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.

Phil Croaks at 99

With bated breath many Brits were waiting for the Duke to turn 100, but he skipped out early. So now the plaudits are flowing in everywhere, praising the man who preserved the English spirit and supported the Queen in perpetuity.

Here’s what Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “Like the expert carriage driver that he was, he helped to steer the royal family and the monarchy so that it remains an institution indisputably vital to the balance and happiness of our national life.”

What a metaphor. You may remember that a couple of years ago the Duke injured two women in a crash and totaled his Land Rover (immediately replaced by another). He finally apologized and gave up his driver’s license after a major media outcry forced his hand. Noblesse oblige is not dead.

Many good things are now being said about Prince Philip. His stoicism could be stifling but his character was to persevere in the impossible role of Prince Consort. He really did exemplify some typically British traits, as Anthony Lane put it in an excellent tribute: “The Duke was clever, restless, resilient, brusque, hot-humored, at one with the deep ocean, and oddly unreadable: pretty much as we expect our gods to be.”

What strikes me most about the Duke is how condescending his quips and gaffes could be. Otto English called him “the bigoted family uncle who couldn’t be trusted in company. Famed for his gaffes, he evermore resembled the kind of character Sacha Baron Cohen might dream up, an exaggerated version of what a xenophobic member of the English aristocracy might be.”

The Washington Post has tracked some of his more egregious comments:

During a 1986 visit to China, he told a British student: “If you stay here much longer, you will go home with slitty eyes.”

To a driving instructor in Scotland in 1995, he said: “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to get them through the test?”

During a trip to Canada in 1976: “We don’t come here for our health. We can think of other ways of enjoying ourselves.”

To a group of female Labour Party lawmakers during a reception at Buckingham Palace: “Ah, so this is feminist corner then.”

When he met Nigeria’s president, who was wearing traditional robes, he declared: “You look like you are ready for bed.”

The Duke wasn’t just sneering. He seemed to favor a kind of native condescension that the Brits hadn’t seen since the days of Evelyn Waugh. Philip’s humor often had that edge.

There is very little of that in the U.S. Where are the honestly condescending put-downs? Our late-night comedians are a weak substitute. The only laughable substitute we have is Joe Manchin talking about bipartisanship, and he’s not funny.

Gaetz, Trump, and Fred Hersch

The besotted nitwit Matt Gaetz is under investigation, and the libs are cheering. Why not? It may be the only way we can call such idiots to account. Here is Salon’s somewhat overheated account of the Gaetz interview with Tucker Carlson, part of which I watched and giggled over.

You know the story by now, in particular how the Repubs have all walked away from him. So has Fox News, on which he was formerly a fixture. Gaetz has absolutely no talent except for parroting Trump’s lies, so why would anyone buy an ersatz product when the original was still available?

This piece just came my way and says it all:

Donald Trump may be a man with a very limited set of talents, but he has learned to apply those talents to masterful effect. His talent is to employ shameless lies to create an image of himself in the media, and then use that media to bilk people. . . .

Shane Goldmacher reports at the New York Times that Trump’s campaign bilked donors out of tens of millions of dollars. The scam was not complicated. When people gave them money online, the donations came with pre-checked boxes authorizing the campaign to take donations every single week. They needed to uncheck the box to stop the automatic transfer.

Gaetz is into young women instead of money, and apparently is just as reckless as his boss was and just as addicted to lies. And to sex.

Why are we all so intolerably tired of this? Because, number one, it’s vapid and boring. After so much media exposure to rampant malfeasance and misdeeds one has to retreat and change focus. I did that today by watching and listening to Fred Hersch on one of Jazz Standard’s virtual concerts. It was great music that helped cleanse my politically overtaxed mind.

I’ve spent many evenings listening to the Mingus Big Band and others at the Jazz Standard, now closed owing to Covid. Those nights have always been highlights of my trips to New York, restocking my jazz life and renewing connections with musicians. Fred Hersch is one of those people who constantly redefines jazz, and he did that for me today.

A few years ago he wrote a gripping memoir, Good Things Happen Slowly, which defined his life as a gay white man who brought new elements to the music and gained him respect as a true innovator. How utterly different a story from the political crap we feast on today.

I cite this musical experience to say that many people are fed up with the far-right horseshit that we are overexposed to. Or the cheap pop culture that too many feed on. Real art has too few followers, but it can be the vaccine to inoculate us from the many poisons in the political air.

CNN Is Tottering

“More people watch CNN than any other news source,” they tell us, another assertion of the demented state of the populace. But for world news in Mexico there isn’t much choice. In English it’s CNN International or Fox News. I finally signed up with SKY TV to get both and also to watch SKY’s sports coverage.

It was fun for a while. Then it seemed CNN was dumping ads and promos on us every five minutes. And they have kept repeating the same ones constantly: Africa has apparently taken on CNN as a wholly owned subsidiary; more recently, it’s Japan. And we continue getting the same old promos for their tired anchors like Becky (“It all Stahts Heah”) Anderson.

I just had to boycott much of this stuff. When the commercials came on, I switched to Fox, than back to CNN after getting nauseated with Tucker and his guests. There is no loyalty possible on cable. The news media informs us, corrupts us, and too often deceives us.

The latest instance of that is CNN’s recent two-hour special, “Covid War: The Pandemic Doctors Speak Out,” which came on last Sunday and will be repeated this coming Friday (8:00 ET). Here is a good positive review of the show if you didn’t see it. You should see it.

Six principal doctors, including Fauci, were interviewed by Sanjay Gupta, as the show tries to set the record straight about how the Trump administration politicized the pandemic from the beginning and caused many thousands of unnecessary deaths.

The doctors’ revelations are sometimes gripping, sometimes trite. Yet often they seem trying to rehabilitate their reputations, glossing over past remarks and attempts to placate the Trump crew and keep their jobs. Deborah Birx is the prime example of that, and her remarks testify to the pressure she felt.

Says Vox, “That the Trump White House was engaged in politically motivated wishful thinking instead of trying to save lives was painfully obvious by late March 2020. And yet Birx opted to try and stay in Trump’s good graces instead of telling the public the truth.”

CNN presents all these interviews without much commentary by Gupta. That’s fair enough, but they can’t stand on their own. The truth behind them is multiplex. Despite their possibly good intentions, these doctors functioned as enablers, one and all.

The show’s apologetic one-sidedness is why so many distrust the media. Polarization just gets reinforced. CNN has many good anchors and hosts who respect the multiplicity of truth. Among them are John Berman, Pamela Brown, and Jim Acosta. The network’s well-paid stars like Chris Cuomo and Anderson Cooper are something else.

There is no excuse for Chris Cuomo being on the air, especially after his gigs with brother Andrew and getting special treatment for Covid. His smug, brassy commentary is my nightly invitation to shut him off and, God help me, switch to Tucker Carlson for a change of ego. Anderson Cooper can speak like a robot. He often runs over his own words but gets paid $12 million a year for his drawn-out pauses while thinking up a response to a difficult interviewee.

CNN management may well be facing some hard choices soon lest they forfeit their most-watched standing. Media politics as usual isn’t going to cut it. Indeed, they have demonstrated that media politics makes strange bedfellows.

Biden’s Presser

I’m not a media critic, but having just watched Joe Biden’s press conference I thought he did an excellent job. I used to program such events for a former governor in days long past and in a very different climate. So let me give some personal reactions to a mostly successful performance.

The present-day climate demands that the speaker maintain a tricky focus. The prime purpose is to speak to the broader audience—which is the American public and in particular your supporters. One does this in an opening statement and then by giving straight, tolerable answers to the media present. You don’t want them fighting you. It is tricky because the setting with the press is merely a prop for the pitch to the people. The tone of how one handles this is everything.

Biden has the good sense, maybe reinforced with practice, to give the reporters at least some meat that they were looking to hear. He has ended the folksy manner of how he used to address the press in the campaign. That, of course, fits with his new station. The press after all is adversarial, to one degree or another, yet they also function here as prompters for the president to get his points across. To reinforce his own pitch, Biden selectively picks up on the points his questioners make. He’s good at that. The answers to the media are often couched with anecdotes.

As to content, the president made a few errors. Most Republican voters do not favor his proposals, as he suggested. And he walked a fine line on the immigration mess. He showed himself to be more at ease with controversy than in the past, even over the border disorder. He poked fun at the notion of people coming to the U.S. because he was a nice guy:

Occasionally he talked too long on a subject, as he has in the past. “Am I giving too long an answer? Maybe I’ll stop there.” Sometimes he’ll come back at a questioner: “Is that a serious question? Come on. ‘Is that [children in lockdown] acceptable to me?’” He made several references to Trump, something he hasn’t done in the past. He also announced that he planned to run in 2024. When asked by a reporter whether Trump might also run, as hinted, Biden replied, “Oh God, I miss him.” He’s become a performer, in the best sense.

Then came the filibuster controversy and how to deal with it. Biden made clear his reluctance to remove it but left the door open, depending on how the Republicans handle themselves. Something like the right to vote, he said, should never be subject to the “complete lockdown and chaos” of the filibuster and if that happened, he implied, it would change his mind.

He was most animated in attacking Republican plans in the states to change voting rights, calling these efforts “deeply un-American,” “sick,” and “most pernicious.” This was the most vehement part of his presentation, and one got the impression that he would move any obstacle, even the filibuster, to protect the people’s right to vote.