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.

More from Houston: Bullshit Runs Deep in Texas

Abbott and Trump: look at their hands.

Heidi Schneider, our Houston correspondent, unwraps some indecent political behavior in Texas. Quick to blame others, these folks have no competence and no shame. On a related note, I highly recommend to you Ezra Klein’s recent podcast, “The Texas Crisis Could Become Everyone’s Crisis.” Three smart people talk not only about the Texas debacle but how climate change will change all of us.

We tried-and-true Texans are taught to “Remember the Alamo” and the flag slogan “Come and Take It” from our earliest fight for independence. But since the 1990s the Texas GOP has fractured our exemplary and fabled image with sanctimonious messaging and agendas. Fast forward to the present day and it’s clear that Texas’s image as a sovereign utopia needs a dramatic facelift.

Just last week the Texas Attorney General, Republican Ken Paxton—who has been under a federal indictment since 2015—took a page from Senator Ted Cruz’s playbook and snuck off to Utah with his Texas state senator wife Angela, paying no regard to the non-legislative Texans left behind during a statewide weather catastrophe. Just two days after the historic freeze arrived, he left town, claiming his absence was due to important official meetings.

More important than millions of frozen constituents? Do you remember that in late 2020 Paxton’s department joined the Stop the Steal con by drafting a lawsuit against four other states? Dispatched to the Supreme Court, the case was quickly dismissed, as the justices instructed Texas conservatives to play in their own sandbox. Upstanding folkloric judicial leader, or total self-serving schmuck? You decide.

Just days ago, the Lone Star state’s conservative Lt. Governor Dan Patrick went on record insisting on a thorough investigation into the state’s energy failure. He claimed this would not be a finger-pointing expedition, then immediately placed blame for the magnitude of frozen failure on ERCOT, the Energy Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the power grid. Should we tell him a similar investigation was done in 2011 after an extreme cold snap? Moreover, the recommended updates were never pursued by the legislature. Crawl back under your rock, Dan. Your expertise is in gender-neutral bathroom policing, not power grids.

In the past several years, changing weather systems have brought horrific flooding and damaging winds to my home state. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey became the second-costliest tropical storm on record, costing 127 billion dollars in damage. I remember newscasts where Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner pleaded with Governor Abbott to release his Ebenezer Scrooge grip on the state’s rainy-day fund to help flood victims. That fund, currently around 10 billion dollars, was originally created after the oil and gas bust way back in the 1980s. Instead, Abbott used his executive power, as he has done for last week’s storm, and declared a state disaster, so Texas could qualify for federal assistance. So much for national overreach and state sovereignty.

The legislature just began another biennial session in January. After a dysfunctional year of pandemic quarantines, disturbances from 2020 election deniers, and a frozen national disaster, voters should expect them to address our most pressing statewide issues. There is nothing exceptional about literally polarizing segments of our state and victimizing the most vulnerable. Meaningful infrastructure and inclusive policies are what will move our state forward, not gaslighting from our majority surrogates in Austin.

As my no-nonsense husband George puts it, “If you are a partisan asshole, own it, and stop talking out of both sides of your mouth.” For me, I sum it up simply as: bullshit runs deep in Texas.

Frozen in Texas: A Report from Houston

With all the horror stories coming out of Texas, I asked my friend Heidi Schneider for her thoughts on what has happened and is still happening there. She and her husband George are lifelong Houston residents and seasoned observers of the political scene. Here is her account.

Over the last several years, many Republican legislators in Texas have become chameleons of a sort. They change the colors of their opinions to support the national administration’s mantra of “fake news” and everything is a “hoax” sound bites as their only tangible agenda.

Well, saddle up, chameleon cowboys, because there has been no partisan politics in play when it comes to the millions of Texans devastated by the recent polar blast. This left the entire state without the basic infrastructure to keep multitudes of citizens from freezing to death.

In desperation to keep warm, some households across the state have resorted to burning their belongings or exposing themselves to carbon monoxide poisoning. People were left without water and electricity at random, and traffic blocking lines started to form at some fast-food establishments, as folks sat in their cars just to absorb the warmth and obtain a hot meal.

Gas pumps have been bombarded by motorists who navigated the dangerous, icy streets just to secure fuel before it disappeared. Grocery stores, with limited supplies, have hundreds of shoppers standing in the freezing elements, only to select from already depleted shelves. In Houston, a handful of warming shelters opened, with Texas’s largest city housing over 800 homeless and vulnerable Houstonians, and their pets, at the city’s convention center. Who would have thought the pandemic could be upstaged in my state?

During the height of our utility outages, I watched Governor Greg Abbott focus more on planting the seed of ultimate blame than addressing the palpable desperation happening in his state. During cable news appearances his conversation strayed by stretching the blame to Texas’s frozen wind turbines. We heard his views that oil and gas remain king, that progressive ideas of alternative sources are the root of energy evil, all the while overlooking the fact that winterizing the state’s energy resources has been neglected for decades.

Former Republican Governor Rick Perry felt he was speaking for all citizens by verbalizing that Texans are happy to do without creature comforts in order to maintain our state’s energy independence and freedom from federal oversight. He spoke while warm and comfy during an internet-style interview.

To add insult to injury, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who has offices in Houston—you know him, he aided in the insurrection of our nation’s capital a few weeks back—decided to sneak off to Cancun for some sun and fun, since his children were out of school due to inclement weather. You cannot make this stuff up.

As a native Texan, I am tired of my intelligence being insulted by my state’s Republican leaders telling me not to believe what I see and hear for myself. From my view today, I see Texans helping Texans, just as we always do during crises, and I hear that federal assistance is on the way.

Chick’s Music Is Very Much Alive

Music is a crucial way in which we give voice to our emotions. For some of us, it’s the essential voice. Those who play music well empower our mental health.

So when Chick Corea, the peerless pianist of jazz, died last week at age 79 it felt like a breaking point for a music that has lost so many creators—and, as some think, lost its way. Then there was the pandemic and that unbelievable impeachment trial with its implications for a dreadful future. It seemed to me that the bottom was falling out of our culture.

Well, one alternative to the gloom was to sit down and listen to Chick’s music. Over the years I’ve collected a lot of it and continually marveled at the variety and depth of what he wrote and played.

The journey started for me in 1968 with one of his first trio albums, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes—all of it here plus outtakes).

I was writing a music column then and had never heard anything quite like it. Here’s part of what I wrote for The New Leader in March 1969:

Recently I have been listening to Chick Corea, a young jazz pianist of already wide experience who is now playing with the Miles Davis band. His earlier recordings never prepared me for what I heard on his latest, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Solid State SS18039), which is easily one of the most beautiful and technically accomplished discs in the world of post-Bill Evans piano. Corea prefers a free-floating modal jazz, usually in bright tempos, with long and complex improvisatory lines.

That album made Chick’s reputation and changed the concept of trio jazz forever. He continued to explore all kinds of musical forms, making sense out of the nascent jazz-rock movement with his group Return to Forever (1975) and his many subsequent groups (the Chick Corea Elektric Band, the Akoustic Band and more). His progress into classical, Latin and Spanish music is traced in the Rolling Stone obit here.

In 2012 Bobby McFerrin and Chick gave a bright new twist to the latter’s most famous composition, “Spain”:

Chick never stopped exploring music. But, as the Guardian’s John Fordham notes, he always seemed to come back to a more traditional trio jazz, and that’s how I best remember him. One of his later albums, Trilogy (2013, with Christian McBride and Brian Blade) is a favorite of mine.

Here’s a 2007 trio with John Patitucci and Antonio Sanchez which shows the depth and expansiveness of Chick’s love of jazz. He had an absolutely unquenchable spirit.

One Queasy Spectacle after Another

The Stupor Bowl

Witnesses Could Prevent a Foregone Conclusion in Second Impeachment Trial

Guy Debord, Donald Trump, and the Politics of the Spectacle

Americans are infatuated with spectacle, most obviously with the Super Bowl, the yearly nod to institutionalized violence and kitsch. I do like football, notwithstanding. I watched the game this year, appalled by how badly the Chiefs performed and how effective the android Tom Brady was. The laying on of schmaltz that is the halftime show was the topper, as usual.

How is it possible to enjoy football in the face of all the evidence of its “blatant brutality” and ubiquitous presence in the culture? Bill Harrison writes a strong indictment in Medium, calling it the Stupor Bowl, a term I’ve also used for years. The reality is that we’re all sucked into the business of football and become eager customers.

We are also eager customers for political spectacle, one reason for Trump’s popularity. The proper audience for the impeachment trial beginning today is not Republicans in the Senate chamber but the American public. One hopes the Democrats managing the trial recognize this. Let them call a few witnesses and make it a show trial; it’s clear they aren’t going to get a conviction anyway. The jury has already declared its intentions.

It will be interesting to see what the impeachment managers decide about calling witnesses—and how far they are prepared to indict not just Trump but the GOP for its anti-democratic tactics. The Post’s Greg Sargent put it this way:

If anything, Democrats need to make it as politically uncomfortable for Republicans as possible to acquit—and to extract a political price for it among the suburban moderates whom the GOP continues to alienate with its ongoing QAnon-ification.

It’s clear that all kinds of arresting spectacles inform much of the breaking news of our time—from floods and coups to terrorist attacks. Presidents from Reagan to Obama have made political spectacle both respected and expected. Yet Trump has turned a political party into a cult of such displays. Douglas Kellner documents his mastery of political and media spectacle.

The events of Jan. 6 are rendered still more horrifying by the Republicans who have chucked out any notion of Trump’s responsibility. One may hope that his (and the GOP’s) impeachment will offer the public a chance to wake to the reality behind this debased spectacle. He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.

A Sharp Dressed Man

Imposter that he is, Trump dressed like a Mafia Don. Biden is playing the long game and dresses like a president should. You can’t beat a navy blue pinstripe suit. I am reminded of the great ZZ Top tune from 1983, “Sharp Dressed Man,” and, not least, how power dressing used to count for something in public life. Mitch McConnell in his off-white suits doesn’t really get that.

Most of us are entirely worn out with the pandemic, the stimulus negotiations, the Greene affair, and the daily GOP turmoils. Republicans are thrashing around trying to patch up their broken party and keep in the game while Joe Biden is quietly upstaging them at every turn. Yesterday the House Dems voted to kick M.T. Greene off her committees, even while Kevin McCarthy, the GOP’s top turkey, gave her a pass.

Before this, Joe coolly met for two hours with ten Republican senators and overshadowed them all, likely winning the stimulus battle. Maybe the pinstripe didn’t matter. But maybe subliminally it did.

The Lemmings

The GOP’s answer to its post-Trump blues: More Trump

Marjorie Taylor Greene’s vile new antics highlight a 50-year GOP story

In the most recent Republican playbook, the lemmings continue to follow the Great Psychopath over the cliff until, as in the last moment of a Looney Tunes cartoon, he steps aside and they don’t. Reminds you a little of the Jonestown massacre, though Trump, unlike Jim Jones, is in no way going down with his ship. And we don’t finally know whether the gutless Republicans will continue drinking the Kool-Aid.

How could this mad devotion come to pass? No one can really explain it. Hard to believe so many would make this Faustian bargain for political power. The mass extinction of the GOP looms, one hopes. The only person who could begin to get inside the phenomenon is Hunter Thompson, and he is dead.

“The party risks tying its future to a one-term president whose deeply polarizing style cost the party both the House and the Senate during his four years in office.” So says David Siders in Politico. It’s worse than that, David. Some 80 percent of Republicans now approve of his record; and 56 percent of Republican voters believe that Trump should either probably or definitely run for president again in 2024. A new poll from YouGov and The Economist found that 72 percent of Republican voters—almost three in four—believed Biden’s win was illegitimate.

All but five of fifty GOP Senators now support Trump and his reelection fantasy. So the second impeachment is quickly moving toward irrelevancy. And “the Trumpster Visigoth wing of the Republican party” (thanks, Thomas Mallon) is in full ascendance. Someone should write a novel about all this. Characters like Giuliani, Bannon, Cruz and others in Trump’s Mafia are hard to come by in fiction. Then if you threw QAnon fancier Marjorie Taylor Greene into the story, it would test all credibility:

CNN reports that Greene “liked” a social media post that suggested “a bullet to the head” for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and seemed to approve of a suggestion that other prominent Democrats should be hanged.

She mocks the Parkland school shooting in which 17 died. Very few Republicans have chosen to comment on her crackpot assertions. In fact, there’s no fiction that could do justice to this woman’s sordid reality. For some of us, the Republican party has lost all reason for existence. The state-level actors in places like Pennsylvania are also losing all reason for existence.

GOP state legislative leaders called on Republican congressional members to object to the Electoral College results or “delay” their certification. Every House Republican in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, save one, obliged, voting to invalidate their state’s Electoral College votes.

As in other things, Hunter Thompson may have said it best: “I believe the Republicans have never thought that democracy was anything but a tribal myth.”