Retreat of the Elders

This is for those of you who have reached your advanced years and are now flirting with the attractions of solitude. Sometimes, it seems, this can be more than a flirtation.

Here are the symptoms: a penchant for eating at home; fewer visits with friends; a preference for books over TV; souring on politics and current affairs; pique with the common culture; suffering fools gladly; and so on. Covid, of course, made things worse.

You go to a party where most of the folks there are your friends. The conversation is the usual chit-chat about local happenings, friends who are ill, movies you’ve never seen, restaurants you never visited, travel plans you’re not concerned about, political opinions you don’t agree with. You drink too much and leave early.

It’s about feeling “out of tune,” as Wordsworth said in his poem “The world is too much with us.” When the vibes are bad it’s like you’ve come from a different world, captive to “a creed outworn.” You are out of tune with the common culture (or so it feels), with its emphasis on escape, schlock or shock in pop art, films, and more. To confirm this, take a jaundiced look at New York Magazine’s stories in The Cut and Vulture.

The urge to withdraw from it all, I think, is not just limited to us elders. People everywhere seem to be getting a bellyful of all the institutions of state, the customs and the verities we grew up with and trusted. Why else would so many swallow Trump’s patent medicines and hokum? What is MAGA if not an escape into a surreal fantasy? How did the craziness of Brexit take hold of so many Brits? All of this represents a kind of withdrawal.

We oldsters turn sour on so many things because we’ve lived long enough to lose most of our innocence. Yeats said it best in “The Second Coming.” You seniors may remember these lines.

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

So many sages have told us that aging is simply a loss of innocence. I don’t entirely buy that. I still remain innocent to many things, open to ideas, good books and conversation, thoughtful people, art and music. There’s just a whole lot less to be open to now. And that, my friends, requires regret but no apology.

A Plague on Both Their Houses

For Joe Biden, the sad sack who is turning into a liability for the Democrats, polls show that 64% of Democrats want him to step aside in 2024. With young voters, the figure is 93%. Top concerns are his age and job performance. If it’s Trump versus Biden again in 2024, I predict hordes of people will be moving to Mexico.

A recent NYTimes poll found that 10% would vote for neither one. I don’t think Trump could win if the Repubs are foolish enough to nominate him. (They have even asked Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to speak at the CPAC conference in August.) DeSantis in many ways will be worse.

Recent Supreme Court decisions on Roe and guns have riled up a lot of people. But the Dems show few signs of real outrage or responding to these issues in a way that relates to voters’ real agendas. As many have said many times, they don’t know how to fight. The White House issues its predictable talking points and shows, once again, that it doesn’t know how to engage persuasively with voters of different stripes. There’s no urgency or fire. And there’s no third-party candidate worth talking about.

The Democrats are like those in-laws that Carolyn Hax wrote about today in the Washington Post: they keep on bringing meat meals, one after the other, to a new mom who happens to be vegetarian. Fundamentally, that is harassment. For the White House, it’s plain pigheadedness and political ineptitude.

After the Highland Park shooting, Biden made a tepid, ill-timed patriotic speech with barely a mention of the disaster that had just unfolded. For me, that was almost unforgiveable.

For you, my readers, there’s no need to repeat the litany of worse-and-worse Republican treachery and folly. What we need now is people who know how to fight a most critical political battle.

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.

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.

Why I’m Not Watching

”Only a masochistic brain-dead racist could bear to watch the Republican Convention.”

“But John, you need to watch in order to know thine enemy and understand how they think and what they are planning. Only then can you win the argument that constitutes the election.”

“The election is not an argument. It’s a contest as to whether the country will survive or not. Biden still thinks he can somehow accommodate to these people. I do not. The Republicans and I are singing from completely different musical scores. And it’s the 100th anniversary of Charlie Parker’s birth. I want the same kind of revolution in politics he brought about in music.”

“Well, it’s true there is a lot of flak and noise that keeps you hitting the mute button. Jennifer Rubin seems to endorse your idea: She says the convention has no agenda, no arguments worth hearing, just ‘screaming, dog whistles and bullhorn appeals to White supremacy and abjectly ridiculous accusations’ about Biden.”

“The perfect example of that is Kimberly Guilfoyle’s unhinged rant on the first night, building in decibels and discord as she proceeds. Born from a Puerto Rican mother, she calls herself an immigrant.”

“You still ought to watch the convention, John, to see how permeated their thinking is with appeals to race. It’s the dominant focus of Trump’s agenda.”

“The NY Times agrees with you. Politico magazine agrees with you. I agree with you. But I’d rather hear their reporting than the outsized race-baiting the convention seems fascinated with. Better some media outrage than hearing another speech from Patricia and Mark McCloskey.”

“Patricia said, ‘Make no mistake: No matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.’”

“Let ‘em go back to their fortified St. Louis mansion. If I want to be depressed I’d rather read Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, a book about how deeply immersed our country is in maintaining racial separation. She mixes stories about how caste is embedded in our everyday life with comparisons to India and Hitler’s Germany. We are throttled still and now by caste and its consequences. Do we really need to hear more praise of Trump and his fealty to the cause of caste, hate and fear?”

The Post Office Hustle

Trump Admits He’s Starving the Postal Service to Sabotage Voting by Mail

 How Trump’s Attack on the Post Office Could Backfire

 Is Trump Sabotaging the Postal Service?

You may have noticed that Trump will try anything to achieve his ends, even if it means endorsing something that people will hate. So he tries to starve the post office of funds—the country’s most popular and historic agency—because he thinks vote-by-mail works to create fraud. The fact that it doesn’t makes no difference. He thinks like his followers who hate the policies that are actually in their own interest.

Trump’s buddy Louis DeJoy, the new postmaster general, has instituted operational changes in the Postal Service that make it much less efficient, less capable. He is in the process of removing hundreds of powerful sorting machines, for instance, plus curtailing overtime. Between Trump and DeJoy the intention is clear: hobble the post office so they can call in question the November vote, which will come in late and fragmented. The outcome will be simply to disenfranchise voters by slowing or disabling the count.

Here is a pretty fair summary of the problems these moves by DeJoy and the president have created. It’s a complicated story because the Postal Service has been shackled for years by Congress’ decision requiring it to prefund 75 years of its retiree health benefits in advance. No other organization does this. There is a deep Republican prejudice against the post office, which Trump continues to foster.

Yet, a record 76% of Americans can vote by mail in 2020. With the virus present, up to 50% are predicted to do so. My prediction is that the constant protests from Pelosi and Schumer about tampering with the franchise will have their effect. But the Republicans may also be whispering in Trump’s ear,

 Hey, you might be screwing us over, too, by doing this. And so maybe, just maybe, that provides an opening to actually try to take action to fix what’s wrong with the Postal Service right now. But I would not count on a big hand from Republicans on this. Let’s put it that way. There needs to be as much volume about this as possible as soon as possible. If I’m the Democrats right now, I’m just talking every single day about how Donald Trump is sabotaging the Postal Service.

Along with DeJoy’s “reforms” that slow down mail delivery enormously,

For the president to admit to deliberately trying to slow the mail process in order to curb mail-in voting is “stunning, because it is political sabotage,” says [Philip F.] Rubio, himself a former letter carrier who spent two decades working for USPS. “He’s using his power of the veto [to hold up funding and] to interfere with the democratic process.”

This is clearly a story that has legs, and it keeps unfolding. Nonetheless, we are watching a fundamental undercutting of the democratic right to vote. People will not take this lying down. Neither should you.

P.S. An update: more info on DeJoy and the USPS mess.

P.P.S.  House calls DeJoy and USPS Board of Governors chairman to emergency hearing, Aug. 24.