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.

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.

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.

The Boneheads, continued

It is no news that the United States is the land of the free and the home of the bonehead. We documented a few cases here. But last week saw them coming out of the ground like cicadas. The week’s news confirmed that the species is not confined to Congress.

Mainly, these are the people who refuse to take the vaccine. A recent poll found that 49% of Republican men wouldn’t take it. Some thought it was a scam; others claimed they had natural or God-given immunity.

“I just feel that God created us, made our bodies in such a wonderful way that we can pretty much do our own immunization,” [Ron] Holloway, 75, told The Guardian. “We’re equipped to do that in most cases. I just don’t see the need for it.”

This justification sounds like the Miami Beach partiers talking about their own immunity and their God-given right to stampede and go crazy. Another bonehead, Gov. Ron DeSantis, “has bragged that the state is an ‘oasis of freedom’ during the pandemic —and the stir-crazy are flocking to the state’s restriction-free beaches and nightlife.” De Santis, no stranger to dementia, is expected to run for president in 2024.

The spa murders in Atlanta, however, evidenced something beyond dementia. I found the only way to understand such actions was to reflect on how American culture has continued to generate one violent insanity after another. It is no wonder that we have produced a population of boneheads and misfits.

Yet it was Congress that set the pace last week. You had Sen. Rand Paul arguing about masks with Dr. Fauci. “If you have immunity, they’re theater,” Paul said. “If you already have immunity you’re wearing a mask to give comfort to others.” Fauci strongly disagreed, but it was like refuting the willful and repetitive ignorance of a moron.

Earlier, you had Sen. Ron Johnson claiming he felt no threat from the patriots who stormed the Capitol on January 6, but if it had been “Black Lives Matter and Antifa protesters, I might have been a little concerned.” Ron is thinking about retiring, not a bad idea. Then, in a hearing about violence toward Asian Americans, Rep. Chip Roy (R.-Tex.) defended the good old remedy of lynching to “take out the bad guys. . . . We need more justice and less thought policing.”

The Democrats were not exempt from making fools of themselves. We heard the continuing upside-down comments of Sen. Joe Manchin about the filibuster—first agreeing there might be a reason to restore the “talking filibuster,” then dismissing it. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, under heavy fire for repeated attempts at sexual harassment, claimed he had instituted laws to prevent sexual harassment in New York State. The New York Post encapsulated his defense: “Calm down, ladies. Let’s not get hysterical.”

And finally, we had the image of Biden stumbling and falling while hurrying up the stairs to Air Force One, eager to express youthful vigor, one presumes. Joe, I’ve got a few years on you and have learned never to take the stairs with abandon. Your youthful vigor can be expressed in how well you deal with China and Russia.

And what will the coming week bring?

Dr. Seuss and Race Music

How we view matters of race is inevitably measured by how we grew up. Which in turn influences how we reckon with cultural change. I think the ambivalent history of white responses to black music plays out in our own time through our hesitant responses to Black Lives Matter.

Reflecting the tenor of these times, Dr. Seuss Enterprises—publisher of all those stories we grew up with and which kids still read—recently saw fit to withdraw two of the lesser known books from further publication. You probably know the story, some of which is recounted here by Benjamin Wallace-Wells. He reflects on the ironies and absurdities of the so-called cancel culture and its response to the calls for black justice. Conservative media jumped all over the books’ withdrawal. But the elites dug themselves into a typical hole by their defensive, uncertain responses. The Wells piece is well worth a read.

The ambivalence of white American culture to jazz, for instance, was always part of the picture when I was growing up in the ‘50s (see Jive-Colored Glasses). And the whitening of black jazz started from the beginning, with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 19l7. In a strange progression, black music was accepted as the ur-source even while white and black performers bantered about black culture. Bing Crosby, who did a lot for jazz, is a case in point. He recorded “Mississippi Mud” with the great Bix Beiderbecke in 1928.

They don’t need no band,
They keep time by clappin’ their hand.
Just as happy as a cow chewin’ on her cud
When the darkies beat their feet on the Mississippi mud.

Later on, “darkies” was changed to “people” in the many recordings that followed. I had an old 78-rpm disk of this, along with other such period pieces that generally functioned as white entertainment with an overtone of genial mockery. “Novelty” (comedy) records were popular in early jazz; Jelly Roll Morton made several. Blacks put up with this until the ‘60s when musical standards for jazz changed along with the culture. Now, ironically, most every pop singer sings in “black-voice.”

Walt Disney’s movie Dumbo (1941) featured the singing crows in full black-voice which everyone loved. Disney to its credit has kept these scenes while adding a disclaimer. The funny animated cartoons we grew up with featured racialized characters in abundance. “Race records” was the name for recorded black music until the early ‘50s. I had several orange vinyl 45-rpm discs, which RCA Victor used to signify R&B type black music—color-coded marketing.

A recent book, Sittin’ In by Jeff Gold, is a wonderful archive of “black-and-white souvenir photographs and memorabilia that bring to life the renowned jazz nightclubs of the 1940s and 1950s.” The notable thing here is the mixing of black and white patrons two decades before the Civil Rights movement and while Jim Crow laws were still rampant.

The cultural power of black music has always been to accommodate both protest and reconciliation to some common values. Our cancel culture denies this power, and the music has become commoditized and politicized in recent years. Yet it still informs much of what we listen to.

Got Your Shot Yet?

I got my first shot on Wednesday in Oaxaca. The ordeal was compounded by sketchy information, very long lines and changing priorities, but things finally worked out for me. This is Mexico, after all, a country driven by its ability to survive chaos. People here have the patience and cooperation to wait hours in lines hundreds long. Fights would break out elsewhere.

Local newspapers reported early in the week that some 30,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine were coming to the city. These were to be distributed on three days to 11 sites—police stations, courts, a church plaza, schools, and one clinic. The Centro de Salud clinic was in my neighborhood, about a mile away, and that’s where I went.

Some people got this notice online without further explanation. Others got it with two forms attached. More learned about the distribution from neighbors, newspapers, and word of mouth. Smoke signals may have played a part. Nobody seemed to have figured out how 30,000 doses could be adequately and fairly distributed in a city of 300,000.

The idea was to limit the vaccine to 60+-year-olds, and even that would be a stretch. I went to my local doc to see if he and his hospital had any access to the vaccine. My organs definitely could not accommodate standing in line for hours at my age. “No,” he said, “our private hospitals and staff don’t get it. AMLO hates private hospitals.”

I was thinking I’d have to go to the U.S. to get the stuff, as two of my friends had just done. One had checked out the lines and disorganization on Tuesday and called it a clusterfuck. Oaxaca’s governor called it a disaster. I contemplated the joys of testing, traveling, and going through four airports. Besides, I had given up my Medicare and had no permanent U.S. address.

On Tuesday, first day of the distribution, those in charge were confronted with immense lines of people going at least four blocks down from the clinic. The operators wrote out numbers on scraps of paper and handed these to the many people on line. My friends Bryan and wife Elizabeth got one. They had decided to get a number and ask the folks in line (mostly younger people reserving a place for their elders) to hold their spot while they went home and slept. This turned out to be a fairly common practice.

The next day, Wednesday, they returned early to find their place in line had moved up quite a bit. Bryan called me after he had gotten his shot and said he would go back in line and hold me a place. I thanked him profusely, swallowed my qualms and found him holding my place (with a chair, even). No numbers were given out, and the line, with maybe 50 folks in front of me, moved me to the front in about an hour. An official with a bullhorn told us that there were only 300 doses left and there would be no more coming.

The staff inside the clinic, mostly younger women, were helpful. They checked all our paperwork, wrote and stapled documents, then sent us inside to get the shots. Per the normal in Mexico, there were people to guide one through the maze and clarify things. Through their efforts—clumsy as they may have been with numbers, then no numbers, changing procedures and lack of supply—they got most of us in, though I don’t know how many were left in the long line remaining.

I guess my surprise in all this was that the crazy, beleaguered system worked for me. Even the preferential treatment I got through the efforts of my friend was accepted by all as part of the game. This is Mexico, after all.

The Intractable Boneheads

Contrary to what you may have heard, the best way to deal with the boneheads that ever more dominate our lives is to ignore them. You can’t talk to them; they speak an alien language unrelated to human thought or history. Reasoning with them only makes them angry and reinforces their fantasies. The only thing that will change Governor Abbott’s behavior is political pressure. Ditto for the Republican toadies.

At the Capitol on January 6 you saw the ultimate bonehead fantasies of religion, conspiracy and nationalism all merged and confounded. Trump’s evangelical followers are usually high on some form of political deception, as Michael Luo recently documented:

nearly three-quarters of white evangelical Republicans believe widespread voter fraud took place in the 2020 election, compared with fifty-four per cent of non-evangelical Republicans; sixty per cent of white evangelical Republicans believe that Antifa, the antifascist group, was mostly responsible for the violence in the Capitol riot, compared with forty-two per cent of non-evangelical Republicans [my emphasis].

There’s a long tradition here, a vibrant history of religious nuttiness in American life. Luo talks about some of this, and the full treatment can be found in Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1966), still valid and strong after all these years. I talked a little about these tendencies in another post, “A Culture of Ignorance.” Since then the culture has gotten worse and become the succubus of the Republican party.

Many boneheads refuse to take the Covid vaccine. Some still fixate on QAnon and its “cabal of left-wing, satanic pedophiles,” per Sarah Posner. Others are seized by the fervent mix of evangelism and Trump lies, as we saw on January 6. Nicholas Kristof humanely tells us “How to Reach People Who Are Wrong.” I say leave ‘em alone; asking reasonable questions will only make them more entrenched.

President Biden’s approach has been to avoid morally challenging these idiots and to focus on political actions that clearly benefit the majority. He did make a slip the other day in accusing the governors of Texas and Mississippi of “Neanderthal thinking” for abruptly lifting all Covid restrictions. Well, you can’t blame the man for speaking the truth.

Yet I am quite certain that Biden’s efforts to deal amicably with the Republicans will fail. Fooling around with arcane Senate rules and reconciliation maneuvers won’t get the transformative measures through that most of us are hoping for. You can’t deal forthrightly with people who have no moral or humanitarian center. You can’t overcome the filibuster. You can’t build trust with people who have no soul.