe recirculated air and line up for maybe two bathrooms.

I’m old enough to have experienced the joys of flight differently. In my early teens a friend and I would ride our bikes out to the local small airport and cadge rides in single-engine Pipers and Cessnas. At 15, a friend of my dad’s let me fly (momentarily) his Ercoupe. To get to college, I commuted in Constellations, DC-3s, and the Boston & Maine Railroad.

Ercoupe

These were experiences in which transportation inevitably became a personal adventure, not a mass movement. Your senses were engaged, not dulled.

Super Constellation

In the mid-2000s I did communications work for the Navy at NAVAIR, its major aircraft test and developmental center in Maryland. It was up-close work with engineering feats like the Osprey and the F-35, the so-called Joint Strike Fighter. I got no rides, but working on these projects was a revelation in discovering aircraft design and complexity.

V-22 Osprey

The Navy is a highly controlled environment. Commercial flying today is anything but. For over a year Covid kept us pretty much masked, depressed, and at home. We’re all being let out of our cages this summer. The Wall Street Journal reports that passenger volumes are way up, and they predict “a very bumpy summer.”

Fares are rising, middle seats are no longer empty and everything from parking lots to security lines is getting more congested. Meanwhile, some airports are understaffed to handle demand, many airport restaurants are still closed or at limited capacity, some terminal seating remains blocked for social distancing, and passengers scuffle with airline staff over not wearing masks.

So the travel environment becomes ever more alien and different from the explorable, enticing world it used to be. Last night I watched a wonderful film, My Octopus Teacher, the story of an intrepid filmmaker who penetrates a forbidding habitat to form a friendship with an octopus and understand its underwater world.

I’m reminded that flying used to be like that—a discovery and a journey into the potentially hostile world of the upper air. Like too much of what we encounter today, flying has become robotic and routinized. It has lost its soul.

Interminable Hate

The situation in Gaza shocks everybody and offers no ready solution. It’s another instance of how ineffectual present-day world politics has become. And most people don’t have time or inclination to understand the depths of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s like the Hundred Years War, and who knows what that was about?

Going back to the 1920s, Jews and Arabs were at odds even before the founding of Israel so it’s nigh on a hundred years. In the 1950s I was growing up in a Jewish environment generally opposed to Zionism as a solution to the refugee problem. I still feel that traditional Zionism and the long-favored “two-state solution” is no answer. The two sides have to learn to live together, and there’s no sign of that happening.

The apartheid and the bombs being launched by the far-right Israel government have made Gaza into a ghetto, says one correspondent, with a constant sense of peril and uncertainty.

“Even when things are quiet or seem quiet, they aren’t quiet. There is a shortage of electricity, of clean water. Gaza is coastal, but people can’t swim safely in the sea because there is so much sewage,” he said. “Nothing is stable. No one can make a business. All of a sudden, there is a war or an escalation or the crossings are closed and there is collapse of supplies. Plus, there are the restrictions from Hamas. It restricts personal freedom for women and girls.”

Well, maybe this moment will be different, as one Arab scholar hopes. Maybe the Palestinians have learned how to organize and displace Hamas influence. Maybe the UN and world political powers will move Biden to exert some serious force on Israel. Can Democratic pressure in Congress do anything? The U.S. has little credibility after its years of promoting and financing Israel’s assault on its neighbors and its own Arab people. “At the very least, Mr. Biden needs to make clear that support for Israel and support for Mr. Netanyahu are not the same thing.”

A good summary of the events leading to the current conflict and some hopeful if dubious resolutions is here. American diplomacy has forever failed to mitigate, much less resolve, the crisis. Two Middle East pros offer some suggestions for how Biden can take a more robust approach to diplomacy to counter years of America’s toadying to Israel’s aggressive moves. Indeed,

the administration’s seemingly unqualified support for Israel’s right of self-defense sounds strange when 20 times more Palestinians have been killed and tremendous damage has been done to Gaza’s already inadequate infrastructure. One might hope that as Israel’s closest ally, the U.S. would understand urgently that no matter how many airstrikes and artillery shells fall on Gaza, Israel will not deal Hamas a strategic blow, let alone a defeat. More likely, Israel will declare “victory” but again settle for a period of quiet until the next round.

One can hope that sentiment is too pessimistic. But if the only alternative is interminable hate, that must be unacceptable. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs concluded its report this way:

Many around the globe, and especially in the U.S. and Europe, have been surprised by the images of Jewish mob violence, but the sentiments they embody did not spring up overnight. They have long been cultivated and endorsed at the highest levels of the state. Tamping down ethnic incitement is a matter of self-preservation for the Jewish majority, because the alternative, a steady escalation of civil strife, is already on the horizon.

Riding Out the New Normal

Music helps, and so does a good dinner with friends, but it’s hard to be optimistic about the human adventure these days. One’s faith in politics turns out to be a chimera. Religion offers nothing but the phantasm of hope. Reason is displaced by zeal, Aristotle by Hobbes.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was one tough customer but his views on the nature of man and society are coming back. He argued that “if society broke down and you had to live in what he called ‘a state of nature’, without laws or anyone with the power to back them up, you, like everyone else, would steal and murder when necessary.” Life without strong leadership would become in his words “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Well, our strong leaders have become brutish in their quest for power, totally failing their followers—Trump (the prime example), Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro—all truth deniers and narcissists, all failed leaders. One who clamors to join the group is Netanyahu, now pushing for open war with the Palestinians.

In the U.S. and elsewhere the political urge has taken on a Wagnerian quest for mythical power and the fantasies that enable it. Yet there is no Valhalla in sight. I keep hearing echoes of Germany in the early 1930s. For rank chauvinism, Trump’s apostles in the GOP lead the parade.

Stooges like McCarthy and howlers like M.T. Greene (whom AOC guardedly called “deeply unwell”) have created a new theater of the absurd. The only reason now to watch the nightly news is to see what kind of new delusion they have come up with. At the same time old neoliberal gods are being dethroned as, for instance, revelations appear about Bill Gates and Jeffrey Epstein. Melinda, at least, knew she had had it.

Finally, the human adventure itself could ultimately come off the rails through climate change inaction and denial. Everyone knows this and yet the paralysis continues. In the struggle to acknowledge the primacy of the ecosphere, our great leaders have inevitably come down on the side of the techno-industrial society, if you can call it that, though for years it’s been known that continued material growth will lead to disaster.

Hobbes could not have foreseen this exactly, but he knew that the

right of each to all things invites serious conflict, especially if there is competition for resources, as there will surely be over at least scarce goods such as the most desirable lands, spouses, etc. People will quite naturally fear that others may (citing the right of nature) invade them, and may rationally plan to strike first as an anticipatory defense. Moreover, that minority of prideful or “vain-glorious” persons who take pleasure in exercising power over others will naturally elicit preemptive defensive responses from others. Conflict will be further fueled by disagreement in religious views, in moral judgments, and over matters as mundane as what goods one actually needs, and what respect one properly merits.

Eleven years ago William E. Rees (University of British Columbia) wrote these still pregnant words: “The modern world remains mired in a swamp of cognitive dissonance and collective denial seemingly dedicated to maintaining the status quo. We appear, in philosopher Martin Heidegger’s words, to be ‘in flight from thinking.’”

The philosophers, for all their ranting, won’t get us to return to reality. I don’t know what will.

The Crystal Ball Is Foggy, or Is It?

Troubled times create the need to fashion the future. We have no shortage of crystal ball predictions regarding the precarious nature of GOP politics these days. Last week we had a glut of these.

One I especially liked was George Conway’s prediction that Rudy will finally sing, putting his boss at dire risk. (“All this [craziness] boggles the mind of anyone who has followed Giuliani’s lengthy career. It’s as though someone dropped him on his head.”) Another prediction: the Dems could well retake the House in 2022 despite all forecasts to the contrary. One such prognosis focused on the recent past: how Trumpism has become an institution and what that could mean.

More of these ball-gazings are recounted here. The best, I thought, came from Minnesota ex-governor Arne Carlson (R), who put the GOP’s turmoils over Liz Cheney into a good historical context.

“What [House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy] doesn’t realize is he may be the next one to go,” Carlson said. “The people who set the guillotines in motion ultimately have their necks under it, as they get into these endless battles about who’s more loyal, who’s more pure.”

Which got me thinking about the French Revolution and its aftermath, and George Santayana’s famous line, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Trump’s present-day reign of terror over the GOP for me has all kinds of echoes to the events of 1793-94 in France. Robespierre was no Donald Trump but his fears of the opposition eventually led to his own head rolling, along with 17,000 others.

The final aftermath was, of course, Napoleon—from which outcome let us at all costs be preserved. The emperor, you’ll remember, made a career out of megalomania and his preference for undisputed rule and conquest.

Napoleon’s use of propaganda contributed to his rise to power, legitimated his régime, and established his image for posterity. Strict censorship, controlling aspects of the press, books, theatre, and art were part of his propaganda scheme, aimed at portraying him as bringing desperately wanted peace and stability to France.

He finally ended in exile on the island of Elba where he died. By all reports the place was no Mar-a-Lago.

Two Cheers for Liz Cheney

Let’s not get carried away with her comments, folks. She is Dick Cheney’s daughter, after all. Her voting record is almost 100 percent conservative. But it does take something to go against the grain of the Trump fantasists, 75 percent of whom still believe the election was stolen. For her pains she is probably going to get kicked out of her House leadership job.

Several of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump have been advised that if they keep their heads down, leaders like [Kevin] McCarthy will be more likely to help them with fundraising and campaigning. That probably explains why most of them have gone quiet in recent weeks.

Liz seems morally offended by Trump’s lies about January 6th and the stolen election, calling them “poison in the bloodstream of democracy.” Said one Cheney ally, she “feels an obligation to tell the truth” about Trump. Whereas her peers certainly do not. If Liz has future political ambitions, she is keeping them confidential.

It’s truly a battle of truth against lies, as Michael Gerson sees it. Formerly George W’s chief speechwriter and prominent neoconservative, Gerson has become a neo-Democrat in his writings for the Washington Post, and I enjoy reading his literate commentaries. For instance,

The GOP is increasingly defined not by its shared beliefs, but by its shared delusions. To be a loyal Republican, one must be either a sucker or a liar. And because this defining falsehood is so obviously and laughably false, we can safely assume that most Republican leaders who embrace it fall into the second category. Knowingly repeating a lie—an act of immorality—is now the evidence of Republican fidelity.

Peter Wehner, another abiding conservative, examines the crisis confronting his party and its descent into madness. Gripped by fear, Republicans became complicit in Trump’s corruptions. “The danger for the GOP is that those who hope to succeed Trump could lead the party into even more appalling places.”

Liz Cheney surely knows that, and she clearly realizes that Trump’s power over the party will be tested in next year’s elections. She and her few supporting colleagues will be in the battle of their political lives. Says Wehner,

Today Democrats enjoy a rare double-digit lead over Republicans in party favorable ratings, and a recent Gallup poll found the largest Democratic lead in party affiliation over Republicans in nearly a decade (49% compared to 40%).

This is Biden’s opportunity for winning through policy over fear. Despite the conventional wisdom, I would fight the odds by betting on him. The Republicans are setting themselves up to lose the House again.

The Fairy Tale of Bipartisanship

We do love our fairy tales, don’t we? From Aesop to the brothers Grimm, the stories have always taught us to cooperate and work together. Then came Stone Soup, which added a little guile to the mix.

Yet nobody seems to have written a fairy tale of what you do with the playground bully. How do you cooperate with someone who smacks you in the face at every turn? How do you cooperate with people who are committed to flagrant lies and, apparently, to your very extinction?

The White House is surely alive to this dilemma, yet Joe Biden’s ambitious speech to Congress could not openly affirm that bipartisanship is dead without damaging all protocol. And so the startling breadth and extent of his proposals will have to send that message. It’s a smart way to avoid breaking with convention.

The Democrats are in the precarious position of likely losing their feeble majority in the 2022 midterms. The only way they can maintain political sustainability is by rolling the legislative dice. That is what Biden is doing, while paying lip service to bipartisanship. Read this good explanation of why and how he has to “shoot for the moon.”

The roadblock of Joe Manchin on the filibuster cannot last. Biden will have to cut a deal with him. Manchin’s cooperation will have to be bought, and his bipartisan fairy tale seen for what it is. Some kind of deal will be made because the stakes are simply too high.

These things happen in politics, and we should recognize that, as one commentator put it,

The most effective Presidents are those who put forth bold policy ideas and follow through by translating those ideas into law. Doing so requires taking political risks and embracing the challenges of political leadership, which often means persuading supporters to get on board rather than simply doing what is safe.

Opinion seems to be building on the need to forego bipartisanship. Certainly, one lone senator cannot be permitted to disable the kind of prodigious reforms that Biden is putting forward. Fairy tales finally must be distinguished from real life.

Update: Ezra Klein on the folly of bipartisanship:

This is what Manchin gets wrong: A world of partisan governance is a world in which Republicans and Democrats both get to pass their best ideas into law, and the public judges them on the results. That is far better than what we have now, where neither party can routinely pass its best ideas into law, and the public is left frustrated that so much political tumult changes so little.

Gun Fight at the FedEx Corral

It was not really a gun fight, just another crazed asshole named Brandon Hole blasting away at fellow workers, apparently at random. Eight died, many were wounded. As usual, police were looking for a motive—which often implies some kind of rational action. Well, it could be something like, “My package came late and you guys never apologized.”

Mass shootings carried out by crazy people are just a small part of the total. Violent gun deaths in the U.S. last year numbered about 20,000, with injuries approaching 40,000. These include mass shootings, cop shootings, gang shootings and community violence. Add to that about 24,000 yearly suicides involving firearms.

Those numbers, it seems, aren’t high enough to justify serious gun restrictions (or removal, per Australia). There are some 400,000,000 guns circulating in the Land of the Free. Try getting them. Yearly cancer deaths in the U.S. are predicted to be close to 609,000; Covid deaths the past year were at least 579,000. After a week of national news about cop shootings and Biden’s proposed band-aids, one thing is certain. Congress will not be moved. In their calculus of murder, a lot more people will have to die.

Gail Collins just wrote a good column summarizing the impossibilities of the situation. In it she quotes a Representative from Texas:

“The government is never going to know what weapons I own,” declaimed Representative Chip Roy, a Texas Republican. “Let me be clear about that, it’s not gonna happen. We have a God-given right to defend our families, defend our state, and defend ourselves against tyranny, and we will do that.”

“Yeah, blame God,” she concludes. One also notes that the Texas House just approved a bill allowing no-permit gun carrying. And these gun nuts are not just confined to Texas. They are all over Congress. People like Lindsey Graham, Steve Scalise, Lauren Bobert, and of course Joe Manchin should be voted out, along with most of the GOP.

But they won’t be—for one reason: A large proportion of Americans, inspired by decades of shoot-em-ups on movies and television and flagrant misinterpretations of the Second Amendment, are in love with their guns and will never give them up. They are the ultimate gun lobby.