A Modest Proposal to Deal with the Unvaccinated

Well, you got a situation here that’s pretty outrageous. These idiots are maybe 40% of the population, and if things keep going this way, they’re gonna infect most all the rest of us. The public health people like Fauci are pretty good at scaring us about the unvaccinated, but they got no good solutions on how to deal with ‘em.

At the bar last night me and my friends came up with a few. You may find some of ‘em a little harsh but we don’t recommend outright killing these “purveyors of pestilence,” at least for now.

One-Eyed Jack said, “We got the biggest standing army in the world. Most of the time since Afghanistan they’re just sitting on their ass. Put ‘em in combat gear and send ‘em door to door to have a little talk with these people. Put on a mask and get your shots is the message. Or you’ll be on our list of subversives and threats to the American Way. Meaning fines for going without masks, no more government benefits, IRS harassment—it’ll be like a big No-Fly List.”

“That won’t work,” says Blade Runner. “These people don’t give a shit, and they hate government anyway. I think just let ‘em get sick and close the hospitals to people who aren’t vaccinated. The disease will take its course—and we got way too many red state Republican nitwits out there anyway. Setting up more crematoriums will make the economy grow.”

Darth Schwartz had another idea. “We should put ‘em in camps, like we did with the Japanese in WW II, electric fences and guard dogs. They’d be happier with their compatriots anyway. Maybe make ‘em wear yellow stars.”

Biden should think about that. He wants to be like FDR anyway.

On Covid

It seems the world is on its way to losing the game of fighting the Covid virus. What that will finally mean we can’t yet know, but warnings abound. We see Europe’s fumbling responses, the continuing disaster in India, the confused and irrational reactions from masses of Americans—and the obvious conclusion is that many more will die, the variants will easily proliferate, and the world will incorporate this virus into its domicile of disease, just as it does with cancer.

There is something maniacal about Covid, its ability to adapt and thrive, multiply and avoid the vaccines, and finally infect people’s minds. J.M. Coetzee wrote about this some fourteen years ago in an excellent lesser-known book of his opinions called Diary of a Bad Year. I just finished reading it and was struck by the author’s visionary thinking—and how little we have learned in those fourteen years. Here are some excerpts.

If we can speak meaningfully of viruses as possessing or being possessed by a drive or instinct, it is an instinct to replicate and multiply. As they multiply they take over more and more host organisms. It can hardly be their intention (so to speak) to kill their hosts. What they would like, rather, is an ever-expanding population of hosts. . . .

The protagonists are involved in a strategic game, a game resembling chess in the sense that the one side attacks, creating pressure aimed at a breakthrough, while the other defends and searches for weak points at which to counterattack. . . . Two parties who embark on a game of chess implicitly agree to play by the rules. But in the game we play against the viruses there is no such founding convention. It is not inconceivable that one day the virus will make the equivalent of a conceptual leap and, instead of playing the game, will begin to play the game of game-playing, that is to say, will begin to reform the rules to suit its own desire. . . .

We assume that, as long as it is applied with enough tenacity, human reason must triumph (is fated to triumph) over other forms of purposive activity because human reason is the only form of reason there is, the only key that can unlock the codes by which the universe works. Human reason, we say, is universal reason.

But what if there are equally powerful modes of “thinking,” that is, equally effective biochemical processes for getting to where your drives or desires incline you? What if the contest to see on whose terms warm-blooded life will continue on this planet does not prove human reason to be the winner? The recent successes of human reason in its long contest with virus thinking should not delude us, for it has held the upper hand a mere instant in evolutionary time. What if the tide turns; and what if the lesson contained in that turn of the tide is that human reason has met its match?

Don’t Take a Laxative Before You Travel

Stating the obvious can make people uncomfortable. Still, why do most travel and expat sites not tell you the obvious things? For instance, with Covid still on the rampage in many places, and with widely varying responses to it, it may not be a good idea to travel at all. You should read “The Travel Industry Is a Total Mess, But Everyone Is Traveling Anyway,” in yesterday’s Intelligencer. Why would anyone voluntarily undergo these wretched experiences?

Travel advice often gets political, especially in the personal comments. Regarding the trials of travel, readers often make it a Covid matter, like this guy rayornot from Las Vegas—in the “Total Mess” piece—who expresses a pretty common feeling:

Headlines say masks are ‘suggested’ indoors again.  To protect the unvaccinated.  I got one message for the unvaccinated: fuckem.  I’m vaccinated, I will show my card and I will get a booster if necessary. But any business (except the grocery store) that puts up a ‘mask required for entry’ sign will be telling me they don’t want my business.  And any politician who supports a mandatory return to masks ain’t gonna get my vote.  Don’t care what party they are.

The greedheads who opened these resorts here should have given tourists an option:  get vaccinated or stay home. . . . Vegas is a perfect example of a digressionary [discretionary] expense: nobody HAS to come here.

And nobody has to travel when conditions are this bad. Yet some travel writers encourage it, and they are not just the industry hacks. Here’s one, with perhaps the dumbest advice of all:

Now is the best time to travel: because you can’t delay life. We all want to make the most of our time here, which is why taking a break or a mini-retirement shouldn’t be put on the backburner. Stop delaying all those things you really want to do and just do them. Make a travel plan and stick with it. Don’t let your travel dreams keep being just dreams—make them goals. Bring them to life.

For those sensitive plants among us, travel can bring personal nightmares to life. One such person named Erin writes about that:

Things will go wrong. You will stress out about making friends, and you’ll wonder how everyone else in the hostel already knows each other. You will rehearse openers and practice them in your head. And maybe you’ll try convince yourself that you don’t need to make any friends—at least then you wouldn’t have to put yourself out there. You wouldn’t have to take the risk. Travel is full of risk.

Without taking too many risks, I managed to make it out and back last month from Oaxaca to Charlottesville to see my kids and grandkids. The trip entailed a whole day of bad food and involved four airports and three flights each way. It was worth it, despite having to deal with the incidental chaos of Mexico City’s airport and the premeditated pain of surviving Atlanta’s. Getting there was not half the fun, as the Cunard ads once advised us.

Coming to Oaxaca

Three days after I arrived here in September 2009, I was with my new Mexican friends celebrating Independence Day in the Zocalo. So were roughly a thousand others, and we were so densely packed that the crowd’s movement moved you. Some pinche ladrón lifted my wallet, containing a lot of cash, recently retrieved from an ATM, and all my credit cards, driver’s license, etc. Not quite the welcome I had looked for.

I had flown in from the U.S. at night, looking apprehensively out the plane’s window at the sparse lights of an unfamiliar city surrounded by mountain darkness and thinking, “Now it begins. What am I into?” I felt a mix of excitement and anxiety, being launched on one of the great gambles of my life. With only a few prior friends in Oaxaca, I had little money and no Spanish. My father would have said, “John, you’re just not prepared.”

Somehow I had the confidence to move on and change my life. As reported last week, there were many things pushing me to make this move. I knew the anxiety was normal though it was nonetheless powerful for that. Slowly I began to adapt to living in Oaxaca, finding the city’s life vital and energizing, its complications more or less predictable, its people more welcoming than I expected.

I rented a fine house near the Plaza de la Danza, which later proved to be kind of a disaster. But I settled in and got to know the neighborhood, the markets and shops, a couple of neighbors.

The first big problem was Customs. I had shipped all my possessions—about 2,000 pounds worth, including a large music collection and stereo equipment—by making a deal with FedEx. But, unknown to me, the stuff got held up in Toluca, and I finally hired a customs broker to get it released and delivered, after much agita and tsuris.

The typical irritations one encounters in Mexico when dealing with its bureaucracies—the ubiquitous paperwork and rubber stamps, the impenetrable processes—require patience and understanding. When you first encounter the system, as in shopping for healthcare, you may think you’re living in Mozambique. Yet Mexico is not by any means a third-world country.

You develop patience by growing to understand the culture, by making friends (both gringos and Mexicans), trying to learn Spanish, and finally by learning to relax and enjoy the extraordinary benefits of the place: the low cost of living, the glorious climate, the food, the welcoming people. One reason I found I could adapt was because I had lived and worked in so many different U.S. locales.

The problems of being an expat in Mexico can be intimidating. Some of the pros and cons are described here. The rewards you’ll find will depend on your personality, your aims and goals in life and, mostly, on your attitudes toward change. Finally, I think it’s kind of a crapshoot for everybody. The winners will learn how to play the game.

Expats Exposed


“The Best Places to Live in Mexico as a U.S. Expat”: Good, keep them out of Oaxaca.

Who are these itinerant people, and what are their stories? For twelve years now I’ve been living with a bunch of expats from the U.S. and Canada who have come to Mexico for many different reasons. I’ll be talking to some of them in future posts. The point will be to reveal something about what moves people to leave a familiar culture for one largely unknown. For now, I’ll try to explain what this move has meant to me politically and culturally.

So let me give you a few excerpts from things I’ve written about moving on in my life. From the conclusion to Moot Testimonies, a fictionalized memoir published about a year ago:

I expatriated myself ten years ago in part because I was broke, in part to get away from American politics and culture, in part to start a new life. One takes a modest pride in being an expat because it is a conscious opting out. (An exile usually signifies someone who is excommunicated, banished, cast out.) As an expat, I’m in no way a Mexican immigrant: I don’t want Mexican citizenship and I like the indeterminate nature of living here. Expats will never be part of the Mexican polity or culture, and most of us accept that. Being an expat is a way to try getting beyond your former experience.

Earlier, in another attempt at a memoir, Jive-Colored Glasses, I tried to explain the political and cultural motives behind my move:

After a number of visits there, Mexico seemed my best option. For one thing, I found cultural and political life in the U.S. increasingly impossible. By 2009 when I moved out, real commonality had all but ceased for most people, and class warfare was a term being bandied about. The liberal elites were living lives as circumscribed as those of the working class (though they didn’t realize it), and both groups were still captivated by the myth of human progress. For culture, the elites watched PBS; the working class (many of whom were not working) watched American Idol. I felt little connection to either group.

 . . . My last three years in the U.S. after [working for] the Navy and before Mexico were spent in the state of Maine, living with my sister on an idyllic farm with Angus cattle, beautiful short summers and long ice-bound winters. . . . The solitude of Gardiner, Maine, was hermetic and hard to break out of. Instead of inspiring my creativity, the natural beauty of the place brought me an emptiness of spirit. Maine was forever economically depressed. And I was far too preoccupied with finding work and keeping the woodstove going, never getting the relief that a good walk in the woods should bring. It was what a lot of folks in Maine experienced: the bucolic blues.

But living in Maine does something to you. I had that in common with my friend Conrad who passed on about six years ago. We both had careers in academia and had developed similar misanthropic views about politics even though we counted ourselves as part of the liberal majority that so predominated in Oaxaca.

After his death I put some words in his mouth, again from that fictionalized Moot Testimonies attempt. Conrad had become one of the more important and loved people in my life. He understood the finer points of what it meant to be an expat.

I’ve seen and done all Oaxaca has to offer. So part of me is just tired of being the house liberal, and I think Goods has felt the same way. Every progressive cause has its downside. Living in a liberal bubble like Oaxaca can get tiresome.

After all, we are the privileged caste, aren’t we?—the white folks who call ourselves expats, so unlike those Nicaraguan and Mexican “migrant workers.” I recently read a piece in The Guardian about this. Arabs, Latinos and Asians are immigrants; we and the Europeans are favored and called expats. Well, I can’t get too exercised about this linguistic snobbery, though many of my Oaxaca friends are always preaching from that liberal state of mind where every last kind of injustice must be called out as unfair, insupportable or immoral. I come from good French-Canadian stock, working class folks who had no money or time for such bullshit. Mainers by and large don’t put up with such bullshit. They can’t afford the indulgence. Goodman gave up on the American Way, maybe for similar reasons.

In our ways we both were trying to express the dissatisfaction that comes from looking at life as identity politics. It becomes more discernible when you’re living abroad. I don’t know what to call myself these days, but I guess liberal will suffice.

The Toxic Arrogance of Rumsfeld

“Toxic” and “arrogant” are two words that writers have continually cited in reviewing Donald Rumsfeld’s career in government. How fitting and revealing they are. The man was also wily and supremely confident in his views, as if confessing there were “unknown unknowns” could explain how deeply wrong he was.

Rumsfeld, who passed on Tuesday, was two years older than I, grew up in the same North Shore Chicago milieu, went to New Trier High School and was a wrestler, then on to Princeton and, later, flew for the Navy. In the ‘50s he got to Washington, worked for four presidents, and “did everything well.” Another ‘50s golden boy, another Robert  McNamara.

When I was working for the Navy in 2003-2006, Rumsfeld was W’s Secretary of Defense and the war in Iraq was raging. Our PR shop naturally tuned into the many press conferences, which the Secretary often treated as his own personal extravaganzas. The ever-worsening war effort was blithely written off with phrases like “stuff happens.”

My boss liked to give a half-day seminar on media training so the Navy folks would know how to deal with the press. He had rather different ideas about this than I had, yet my opinion was not solicited although media training had been my business for some years. Finally, at the end of a long-winded seminar, he showed a video of CNN’s Greta Van Susteren interviewing Secretary Rumsfeld and tossing him puffball questions. Rumsfeld’s tortuous replies were offered as examples of finely crafted answers.

The insane war with Iraq and its consequences have been with us to this day. What happened at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib has never been forgotten. What developed in Syria and made Iraq a shell country has made Iran powerful and created persistent enemies of the U.S. Biden’s recent withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan has been a tacit confession of defeat, and the country will now belong to the Taliban.

Rumsfeld, with the connivance of Cheney and Bush, set all this in motion. The process was well documented in 2013-2014 by Mark Danner’s pieces in the New York Review of Books; now available here, here, and here. You, or some of you, will remember such odious names as Paul Bremer and Douglas Feith, Ahmed Chalabi, Paul Wolfowitz. These were Rumsfeld’s boys.

Finally, the hostility to Islam took on a new and powerful form, which Trump and his cohorts pursue to this day. Danner writes:

Rumsfeld is first and foremost a patriotic midwesterner, a politician who nourishes in his soul a primordial and undying belief in the manifest need for, and rightness of, American power. To him this truth is self-evident, imbibed at an Illinois breakfast table. Who do we want to lead in the world? Somebody else? The idea is plainly inconceivable. And it is because of that plain necessity for American leadership that after September 11 American power and credibility must at all costs be restored.

Sound familiar? As Rumsfeld later told the press, “I don’t do quagmires.” Well,

It did not turn out that way. Having watched from the Oval Office in 1975 the last torturous hours of the United States extracting itself from Vietnam—the helicopters fleeing the roof of the US embassy in Saigon—Rumsfeld would be condemned to thrash about in his self-made quagmire for almost four years, sinking ever deeper in the muck as nearly five thousand Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died. He was smart, brash, ambitious, experienced, skeptical of received wisdom, jealous of civilian control, self-searching, analytical, domineering, and he aimed at nothing less than to transform the American military. The parallels with McNamara are stunning.

And, just as surely, he defined the world that Trump inherited.

N.B. How Rumsfeld charmed the press, and how his doctrine of warfighting has continued to cost us.

Surfside

The building went down in an area that I used to know well. The appalling collapse of the Champlain Towers South triggered for me a number of thoughts, as I’m sure it did for you. We read into disasters like this not only our observed failures as a society—which Florida for me represents on a grand scale—but our inability to protect ourselves from future calamities that we know are coming.

My parents, when they were alive, lived in a condo in Bay Harbor Islands, just a few blocks across Indian Creek from Surfside. I went to Surfside often, for bagels, for its Jewish ethnicity, its bazaar of stores, the beach and, nearby, the chic Bal Harbour shops. In recent times, Surfside has gotten built up, with more and more condos and an influx of people from all over.

Florida and its developers (commercial and political) have told us it may take years to find the cause of this disaster. They have ignored the unmistakable signs of climate change as a factor. They have also permitted, nay encouraged, the development of Miami and its barrier islands, building high-rise condos on a limestone bed that is totally permeable to constantly rising sea water. It doesn’t take a soothsayer to know that more buildings will come down. We seem temperamentally unable to deal with the effects of climate change that are staring us in the face.

Journalists are particularly cautious about making any such conclusion that climate must be accounted for. They don’t want to scare people and they don’t want to be found mistaken. I think it’s a fairly sure bet that more buildings will fall and more people will die, notwithstanding the engineering analyses. Florida has too many folks acting like the frog in the slowly boiling water.

Susan Matthews of Slate puts it this way: we might be entering a world “where building collapses are just another thing that journalists cautiously acknowledge as catastrophes that might be exacerbated by climate change, but we end up just dealing with them, just like we have learned to deal with the heat waves and the fires and the droughts and the hurricanes.”

May God save all those buried people.

Biden Assessed

If you look at how the Republicans are responding, the Biden presidency has been a major success. If you look at its prospects for passing more expansive legislation, you find little hope. All our broken mechanisms of government are responsible for that.

Joe Biden, the liberal standard bearer, could end up like Don Quixote or Walter Mitty, a failed visionary. We hope that doesn’t happen because the stakes are way too high.

How has Mr. Folksy become our Last Best Hope? Even as he confronts an impossible political situation, Joe Biden’s mastery of politics so far has been decisive. A big test came in his meeting with Vladimir Putin last week. As Susan B. Glasser wrote, “The triumph of Geneva is that it was not Helsinki.” Biden carried it off, mostly with aplomb.

The contradictions in how Republicans viewed this event are telling. They called it “appeasement” and worse. Which, after Trump’s blatant gaslighting at Helsinki, is just laughable. They call Biden “a dangerous radical” while most Americans consider him a moderate and an establishment figure.

Biden’s moderate image will give him the space to advocate more liberal ideas and still prevail, while Republicans struggle to convince voters that his proposals are extreme and dangerous. As one Republican lawmaker conceded, “it’s hard to hit someone who reminds you of your grandpa.”

But they keep trying by advocating harsh voting restrictions and gerrymandering, which Biden has few tools to deal with. He has been dealt a razor-thin majority in both houses and must work with deadheads like Joe Manchin. He has not pushed hard enough on climate change and taxing the wealthy, issues on which he has public backing.

For example: the administration has proposed a significant clean electricity standard, which is key to countering climate change. But getting that through Congress will be a major hurdle, “a moon shot kind of thing.” One advisor said that “Biden’s team will fall short of their goals unless they can put a policy in place that gives renewable energy the advantage over natural gas, which, because of fracking, is likely to be abundant and cheap for the foreseeable future.”

Issues like this will require a major effort by the administration to make its case in strong but uncomplicated ways to the public. So far it hasn’t done this. The impacts of climate change are still an abstraction for most people; they acknowledge its importance but not its urgency. Biden would rather address something like Juneteenth (thoughtfully appraised here) by making it a federal holiday. That has immediate payoff.

The prospect of getting major legislation passed depends on Biden’s willingness to play political hardball, something that has become more obvious with each passing day. He seems temperamentally disposed not to play that kind of game. But he surely knows that the game can’t be won any other way.

Winning it will require all of Biden’s considerable skill as a politician, plus continued Republican stumbles, plus a lot of public pressure. If you think it’s just politics as usual, I urge you to read this analysis: “Are Democrats Sleepwalking toward Democratic Collapse?”

As Mort Sahl once said, “The future lies ahead.”

Hearing the Music Again

Fifteen years ago I woke up one morning to a mosquito buzzing in my ear. Still in the stupor of sleep, I swatted it and thereby ruptured my eardrum. I knew I was in trouble when two otolaryngologists told me my hearing was badly impaired and that nothing could be done about it.

So, besides the typical high frequency loss one gets from aging, I was hearing about half of what I should in my left ear. My love of music was the first casualty. I had (and have) a big collection of vinyl and CDs, a very good stereo, and a love of jazz and classical since childhood. I’ve been writing professionally about music for years. That story is here.

First to go were the cymbals and higher frequency sounds. A blanket had been draped over my speakers. Bass players were under water. I learned to ignore the problem, telling myself, “My hearing is not that bad.”

But the major handicap was conversation—in meetings, bars, restaurants, at work—and distinguishing voices from background noise. How embarrassing to repeat those typical responses of the hearing impaired: “What?” “Say it again, please.” When you knew you were missing something, you sometimes just nodded to gloss over it.

I was to learn what a racket the hearing aid business is. For $2,000 I bought a then-state-of-the-art ReSound hearing aid for the one ear. After several visits to the dealer, it never was tuned right and had a metallic, tinny sound. Five years ago I took it to a shop in the U.S. (there were no dealers in Mexico), and they said it was too old to reprogram.

Over time I just learned to compensate and come to terms with being handicapped and partially isolated from the life of sound. Two years ago I bought a Bose contraption with a collar around the neck so I could better hear the inscrutable audio from most movies. Cumbersome, though it worked fairly well, I thought. But for music, it sounded like what you’d hear on a CB radio.

In the United States last week, I visited Costco (that bold symbol of America) and bought a new hearing aid, a Phonak KS10 that they sell for $1399. For this you get a very thorough hearing test, high-tech programming and customizing, and a host of features to adjust the sound. You control most parameters through a Bluetooth connection on your phone. Phone calls come directly through the hearing aid.

The KS10 is truly state-of-the-art and has brought me back to some kind of sonic reality. Music heard this way begins to approximate what a fully hearing person can hear. And it works across the frequency range without much distortion.

Hearing loss produces its own kind of reality distortion. You avoid difficult situations where hearing can be marginal. You instinctively measure your ability to respond. You mask your disability. All these behaviors have mental and emotional consequences. I hope those days are behind me, and I’m blessed that the music is back.

Choices and Observations: Reengaging with the U.S.

costco interior

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

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

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

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

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

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

P. S.  Costco wins with the millennials and everyone else.