Beyond Words

Fox News Offices this morning

I’ve just reviewed a ton of reactions to the January 6 Committee’s first hearing last night. If the hearings could change one person’s mind, that would be a positive. Other than repeating what the many opinionists have been saying, I don’t know what to add that would shed any great light or express how utterly awful the state of the United States union is.

Nor can I bring myself to write something that would be clever or penetrating. Taking that kind of approach now seems flippant and self-serving. We need fewer of these pronouncements, of which Jonathan Chait provides a good example. Writers seem to be captivated by others’ opinions, whether it be about guns, race, Trump or January 6. Yet one who tries for original thoughts on such subjects is not heeded, he’s just ignored.

The problems confronting the U.S. seem intractable. So, despite all the noise they make, the voters en masse basically ignore their solutions. I’m at the stage where I still keep devouring products of the multi-headed media, only finally to disregard much of what is said. The media is too much with us.

So I’m going to beg off blog writing for a while—until and unless I get my voice back. Let’s all take a break and go to the beach.

Watergate Fifty Years On

Many of us might wish we had Dick Nixon back instead of Trump. Until, that is, they remember Watergate which set the pattern for corruption and deceit in government. If you need an update on that, here’s a good one by Woodward and Bernstein, the reporters who broke the story.

 My friend Jack and I, in our mid-thirties and drinking a lot, were writing a book about our authoritarian fathers. The subject led naturally into the manifestations of authoritarian government and the recent scandals of Watergate. Here’s some of the conversation I recorded. How little has changed in fifty years.

JOHN: So this justice for the Supreme Court is asking [Alexander] Bickel, the attorney for the New York Times, “You know there has to be a clear and immediate danger to the security of the United States.”

The Justice: “Well, suppose it’s gonna kill 100 soldiers in Vietnam. Would you say 100 is a clear and present danger? Is it 90?”

The whole prosecution had such a specious argument. And John Mitchell, you know, he is just so ripe, the ripest fucking old Dad. What is he now, Nixon’s campaign manager? So he gets up and says—he and Nixon both said it—that the Washington police did such a great job with the Mayday arrests: 15,000 people were detained and arrested, for not doing a goddamn thing!

JACK: Wait a minute, they did a good job! I don’t know any other police department that could get so many arrested that fast. That’s law and order, get ‘em out of there. Like the army, dig ‘em up, move ‘em out. It’s like police call, arrest ‘em all [laughter]. I think they did a great job.

JOHN: Did you read the story that the White House was hosting a Finch College reunion since Tricia had gone there? And Grace Slick, another Finchie, was coming with Abbie Hoffman. The thing that wasn’t in the Times but was in Rolling Stone from an interview with Grace, was that they had all kinds of acid that they were going to dump in the tea, turn on the whole fucking crew, dump it in the samovar or whatever. Their great hope was that Dad might come down and share a cup with them. Greatest idea I ever heard of. But they wouldn’t let them in: husbands and boyfriends were not invited, it was Finch graduates only, so they got turned away.

JACK: Best line of the whole testimony before the Supreme Court: The government made the case that one thing of grave and immediate danger to the security of the U.S. was that Daniel Ellsberg had stolen some of the contingency plans for carrying out the war in Vietnam. And apparently Bickel, the defense lawyer, had seen the Pentagon Papers, and he said, “Mr. Justice, everybody knows what these plans are. Any reasonably intelligent high-school boy could probably draft them in about fifteen minutes. Either we’re gonna bomb the shit out of North Vietnam, A-bomb them into oblivion, or get out. What’s the big secret?”

JOHN: As it turns out of course it’s not saving the face of the U.S., but saving the face of all those assholes who made the policy.

In [Nixon’s] eyes, the publication of the Pentagon Papers confirmed the existence of a radical, left-wing conspiracy throughout the government and media, whose purpose was to delegitimize him and topple his administration. Nixon resolved to fight back with every tool at his disposal, making the fateful decision to break the law to achieve his ends.”

A Modest Proposal for the Gun Predicament

Some of you may remember Jonathan Swift’s grand satire on how to deal with the Irish potato famine. He proposed selling babies of the starving poor as food for the greedy rich. Present-day Republicans have gone Swift one better, allowing children to be killed so they can have their guns. And they do this with none of Swift’s irony.

As one of a few who realize how far gone we are, Michelle Goldberg writes:

Guns are now the leading cause of death for American children. Many conservatives consider this a price worth paying for their version of freedom. Our institutions give these conservatives disproportionate power whether or not they win elections. The filibuster renders the Senate largely impotent.

Others express “an overwhelming sentiment” too that nothing is going to change. McConnell’s proposal to look for compromise with the Democrats is just smoke that will dissipate in testy negotiations. Far-right Republicans have proven they prefer violence over compromise. Goldberg  again:

the more America is besieged by senseless violence, the more the paramilitary wing of the American right is strengthened. Gun sales tend to rise after mass shootings. Republicans responded to the massacre in Uvalde by doubling down on calls to arm teachers and “harden” schools.

The history of gun control attempts in this country is a pathetic tale of one failed attempt after another. When I worked in Washington, I recall meeting with the people who worked so hard to get the Brady Bill passed. It did pass in 1994 and the NRA mobilized to kill it four years later. Despite the carnage in Uvalde and Buffalo, I can’t imagine any serious gun control legislation making it through Congress.

Efforts by Republicans in Congress have a long history of universally shooting down every legislative attempt to attack the problem. Every sensible person knows this, yet even now they talk about fig-leaf proposals that cannot properly address the problem. Background checks and red flags will never begin to eliminate the deep culture of gun violence in the U.S. The sorry history of all this is well documented here, and the Supreme Court has long thrown up major impediments and will continue to do so.

And yet, as many of you know, most Americans want very much to “do something” about gun violence—now more than ever. But Republicans are overwhelmingly captive to their conservative, mostly rural, constituents who could conceivably vote them out of office for waffling on guns. Toadies like John Barrasso of Wyoming say things like, “We don’t want to take away the rights of law-abiding citizens.”

So the many people like him, who have been obstructionists to gun reform for as long as I can remember, are the problem. And they will never vote to reform the filibuster, which keeps their minority in power.

So my modest proposal is: just throw the Republicans out. Vote them all out. What else is there to do? They will not change their goal of holding up any and all attempts at gun control, and they have proven that you’ll get no realistic gun reforms while they hold the legislature at bay.

To accomplish this and win back at least the Senate, Democrats will have to make gun reform the absolute centerpiece of their campaigns in the midterms and beyond. Joe Biden and others with any clout will have to speak out in every kind of forum and at every opportunity. For once, they will have to get nasty and loud, and stop playing games of reconciliation with the enemy.

Who knows if this long-shot strategy would work? There is no more real collegiality left anyway. Maybe the voters would finally appreciate some straight talk about how one corrupt party would sacrifice their kids for more guns.

How to Beat the Inflation

“Buy less” is the most obvious answer. Yet often this isn’t possible. In Mexico, one quart of Haagen-Dazs vanilla at my supermarket now costs $15.00 US, almost what it costs in the USA. That outrageous price certainly won’t keep me from buying it. Only if the price goes to $20 would I perhaps reconsider.

I’ll bet most of you are like this with items you lust after. You cut back on things like socks and underwear, making do with holey old stuff. Beer, for some, is another non-negotiable. What do people do in rural red states, forced to buy gas to commute to their uninspiring jobs? Hard to figure that one, when there ain’t much budget left to cut.

Maybe that’s why the hard right is making such headway. If Biden does manage to get through Congress his billions to help these folks, they will piss it away on gasoline or beer, and then what? You bite the hand that feeds you.

I am just as bad. The pickup cartridge on my lovely vinyl-playing setup is going south after many years of usage. It is of course an essential link in getting the music to my ear, and a new one of equal quality will cost about $500, plus shipping here (maybe another $100). Not buying it renders my whole collection mere wall decoration. Buying a cheaper one is cutting off one’s nose to spite the face. How many quarts of Haagen-Dazs is that worth?

These kinds of quandaries are of little concern to people with real money. Instead they complain about the stock market dropping and worry about what they should do—as if there were any choice but to just hang on. Suzie Orman was interviewed on CNN the other night. Actually she looked pretty good for a 70-year-old dispensing commonplace advice. Her counsel on the stock market? Just do nothing and hang on; the market will come back; it always does (like it did in the 1930s?).

For the rest of us, my uncalled-for advice is like Suzie’s: just hang on. Or you could try one of the four tips from a popular Google site: “ask for a raise.”

After Watching Another Wretched Survivor Interview

We complain regularly that the news is so negative, yet we continue like lemmings to follow it. The war in Ukraine makes us captive to the horrors journalists regularly present to us. Are news purveyors basically exploiting such people? Or are viewers all condemned to negativity bias, the condition in which negative events and statements impact our brains more powerfully than positive ones? Mainstream news surely caters to this bias.

A couple of years ago, Time magazine wrote this:

More than half of Americans say the news causes them stress, and many report feeling anxiety, fatigue or sleep loss as a result, the survey shows. Yet one in 10 adults checks the news every hour, and fully 20% of Americans report “constantly” monitoring their social media feeds—which often exposes them to the latest news headlines, whether they like it or not.

Well, you may say, the negative response has always been part of being human. As Mel Brooks the 2000-year-old cave dweller would say, “Grab that stone and kill the lion.” Journalists are not lion killers, but writing about the Ukraine horrors—and showing us graphic images—makes them feel in control of events that are beyond control. They seem to think that they are giving us a handle on the indescribable.

Last week CNN’s Anderson Cooper devoted much of one show to interviewing bereaved Ukrainian mothers and family of those who had been tortured or killed. One after the other we heard their tales of woe and worse. I got very upset watching this and finally turned it off. It was another of the many cases of tear-jerking emotional overkill that too often are part of the news now.

As a one-time literature professor, I call this sentimentalism. Which I take to mean emotion called up by manipulation, emotion provoked in excess of the situation. Too much of our news dwells on these poor grief-stricken people and their stories at the expense of generating a true response, which should be sympathy. Their pain is obvious yet news people keep dwelling on it.

What they should be showing—and generating in us—is compassion. Reporters like CNN’s Clarissa Ward are better at that than cold fish like Anderson Cooper or the platitudes of Wolf Blitzer. CNN’s news format is partly to blame, as it makes these horror stories part of almost every troubling evening news report.

Online media often take a similar approach. The Washington Post today ran a story “remembering one person for each week of the pandemic: what brought them joy and what they wanted to do next. And how that was cut short.” A lengthy series of headlines follows about each person, like “Dick burst into song when least expected and liked to watch boxing matches.” One wonders if this approach gives solace to the families, or anyone reading it. It seems like the bland leading the bland just to elicit a response.

Media like Aljazeera and BBC have quite different approaches to covering the war: fewer sentimental heart-rending stories and more educated commentaries, overviews, and reporters who show compassion over the exploitation. More and more I rely on alternatives like them to CNN or Fox or MSNBC. Major media has too many motivations to stay negative.

Drinking Heavily and Watching Out for Cockroaches

For some, expat life means socializing and keeping up. The latter activity includes hanging out with friends, gossiping, volunteering for good causes, eating out frequently. Many women I know in Oaxaca spend a lot of time doing these things. I applaud them for it.

Others, both men and women, seem to spend an inordinate amount of time drinking. It’s not just loneliness and cultural disruption, as the common opinion has it. There are two main causes for expat boozIng: one is boredom; the other is disgust with the U.S. political/cultural scene. One more article on Elon Musk and Twitter and I’m ready for a martini.

I don’t socialize a lot, but friends and I have a weekly poker game, which always includes an open bar. Reading, writing, cursing out CNN and the news, and listening to music are activities I pursue to recover my sanity. I’m less addicted to booze than in years past, a good thing.

Oaxaca is in the tropics, after all, and that means cockroaches are always lurking or present. (Don’t believe people who say they never see them.) My compañera in our new house brought her cat here, and that seems to have eliminated most of the problem—but not entirely.

So I conduct roach patrol every morning and stomp on the bastards when I find them. They are not that numerous now, but we older white males seem to have a particular aversion to them. Why is that?

Expats who have adjusted here learn to live with bugs, along with the everyday difficulties of dealing with Mexican bureaucracies, AMLO’s idiotic pronouncements and decisions, the killing of journalists, and the still-horrific numbers of drug murders. To live a life without depending on booze, one must push these things to the background.

It’s pretty much the same with roaches. They are wily creatures who will be here long after humans are gone. Unless you have a bad infestation, just whack ‘em when you see ‘em and, if it’s cocktail hour, pour yourself a short drink.

The pleasures and joys of living here as an expat require one to acquire a certain calmness in the face of mostly unsolvable problems. If you don’t develop that, the booze could take over.

You Think We Got Troubles Now?

Here’s Hunter S. Thompson, one of my favorites, on the situation in 2003:

The U.S. Treasury is empty, we are losing that stupid, fraudulent chickenshit War in Iraq, and every country in the world except a handful of Corrupt Brits despises us. We are losers, and that is the one unforgiveable sin in America. . . .

The American nation is in the worst condition I can remember in my lifetime, and our prospects for the immediate future are even worse. I am surprised and embarrassed to be a part of the first American generation to leave the country in far worse shape than it was when we first came into it. Our highway system is crumbling, our police are dishonest, our children are poor, our vaunted Social Security, once the envy of the world, has been looted and neglected and destroyed by the same gang of ignorant greed-crazed bastards who brought us Vietnam, Afghanistan, the disastrous Gaza Strip and ignominious defeat all over the world.

 . . . . We are like pygmies lost in a maze of haze. We are not at war, we are having a nervous breakdown, again.” (2004)

Michael Brendan Dougherty, writing Friday about the Alito opinion in National Review:

Alito’s drafted opinion manages to do what so few essays and treatises taking up this subject can do: be truthful and shrewd. The publication of this opinion was a sin. But O felix culpa, this opinion should be anthologized with all the greatest writing on the topic of abortion in the United States.

Maureen Dowd in The New York Times on Alito:

Samuel Alito’s antediluvian draft opinion is the Puritans’ greatest victory since they expelled Roger Williams from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Alito is a familiar type in American literature: the holier-than-thou preacher, so overzealous in his attempts to rein in female sexuality and slap on a scarlet letter that one suspects he must be hiding some dark yearnings of his own.

Have the Dems Finally Found a Voice?

Years ago I coached political people in how to give effective speeches. Only a few had the kind of controlled passion that Michigan Senator Mallory McMorrow demonstrated last month. She understood that a speech has to be very personal if it’s going to move you. It has to reflect who you really are.

With the furor aroused by the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade debacle, you can be sure that women will dominate the discourse to come. Most men sound foolish and presumptive discussing abortion. Women will inevitably put the issues on a personal level. They will be the best political weapon the Democrats have.

More on Vinyl

Collecting vinyl is a disease, according to a few women I’ve known. (Most women don’t tolerate music played loud either—but you knew that.) In quantities vinyl is heavy, it’s fussy to play, and it scratches easily. Trying to move a big collection takes strong backs, a lot of boxes, and a truck. Vinyl fanciers do have to admit to these charges.

These attributes plus the advent of streaming music killed off vinyl for a long time. Now it’s having a renaissance as witnessed by growing sales numbers and lots of Kumbaya cyber celebration. Google News tells me in the morning about new vinyl pressing plants going online.

So what’s the appeal? I wrote earlier about the better sound of vinyl and how, for me, that makes all the fussiness worthwhile. With the advent of fairly cheap plug-and-play turntables, vinyl becomes accessible to a growing audience of mostly younger fans who relish its kind of tactile connectedness to their music.

But the physicality of picking up a record and placing it on a platter—and the need to get out of my chair to flip it when it hits the run-out groove on side A—has me appreciating each song all the more. Plus, the wonder of seeing a spinning disc with grooves producing harmonic sound never fades.

I’m too old and long in the tooth with vinyl to get a rush like that. For me it’s the warm sound, plus the psycho-physical need to focus on the music, as if you were in a concert hall. Streaming audio (even with expensive high-resolution downloads) forces music to fit into the mental background of what you are doing. The writer of the above quote gets this, and it’s a big factor: “The music isn’t hiding in the background, as it is when I’m streaming digitally. Instead, it’s front and center.”

London’s Financial Times, an unusual source, tells us that vinyl sales for 2021 went over a billion dollars, the highest level in 30 years. Investors rush to acquire music catalogs and copyrights. The calculus of payoffs to all artists (not just the superstars) changes for the better, and that’s been a long time coming.

A band with 1mn fans, each streaming their new album 100 times in a single month, need only get 20,000 of them to buy the vinyl record to gross the same amount. For consumers, vinyl albums resuscitate a culture of gifting and compilations that used to drive a fifth of all transactions.

So it’s not just the big stars but all the scuffling musicians who make out better with vinyl. And so do the listeners.