Has there ever been a presidential nominee simultaneously so unimpressive and so desperately needed?
I think of you as the Caretaker President, both because our country needs a caretaker and because sometimes it seems like you do, too.
I was going to compare you to a beat-up old tow-truck which arrives to pull back the car from the edge of the cliff. But even that suggests a level of energy and performance which I’m not sure is apt.
Perhaps you are instead the traffic cone which keeps oncoming traffic from hitting the wreckage and sending the suspended car into the rocky gorge below.
In this scenario, with you as traffic cone, I guess Kamala is the tow-truck? Or Pelosi?
I’m not sure.
I’m not even sure there is a tow-truck. Our country feels 50-50 right now for rescue.
I already love you, Joe, for your gaffes. I love you for blithely declaring that ‘200 million’ died of Covid and for always telling us, like a cranky middle-school P.E. teacher 10 years past retirement, “Look, here’s the deal …”
I love you for the huge shiny white dentures, for the ghostly, age-appropriate, liver-spotted pallor. I love you too for calling a student questioner at a campaign event ‘a lying, dog-faced pony soldier.’ What in the hell, Joe.
I love you for stating the obvious, that you will be a one-term president and then, like a chastened schoolboy, having to walk it back the next day and pretend, ‘Hell yes I’ll serve two terms!’ It’s not on you that this country can’t handle the truth like grown-ups, Joe. After all, our republic is only 240 years old.
Speaking of which, how is it possible that you’ll be the first president named Joe?
How did we go through Millard, Barack, Zachary, Rutherford, Ulysses, Grover, Lyndon, Franklin, Dwight, Calvin, Marvin, and Chester without landing even once on the most American of nicknames?
That seems odd, Joe, borderline deep-state odd.
You’ll be the 46th president, and sure, the ‘first Joe president’ doesn’t have the same pop as first female president or first Asian-American president, or first transgender president.
But you know what? It’s not nothing, either.
Honestly, we are overdue for a Joe.
And, seeing as we are desperate and we have no other, non-fatal choice, you’ll do fine.
More than anything else, politically, your candidacy stands for the proposition that if one lives long enough and if one slides into a situation in which one is compared with extreme greed, narcissism, cruelty, and corruption, then one looks, well, good enough!
You are good enough, Joe.
Caretaker, stopgap, placeholder, traffic cone, crossing guard … whatever we call it, you got this, Joseph. With one hand tied behind your back, you got this.
I love that you’re from Scranton, home of Dunder Mifflin, and from Delaware, too. No one is from Delaware, Joe! Corporations and credit cards are from Delaware.
You know what else I love? That bemused expression on your face, like you’re just as surprised as we are that you’re about to be president, that you were the best we could do. I feel the same way! Among those ten sharp, energetic, articulate Democratic challengers, we chose … you?
Apparently we did!
It’s a shame your campaign never leaned into the Sleepy Joe tag which Trump tried to hang on you. Felt like a missed opportunity. What’s wrong with sleepy? I’ll take sleepy every damn day over hanging off a cliff. Our nation is overdue for a nap, or a timeout.
And the good news is, if you ever need steroids, you are starting out from a very steady, non-insane benchmark. Steroids will bump you up to ‘aggressive,’ not ‘catastrophically deranged.’ That too is a plus.
It’s gonna be just one term (and even that might be optimistic). But you’re gonna be fine. Sleepy is just what the doctor ordered. Less chaos, fewer plots to kidnap governors.
Others would have called it quits long ago. Not you. Thank you for sticking around! We need you!
Students of American literature are well aware of novelist Walker Percy, who wrote The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman, among other books.
Less well known is his cousin, William Alexander Percy, a lawyer who wrote a remarkable memoir about growing up in the Mississippi Delta in the late 1800s.
At its best, Lanterns on the Levee is reminiscent of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the acknowledged masterpiece of hyper-detailed childhood recollection. And yet the Percy book remains largely forgotten.
The setting is the South after the Civil War. The topic is the uneasy rearrangement of people, politics, and power after slaves were emancipated.
Which may make the book sound ponderous and boring. It’s not.
Here’s how Percy describes a family friend:
He was incontestably the ugliest man in the world — tall, shambling, with tiny pale eyes, extravagant sandy eyebrows gone to seed, and a masterpiece of a nose that Ghirlandajo would have given his life to paint. He always suggested things vehemently, was always overruled, always accepted the adverse decision, and always concluded with: “Well, LeRoy, what do you say? I’m an old fool.”
Here’s how a local newspaper editor is described:
He read Gibbon and Carlyle and Thucydides and Voltaire till all hours of the night, and his pen was dipped in gall. But he read also the New Testament and the ‘Sentimental Journey,’ and when his heart was moved he could break yours …. He loathed corruption and hated public iniquity. The intelligent few worshipped him, the unintelligent many scuttled for cover at the first hiss of his lash. We loved him for his weaknesses as much as for his strength, for his inability to manage his own affairs, for his poor marksmanship when he was constantly being threatened with duels and assassinations, for his failure to appreciate beauty except in women, nature, food, and drink. Father was elated when, showing him a sizable copy of Canova’s ‘Cupid and Psyche,’ his sour and single comment was “Kind of raw.”
I am sorry to quote so many passages, at such length; I want to give a sense of the voice and tone.
Here is Percy’s account of climbing trees as a boy in summer storms:
Aspens grow together in little woods of their own, straight, slender, and white. Even in weather they twinkle and murmur, but in a high wind you must run out and plunge among them, spattered with sunlight, to the very center. Then select your tree and climb it high enough for it to begin to wobble with your weight. Rest your foot-weight lightly on the frail branches and do most of your clinging with your arms. Now let it lunge, and gulp the wind. It will be all over you, slapping your hair in your eyes, stinging your face with bits of bark and stick, tugging to break your hold, roaring in your open mouth like a monster sea-shell …. You will be beaten and bent and buffeted about and the din will be so terrific your throat will invent a song to add to the welter, pretty barbaric, full of yells and long calls. You will feel what it is to be the Lord God and ride a hurricane.
Here he recounts a phone call one day from a nun who used to teach him music:
[She] telephoned me and announced that I was a godless, ungrateful, heartless monster (she always telephoned that way, never giving her name and knowing I would recognize her voice and style), that Sister Evangelist was on her deathbed in Vicksburg, that she loved me more than any of her thousand pupils, that in my baseness I ignored her and would not even take the trouble to visit her, dying, in fact barely this side of rigor mortis. As usual I took Sister Scholastica’s hint and dashed to Vicksburg. At the convent door a scared little rabbit of a nun asked my name and mission, suspiciously admitted me to the cool bare sitting-room, and left me there. There was a long pause during which I assumed they were propping up Sister Evangelist so that she could reach out feebly and blindly to give me her last blessing. It was pretty staggering, therefore, when Sister Evangelist came tripping in, unbent by her hundred years and vivacious as a cricket. She immediately loosed a diatribe of piety and invective, contrasting the promise of my past with the worm-eaten fruit of my present, and all with no more pause, punctuation, or capitalization than the last forty-six pages of ‘Ulysses.’ At the first drop of a comma I got a word in edgewise: “Heavens, Sister! You talk as if God didn’t have any sense of humor.” She burst into gales of laughter, exclaiming, “Everybody forgets it; even I do sometimes,” and the next two hours were chuckling gossip, singularly naive and gay.
Here is a local congressman who used to visit the Percy family:
He had a cold analytical mind of the first [order], plus an arrogant integrity. His political weakness was that he could not kiss babies and considered it indecent to rhapsodize over the purity of Southern womanhood. So he was always about not to be elected. His English was all sinew and no color, his rare adjectives were like bullets, and he had some strange expressions of his own. He would say to Father: “It is bitter as gar-broth, LeRoy,” and I would lose the rest of the discussion wondering what gar-broth might be.
Here is Percy’s summary of how turtle soup was prepared in his home:
To the grown-ups turtle soup was simply the predestined last act of a soft-shell turtle’s career and one worth waiting years for. But Willis and I knew the terrific drama preceding it. Someone would bring one of the great monsters to our back steps and leave it there as a gracious and esteemed gift. To Willis fell the hard lot of converting it from an unlikely reptile into a delicacy …. The turtle gave no co-operation. It resented the situation and withdrew from it by tucking head and flippers into its shell and refusing to emerge. Willis would then give him a jab in the armpit and out the obscene head would dart, the slit eyes pale with hatred, and the horny, beaked mouth snapping dangerously at all of us. Nain would scream and snatch me up and scuttle to safety on top of the cistern, while the cook would emit Fo’-Gods, interspersed with strictures on the cannibalism of white folks. Finally that dreadful head would come out long enough for Willis to whack it off with the ax, at which the rest of the turtle would walk off hurriedly, as if the incident were closed. Even this was not the climax of the gory horror — Willis still had to break off the top shell. When this was accomplished, before your startled eyes lay the turtle’s insides, unharmed, neatly in place, and still ticking! They did not seem to miss the head, but acted like the works of a watch when you open the back. It was the nakedest thing I ever laid eyes on, and usually while you were watching, fascinated, the whole thing walked off, just that way, and the cook would almost faint.
Here is Percy’s recollection of being sung to sleep by his African-American nanny. He can remember neither the words nor the melody, only the powerful effect of the low, wistful tune.
I would try not to cry, but it made me feel so lost and lonely that tears would seep between my lids and at last I would sob until I shook against her breast. “Whut’s de madder, Peeps?” she would say. “Whut you cryin’ fur?” …. I was learning not so much how lonely I could be as how lonely everybody could be, and I could not explain.
Percy had a religious bent as a child. His eager embrace of theology at Catholic school alarmed his mother, so she transferred his education from nuns to a retired judge living across the street. With embarrassment, Percy recalls objecting to a scene in Othello as immoral. He asked the surprised judge if they could switch to a different play.
I must have been an unbearable little prig. I do hope I’ve outgrown it. If not, it wasn’t Mother’s fault.
His mother kept moving him from teacher to teacher, trying to find the right fit for the gifted, but odd child.
I was a sickly youngster who never had illnesses, who hated sports partly because they didn’t seem important and mostly because I was poor at them, who knew better what I didn’t want than what I did, who was sensitive but hard-headed, docile but given to the balks, day-dreamy but uncommunicative, friendly but not intimate — a frail problem-child, a pain in the neck.
The writing is excellent throughout the book, whether about the Mississippi River, the horrendous flood of 1927, or the various rungs of Delta society during the earliest periods of Jim Crow repression. However, to call the work politically incorrect would be a significant understatement. And that helps explain the book’s continuing low profile in American letters. Not only does Percy regularly use the terms “Negro” and “darkies” to refer to African-Americans, he seems unable to resist any opportunity to generalize about a class or group, whether Jews, blacks, poor whites, or faded aristocrats.
Below is his sketch of “river rats,” a sub-set of poor whites who lived near the Mississippi River and who, according to Percy, resisted the niceties of polite society, or even its most basic legal obligations.
[The river-rat] is white, Anglo-Saxon, with twists of speech and grammatical forms current in Queen Anne’s day or earlier, and a harsh “r” strange to all Southerners except mountaineers. Where he comes from no one knows or cares. Some find in him the descendant of those pirates who used to infest the river as far up as Memphis. It seems more likely his forefathers were out-of-door, ne’er-do-well nomads of the pioneer days. His shanty boats, like Huck Finn’s father’s, may be seen moored in the willows or against the sandbars as far up and down the river as I have ever traveled. He squats on bars and bits of mainland subject to overflow, raises a garden and a patch of corn, steals timber, rafts it, and sells it to the mills, and relies the year round on fishing for a living. He seems to regard [the river] as the Navajos regard Canyon de Chelly — as a sort of sanctuary and homeland, and it supplies the clam shells from which he makes buttons. Illiterate, suspicious, intensely clannish, blond, and usually ugly, river-rats make ideal bootleggers. The brand of corn or white mule they make has received nation-wide acclaim. They lead a life apart, uncouth, unclean, lawless, vaguely alluring. Their contact with the land world around them consists largely in being haled into court, generally for murder.
Percy’s affection for African-Americans is obvious, if dated and patronizing. He describes black people as “the only Southerners worth talking about.” Here he recalls crawfishing with a boy named Skillet:
He was the best crawfisher in the world and I was next. Instead of closed sewers our town had open ditches, which after an overflow swarmed with crawfish, small clear ones, quite shrimp-like, whose unexpected backward agility saved them from any except the most skillful hands, and large red ones, surly and whiskered, with a startling resemblance to the red-nosed old reprobates you saw around the saloons when you were looking for tobacco tags in the sawdust. When these rared back and held their claws wide apart, Skillet said they were saying, “Swear to God, white folks, I ain’t got no tail.” Theoretically it was for their tails that we hunted them, because when boiled and seasoned and prayed over they made that thick miraculous pink soup you never experience unless you have French blood in the family or unless you dine at Prunier’s. Of course anyone could catch crawfish with a string and a lump of bacon, and anyone knows their family life is passed in holes, like snake-holes, from which they must be lured; but who except Skillet had ever observed that a hollow bone lying on the bottom of a ditch is bound to be occupied by one?
Another vivid passage recounts Mrs. Percy’s method of preparing the famous Southern cocktail known as a mint julep:
Certainly her juleps had nothing in common with those hybrid concoctions one buys in bars the world over under that name. It would have been sacrilege to add lemon, or a slice of orange or of pineapple, or one of those wretched maraschino cherries. First you needed excellent bourbon whisky; rye or Scotch would not do at all. Then you put half an inch of sugar in the bottom of the glass and merely dampened it with water. Next, very quickly — and here was the trick in the procedure — you crushed your ice, actually powdered it, preferably in a towel with a wooden mallet, so quickly that it remained dry, and, slipping two sprigs of fresh mint against the inside of the glass, you crammed the ice in right to the brim, packing it with your hand. Last you filled the glass, which apparently had no room left for anything else, with bourbon, the older the better, and grated a bit of nutmeg on the top. The glass immediately frosted and you settled back in your chair for half an hour of sedate cumulative bliss. Although you stirred the sugar at the bottom, it never all melted, therefore at the end of the half hour there was left a delicious mess of ice and mint and whisky which a small boy was allowed to consume with calm rapture. Probably the anticipation of this phase of a julep was what held me on the outskirts of these [family gatherings] rather than the excitement of the discussion, which often I did not understand.
Throughout the memoir runs a current of sadness over disappearing customs and culture, as well as rueful pessimism about race relations.
[The] Delta problem is how all these folks — aristocrats gone to seed, poor whites on the make, Negroes convinced mere living is good, aliens of all sorts that blend or curdle — can dwell together in peace if not brotherhood and live where, first and last, the soil is the only means of livelihood. Most of our American towns, all of our cities, have their unsolved problems of assimilation. But the South’s is infinitely more difficult of solution. The attempt to work out any sort of one, much less a just one, as a daily living problem, diverts the energies and abilities of our best citizenship ….
Percy describes a visit in 1922 from a Ku Klux Klan organizer hoping to start a group in Percy’s hometown of Greenville, Miss.
Percy is amazed and appalled by the effect of the KKK speaker on listeners.
[He] made an artful speech to a tense crowd that packed every cranny of the room; and every man was armed. Who killed Garfield? A Catholic. Who assassinated President McKinley? A Catholic. Who had recently bought a huge tract of land opposite West Point and another overlooking Washington? The pope. Convents were brothels, the confessional a place of seduction, the basement of every Catholic church an arsenal. The Pope was about to seize the government. To the rescue, Klansmen! These were statements which any trained mind recognized as lies, but which no man without weeks of ridiculous research could disprove. It was an example of Nazi propaganda before there were Nazis. The very enormity and insolence of the lie carried conviction to the simple and the credulous.
But Lanterns on the Levee is more than social and political history. It is a meditation on aging, on falling short in life. In his later years Percy strolls through the town cemetery and reflects on the occupants.
While people are alive we judge them good or bad, condemn them as failures or praise them as successes, love them or despise them. Only when they are dead do we see them, not with charity, but with understanding. Alive they are remote, even hostile; dead, they join our circle and you see the family likeness. As I loiter among our graves reading the names on the headstones, names that when they identified living men I sometimes hated or scorned as enemies of me and mine and all that we held good, I find myself smiling. How unreal and accidental seem their defects! I know their stories; this one was a whore and this a thief, here lies the town hypocrite and there one who should have died before he was born. I know their stories, but not their hearts. With a little shifting of qualities, with a setting more to their needs, with merely more luck, this woman could have borne children who would have been proud of her, and this thief might have become the father of the poor. Now death has made them only home-folks and I like sound of their familiar names. They lie there under the grass in the evening light so helplessly, my townsmen, a tiny outpost of the lost tribe of our star. Understanding breaks over my heart and I know that the wickedness and the failures of men are nothing and their valor and pathos and effort everything.
In turn, he examines his own life, which would end soon enough. He died in 1942 at age 57, the year after the memoir was published.
Among these handfuls of misguided dust I am proud to be a man and assuaged for my own defects. I muse on this one small life that it is all I have to show for, the sum of it, the wrong turnings, the weakness of will, the feebleness of spirit, one tiny life with darkness before and after, and it at best a riddle and a wonder. One by one I count the failures — at law undistinguished, at teaching unprepared, at soldiering average, at citizenship unimportant, at love second-best, at poetry forgotten before remembered — and I acknowledge the deficit. I am not proud, but I am not ashamed. What have defeats and failures to do with the good life? But … more troubling doubts assail me. Of all the people I have loved, wisely and unwisely, deeply and passingly, I have loved no one so much as myself. Of all the hours of happiness granted me, none has been so keen and holy as a few unpredictable moments alone. I have never walked with God …. I have seen the goodness of men and the beauty of things. I have no regrets. I am not contrite. I am grateful.
As beautiful and vivid as the memoir is, the defects are obvious. It is, in today’s parlance, riddled with unexamined privilege. The chapter about his college, Sewanee, is nostalgic and sentimental to the point of maudlin (though he gives an impressive tour of the native wildflowers of Tennessee). His reflections on “our race problem” are not merely paternalistic, but based on patently racist assumptions about the inferiority of African-Americans as a group. The tone of these passages is aggrieved and defensive. These parts of the book have aged poorly.
Nor does the book address the writer’s sexuality or love relationships, a significant gap in a memoir. Percy, like Marcel Proust, was likely gay, according to scholars. But readers are left in the dark whether significant romantic relationships occurred, let alone shaped his life.
The memoir tends toward impressionism and sometimes fails to convey the actual breadth of the author’s life and family. He was a graduate of Harvard Law School, a World War I veteran, the son of a U.S. senator, and the adoptive father of three young cousins whose parents appear to have died by suicide. (One of the three children was Walker Percy.) Suicide ran in the Percy family, and it is easy to pick up the scent of depression all through the memoir, from the infant crying over a nanny’s lullaby to the unexpected appearance at a dinner party of an ancient, senile Civil War hero still obsessing about financial errors which brought ruin and disgrace after the war.
Percy conveys the youth and energy of the party, the incongruous arrival of the trembling relic from long ago, the quiet kindness shown by Percy’s parents.
[He] came into the light still wide-eyed like a ghost, a ghost that is not afraid, but only uncertain, a ghost that can’t remember. He sat down with those youngsters in their party clothes just as Banquo’s ghost did, but mercifully they knew nothing and rattled on, though I could see Mother wanted to cry. He hardly touched his food and sat quietly, looking but not seeing, trying to remember something. Once he leaned to Father and said softly: “I have come back to go through those records. It was all a mistake. They will show everything was in order.” Father said: “Of course, General.”
The anecdote shows the memoirist at his best — a sharp observer of others, capable of deep feeling, convinced of the illuminating value of even small, domestic moments.
The influence of Gandhi on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is well known.
But Gandhi himself owed a debt to the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, who had written on the same topic of nonviolence.
And Tolstoy, in turn, learned from others before him, including the French political philosopher Étienne de la Boétie in the 1500s, the Czech dissenter Jan Hus in the 1400s, and most crucially for Tolstoy — Jesus Christ.
In the books A Confession and The Kingdom of God Is Within You, Tolstoy describes his midlife crisis, his turn toward faith, and his growing conviction that churches everywhere — across history — disregard the most important part of Christ’s message.
For Tolstoy, true Christianity is expressed in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).
Nonviolence and unconditional love, even for one’s enemies, are such radical directives, with such major implications; if one takes them seriously, Tolstoy says, then it becomes hard to justify or participate in most of what churches, governments, and societies require of members.
As an example, Tolstoy describes the public whipping of two peasants who were found to have infringed the land rights of a wealthy aristocrat.
Tolstoy lays out, person by person, all the participants in the punishment, from the judge and prosecutors to the soldiers and officers dispatched to carry out the whipping.
Tolstoy himself was on the same train as these soldiers on their way to the village. He observed their behavior, their apparent attitudes about the case, and then their actions during the beating.
He believed that down deep, few of the soldiers felt good about the case.
All these lads, peasants for the most part, know what is the business they have come about; they know that the landowners always oppress their brothers the peasants, and that therefore it is most likely the same thing here.
But the soldiers participated anyway. It was easier to obey. In Tolstoy’s view, they had been gradually ‘hypnotized’ by the daily experience of obeying laws, obeying superiors, training as soldiers.
What other options were available to these men?
Tolstoy lays out various scenarios which basically boil down to civil disobedience — a simple, nonviolent, matter-of-fact refusal to participate, no matter the repercussions.
In the United States, another writer considered similar questions roughly 40 years earlier.
Henry David Thoreau wrote about civil disobedience in relation to slavery and the Mexican-American War.
Getting at the same point as Tolstoy’s soldiers on the train, Thoreau wrote, “Even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.”
Thoreau distinguished “respect for laws” from the dictates of individual conscience. Of himself, he wrote, “I cannot for an instant recognize as my government [that] which is the slave’s government also.”
Long before Thoreau and Tolstoy, the French essayist Étienne de la Boétie worked the same moral territory. He identified consent as the key variable, according to political theorist Murray Rothbard.
To [de la Boétie] the great mystery of politics was obedience to rulers. Why in the world do people agree to be looted and otherwise oppressed by government overlords? It is not just fear … consent is required. And that consent can be non-violently withdrawn.
Of course, nonviolence is not merely a political strategy, but also a spiritual path.
What Tolstoy traces back to Christ exists still earlier in the teachings of Gautama Buddha; Taoist philosophers in China; and — even further back — Jainist monk-mendicants in India.
Indeed, the Jainist religion seems the oldest, most conceptually consistent practice of nonviolence (ahimsa). Nearly a thousand years before Christ, the Jainist leader Parshvanatha advocated nonviolence as one of the four requirements for right conduct. (The other three were non-possession, non-stealing, and non-lying.)
One of my most vivid memories from college 30 years ago was a World Religions class taught by Prof. Diana Eck. On a sleepy, rainy Friday morning she showed a film which included a clip of Jainist monks sweeping the ground before them as they walked. They were trying to brush away insects and microbes so that none would be stepped on and killed. They were also wearing white cloth masks in order to avoid accidentally inhaling and killing tiny organisms in the air.
I was impressed by the Jainists. Their extreme nonviolence struck me as absurd, but also beautiful and maybe even … logical?
Wasn’t it the logical extension of not just Jainist beliefs, but the core beliefs of other major religions?
The precept ‘First, Do No Harm’ is commonly associated with the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. But the idea pre-dated him and certainly has broad application far beyond medicine. In one form or another, ‘Do No Harm’ lies at the heart of many faiths, even if the rule is not regularly followed (and certainly not at the level of whisking Jainists).
As much as I hate to consider the prospect of President Trump winning re-election in November, I like to be prepared for everything, including the re-birth of fascism.
My natural impulse would be to fight and disobey aggressively, even violently. But more and more, I believe that Parshvanatha, Christ, de la Boétie, Tolstoy, Thoreau, Gandhi, and MLK were on the right path. This seems especially the case where my disagreement is not just with Trump himself, but with millions who voted for him, and thousands who implement his policies.
In this situation, where I am in effect on the train with Tolstoy’s soldiers, I think radical nonviolence is the only defensible answer.
A famous statement of nonviolence was made by the defeated Nez Perce Chief Joseph in 1877 in what is now Montana.
His surrender capped a brutal campaign by the U.S. Army, which had chased the Nez Perce nearly 1,200 miles through the present-day states of Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. After a five-day siege in freezing weather, the Nez Perce finally surrendered. Chief Joseph said:
I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohulhulsote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say no and yes. He who led the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are. Perhaps they are freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, chiefs, I am tired. My heart is sad and sick. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.
Whatever religion Chief Joseph was practicing in that moment, I would like to be a follower. For me, his words are up there with the Sermon on the Mount, Ecclesiastes, the Tao Te Ching, and the Gettysburg Address, for eloquence and power.
It’s hard to keep up with the changing scare tactics.
Four years ago it was illegal immigrants and Muslims who were threatening our very existence.
Today it’s antifa, BLM protesters, and looters.
Anything to distract from COVID and unemployment, I guess, and from the nonexistent border wall and the various Trump associates behind bars.
The shifting array of bogeymen reminds me of Orwell’s 1984.
Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil.
Trump rhetoric about imposing law and order ignores the fact that he has been in power for four years. It does not speak well of a sitting president, for example, that he cannot guarantee free and fair elections, peaceful streets, or public health.
At least when Richard Nixon ran on “law and order” in 1968, he was doing so as a challenger, not an incumbent. There was logic in arguing, This current situation is disastrous and chaotic, I’ll get it under control.
The argument makes less sense when you’ve been in office for four years, have controlled the Senate for those same four years and the House for two.
The question for voters now is the one posed 40 years ago by Ronald Reagan in his battle against incumbent Jimmy Carter.
Are you better off today than you were four years ago?
Trump’s head-scratching inaugural address four years ago about ‘American carnage’ doesn’t seem like a head-scratcher now. It looks prescient. He seems to have manifested the chaos he envisioned.
Trump stokes division at every opportunity on the theory it improves his re-election chances. The long hot summer of riots has been a godsend. It takes airtime from his COVID failures, and energizes his base.
First, store owner Mendy White re-opened her Melbourne, Fla., crafts shop in May after quarantine lockdown.
Because she was living with an elderly parent who had immunity issues, she posted signs requiring that her customers wear masks.
On the first day of re-opening, while working the register, she was confronted by a man who disagreed with the mask policy. When White asked a second time that he wear a mask, he lifted his shirt to reveal a gun.
So far this is just an everyday news story, unfortunately. In the U.S. we are well aware by now that masks are a political flashpoint.
What set Mendy White apart for me was this quote. She told a reporter: “I’m gonna be honest. I work in a fucking bead shop. Do you think I should have to carry a gun to come to work? It’s art. It’s craft. It’s design. It’s teaching people. I’m not coming to a shooting range. This should be the happiest place.”
Side note: I personally associate craft stores with last-minute trips to buy supplies for my kids to build replicas of 19th-century California missions for school projects. Not a happy place for me, memory wise.
Craft stores were also at the center of the Supreme Court decision Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which granted a religious exemption to a company that didn’t want to pay for contraception in employee health care.
That said, whether you are outfitting your child to build a miniature San Juan Capistrano or you are a cashier trying to pay for birth-control pills or you’re a store owner trying to sell some beads, yes, I imagine the unexpected brandishing of firearms does make the store a less happy place.
I work in a fucking bead shop.
For me, the statement of exasperation puts poor Mendy White into a separate category. When she said it, she was wasn’t really speaking for or against masks, she was more commenting on the overall insane state of affairs. She was an observer of the human condition.
Sure, there are businesses where we’ve almost come to expect guns getting waved around. McDonalds, Wendys, Target, and WalMart all come to mind as places where you might possibly want to keep your wits about you.
But the Karen and Friends bead shop?
Let me put it this way. When you hear a crafter dropping an F-bomb, you know we are off track, as a republic.
The two sides of the abortion debate are facing off against each other in a loud, chaotic crowd scene. The focus is Ruth, played by Laura Dern. She’s a glue-huffing pregnant woman who has bounced back and forth between the pro-life and pro-choice sides in a public battle over her pregnancy.
The pro-life side ultimately tracks down Ruth’s mom. The mom’s voice, amplified by speakers, booms across a huge crowd of protesters.
“RUTH! WHAT IF I ABORTED YOU?”
A hush falls as the crowd ponders the existential question.
Not Ruth. Jangled by the protests and the noise of a nearby helicopter — and by weeks of being pursued, lectured, cajoled, wooed, scripted, and paraded around as a symbol — she has had enough. She grabs a bullhorn from the man next to her and screams into the void.
“WELL, AT LEAST I WOULDN’T HAVE HAD TO SUCK YOUR BOYFRIEND’S COCK!”
The crowd is reduced to a stunned, disgusted silence.
Perhaps it doesn’t speak well of me, but I love this moment. If you could hug a moment, I would hug this one. As uncomfortable as Ruth’s shouted response is, as horrendous as sexual abuse is, the outburst reveals exactly who she is — a less-than-ideal mouthpiece for any movement, and an accidental genius of truth telling.
She is no one’s victim, as it turns out. She won’t be manipulated anymore despite her difficult background, her lack of education, her drug addiction. If you keep pushing and pushing on this woman, she will speak out loudly and, uh, plainly.
Her outburst also highlights the enduring irony of people focusing so exclusively on the fetus and sometimes sort of forgetting everything which may follow, including — in Ruth’s case — sexual molestation.
A less profane example of sudden truth comes from the movie Sideways, which like Citizen Ruth was directed by Alexander Payne.
Sideways is about two friends on a wine-tasting trip near Santa Barbara, Calif. One (played by Paul Giamatti) is a wine connoisseur undergoing a midlife crisis. The other is an old college roommate, a laid-back, has-been actor played by Thomas Haden Church (himself a has-been actor when the movie was made).
At one stop on the wine-tasting tour, we see nerdy Giamattai in all his obsessive glory, riffing to Church about all the hidden “notes” he smells in the wine’s aroma, including strawberry, passion fruit, asparagus, cheese.
Church generously listens to the spiel, even as he grows impatient to stop sniffing and just knock back the wine.
Finally, after both men drink the wine and look at each other in satisfaction, Giamatti’s face falls.
“Are you chewing gum?” he asks Church.
The line illustrates perfectly the two different personalities, their different takes on life, their radically different experiences of this particular moment.
Giamatti is buzzing with the energy of a troubled genius. A divorced, unsuccessful writer, he has been making ends meet as a school teacher in San Diego. He has actually stolen money from his own mother — on her birthday, no less — to finance the wine-tasting trip.
When he realizes Church was chomping on Juicy Fruit during the holy moment of tasting, it’s not just frustrated disbelief on Giamatti’s face. It’s deep loneliness. It’s that painful, alienating moment when we realize how specific and intense our experience of the world can be. We question whether our own view can ever really be communicated to, or shared with, a friend, spouse, reader, anyone.
More specifically the gum chewing reveals that Giamatti is in the wrong company. He isn’t with his tribe, he isn’t with a soulmate, a loving spouse, a grown child, or even the defrauded birthday parent who unwittingly paid for the trip.
Instead, the bumbling, dim-witted college buddy — the gum chewer — was the best that the unraveling Giamatti could find for the pilgrimage to wine country.
My final example of sudden truth isn’t funny, but is revealing nonetheless.
A libel lawsuit dragged on for years. Even though Behar and Time ultimately “won” the case, the personal toll on Behar was significant.
“Here’s the thing,” he said, “when you’re sued for libel, and it goes on like that, it affects your career because you become a half-time defendant, so you can only be a half-time journalist. … That’s how you defeat a reporter, in a sense.”
The whole interview is worth listening to, but Behar describes one particular moment roughly 20 days into his deposition by church lawyers.
The lawyers began asking whether he knew L. Ron Hubbard’s theories about the developmental importance of events which take place in the immediate environment of a fetus, newborn, or young child.
Even in his exhaustion, Behar realized where the questions were going.
Church investigators had uncovered painful facts about his childhood which had led many years earlier to Behar being removed from his home and declared a ward of New York State.
“I was tired. Sometimes I had my head on the table, and they’re asking questions — nasty, nasty, nasty stuff sometimes. At a certain point, I just felt, ‘Come on, is that the best you can do? The more you are awful, the more I realize I’m so glad I did that piece. So keep coming. What else ya got?’
“I don’t know if they realized who they were dealing with because, again, going back to my childhood, and going back to who I am, you know, I’m not a snowflake, and if you’re gonna come after me like that … it just shows who you are.”
The courtroom moment reveals to Behar exactly how shitty and cruel his adversary is willing to be, but it also reveals to him — and us — his own strength and his rightness in having taken a hard, critical look at the church.
I’ve traversed disparate topics in this essay — Covid masks, abortion, wine tasting, Scientology. What the moments have in common — for me anyway — is an unexpected blast of realness, a sudden intrusion of startling, inconvenient, possibly crude reality.
Whether the revealed truth is about an individual, a political issue, or just an enduring human problem such as loneliness, violence, or despair, I myself feel more human for having witnessed the revelation.
After years of deteriorating vision, my mother finally reached the point last week where she can no longer read.
I can think of no one else who will miss reading as much.
Whether Scandinavian detective novels or Téa Obreht’s Inland or a large-print version of Moby-Dick, Mom is always reading something, usually several books at the same time.
When I call to see how she and dad are doing, we talk about doctor appointments and Trump Era politics. But inevitably conversation turns back to books.
Mom, now 86, tells me why Melville went into such extraordinary detail about the specifics of whaling, the separating of blubber and bone, the rendering of blubber into oil. Or she asks me to look up a few lines of poetry her mother used to recite.
Alcestis rises from the shades; Verse calls them forth; Tis verse that gives Immortal youth to mortal maids
Mom wants to know who wrote that, so I look it up for her.
It makes sense she’s such an avid reader. Both her parents earned PhDs in English literature from Yale in the 1930s. Her dad worked as a college professor until his untimely death at 37. And then her mother, after moving the young family back to Nebraska, became the one-woman English Department at a Catholic college in Omaha.
When Mom first met Dad 64 years ago in Ann Arbor, Mich., her big takeaway was, This guy has read as much Dickens as I have!
Unlike her parents, Mom did not teach for a living. Instead she volunteered as an art teacher and served as PTA president during the first year of school integration in our part of Maryland. She and my father raised four kids, and then she returned to school in the early 1980s in order to earn a second four-year degree. Her first was from Smith College, her second from the Corcoran School of Arts and Design in Washington D.C.
She also has a masters degree in history from the University of Michigan.
For 20 years Mom owned and operated a photography gallery in the Dupont Circle area of D.C. She also learned pottery and necklace-making along the way. The homes of her children and grandchildren are full of her creations.
A light sleeper, she picks up whatever’s handy in the middle of the night and reads that till she falls back to sleep. Sometimes she even sleep-reads. Halfway between waking and dreaming, she just keeps reading. The next day it’s sometimes hard to sort out what she read, what she dreamed, what she invented as better plot points for the story.
Mom is always confident in her critical judgment. Indeed, it may be said she comes from the Not Always Right, But Never in Doubt school of criticism. She’ll tell you which actor played Hamlet best, which modern re-telling of Beowulf succeeds, where John O’Hara’s work stands in the American canon, and which George Eliot novels you can skip altogether.
“Oh don’t bother with Daniel Deronda,” she told me. “If you’ve already done Middlemarch, then go to Mill on the Floss next.”
When my siblings and I go back East to visit, we find her in the mornings in her favorite chair, head tilted back, eyes closed, books on both sides of her, one in her lap.
She reads not to be considered smart or well read, but because she is curious. And not just about the books themselves; she wants to know everything about the writers — where they lived, what they thought of contemporaries. She wants to know whether this one got along with that one, whether this other one drank too much. She’ll tell you everything she knows about the relationship between neighbors Melville and Hawthorne. She is not above trading in literary gossip.
Arguably one flaw in her critical reading is a tendency to see sub-textual homoerotic themes in just about any work she comes across. (Don’t get her started on Melville.) But to point this out about her is splitting hairs. Infusing it all — her reading, her analysis, her questions about what you yourself are reading — is joy and enthusiasm. Beautiful old photos of Faulkner, Tennyson, Yeats, Whitman, Joyce, and T.S. Elliot hung on the walls of my childhood home. My own name — both the formal Christopher and the informal Kit — are from the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe.
Even with the loss of vision, Mom will still be able to listen to books. Though she can’t see her iPhone well enough to use it for audiobooks, she can operate the CD player which she and my father have been using lately to listen to country music.
That’s another laudable trait — her openness to all genres and art forms. A book, movie, or song either works or it doesn’t. The pedigree of the creator is beside the point, in her view.
After watching a Ken Burns documentary about country music last year, Mom went down an absolute rabbit hole exploring Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, the Carter Family, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson.
Of the Kristofferson song “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” she told me, “Oh Kit, that is a major song.”
I said “Me and Bobby McGee” was pretty good, too.
Mom wasn’t having it. “You can feel that hangover in ‘Sunday Coming Down,’ you can feel the emptiness and sadness.”
She gives high marks, too, to “Pancho and Lefty,” written by the late Townes Van Zandt.
Livin’ on the road, my friend, Was gonna keep you free and clean. Now you wear your skin like iron And your breath is hard as kerosene.
You weren’t your mamma’s only boy, But her favorite one, it seems. She began to cry when you said goodbye And sank into your dreams.
Pancho was a bandit, boys, His horse as fast as polished steel. He wore his gun outside his pants For all the honest world to feel.
“That’s not a song,” Mom said. “That is poetry.”
I asked a couple days ago what books on CD she wants me to send.
“Oh the usual,” she said. “Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, David Copperfield … any of those. We always love Dickens. Whatever you can find.”
She was admirably cheerful, I thought, given the loss of her first love — reading.
“Oh it’s okay,” she said. “I still have my second love — your father.”
I was listening to the old Joni Mitchell song “Woodstock” the other day.
The mood is somber and hypnotic. Her performance is flawless.
One one level, the song is about the famous Woodstock music festival in 1969, which Mitchell was unable to attend. On another, it’s about the peace movement of the late ’60s and the back-to-nature impulse in hippie culture, a phenomenon Mitchell links lyrically to the biblical garden of Eden.
Her third theme is even loftier.
“We are stardust,” Mitchell sings.
We are “billion-year-old carbon.”
As a scientific matter, this is true. The atoms making up our human bodies include 13-billion-year-old hydrogen created soon after the Big Bang, and other elements which are roughly 4 to 5 billion years old. These latter elements were produced by star deaths, or supernovae, which spewed huge amounts of matter into the universe.
Over time, some of that matter coalesced to form Earth.
Each human today — each life form of any kind on Earth — is composed of that matter.
So we really are stardust. We’re made of incredibly ancient particles which originated in outer space.
Further, the atoms which make up our teeth, our eyes, our skin are always being replaced. Our features and appearance may appear fixed, but the composition at any given moment is relatively new, even in our bones, which seem so hard and unchanging.
According to one estimate, across five years the body does a complete replacement; no single particle is left from before.
And then there’s our status as host organisms. Each of us has an estimated 30 trillion tiny organisms living on or inside us, including bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microbes. “Me” is actually “we.”
It’s a weird state of affairs. Knowing I’m made of stardust makes me feel at once miraculous — an unlikely product of interstellar events — and prosaic — a temporary creature shaped from mud.
It also reminds me of a dream I had two years ago.
I was driving a minivan full of kids. I needed to get them back to their respective homes. The minivan broke down. I went for help. I wound up in a sort of cardboard shelter without ceilings.
The night grew colder. Gradually I realized, Fuck. I’m going to die out here, alone.
I sat for a while shivering. Then I lay down and looked up at the stars. I could feel my pulse dropping. Death was near.
I thought some more about the problem of dying alone.
I thought, Well, even if my wife and children were here to hold my hands, I’d still be alone in the actual moment of death. Wherever I’m going, it’s a solo trip.
That realization calmed me.
I thought, Maybe I’m supposed to take a deep breath and just … let go.
I took a big breath and exhaled. Whoosh! I was vaulted into the stars, speeding into space as if on the top of a rocket. I could feel the wind on my face, the G-forces on my body. I was exploding into the universe.
I woke up amazed. It felt like I had actually lived the sequence. I thought, If that’s what happens when we die — if it feels like we’re soaring into the stars — that is extremely cool.
Today I can still tap into that dream. The remembered experience reduces my fear of dying. Instead I feel wonder and curiosity. Is that really what death feels like?
In “Woodstock,” Mitchell describes a dream of her own.
And I dreamed I saw the bombers Riding shotgun in the sky And they were turning into butterflies Above our nation
It’s an arresting image, one of radical transformation.
Not unlike the radical transformation of stars exploding; or of an improbably temperate planet forming in the endless black nothingness; or of creatures coming temporarily to life, being conscious, loving, caring, and then one day returning to the cosmos.
Whether the Trump presidency lasts four years, eight years, somewhere in between, or — God help us — more than eight years, I hope there is a young app-developer somewhere who can help all of us, on both sides of the political divide, transition to a post-Trump world.
For instance, when Trump is gone, I will very much appreciate an app which can filter out the Trump name and any Trump-related content from my news feed.
I won’t use the filter all the time. There will be moments I want to tune back in, such as arraignment or sentencing.
But there will be many more moments when I don’t.
People point out, rightly, that Trump is more a symptom than an underlying disease. He is not the the creator of racism in America, nor of the Covid19 pandemic.
He didn’t initiate the stunning income-inequality gap in the United States. Nor did he create white supremacy, or design the Confederate Flag.
He did not personally swim out into the remote Pacific Ocean and dump the massive floating debris field of plastic.
Sure, he has made everything much worse. But the problems pre-dated him and will endure long after him. Further, whether one wants him to win or lose in November, all of us will eventually have to confront our addiction to news about him.
TrumpFree™ filter would help. You’d be able to adjust settings to filter out mentions of anyone named Trump, or just mentions of Donald himself, or any news not directly related to him being held accountable for actions while president.
The second app I want is the opposite of a reducing filter.
Complicity™ would be tailored to track and flag news about the re-election efforts, criminal cases, exploratory committees, or post-Trump book tours of enablers who helped Trump abuse power, enrich himself, stoke division, and evade accountability.
My own personal settings for Complicity™ would keep me updated on: Attorney General William Barr, Sen. Mitch McConnell, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Sen. Susan Collins, Rudy Giuliani, Sen. Ted Cruz, Rep. Jim Jordan, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Sanders, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Brad Parscale, Alan Dershowitz, Rush Limbaugh, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, Jeanine Pirro, Gen. Michael Flynn, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and Corey Lewandoski, among others.
Whether Trump leaves office due to electoral defeat, impeachment, term limits, resignation, or death, there will almost certainly be a sudden, massive effort by many who supported him to begin pretending they didn’t.
The rush by powerful people to distance themselves from the gigantic flaming crater which Trump leaves behind will be super annoying.
Trump? I barely knew him!
A crucial feature of Complicity™ will be to gather and quickly display, regarding any enabler, all the pivotal moments of colluding, defending, looking the other way, publicly excusing, downplaying, ruling in favor of, or laughing along with acts which were clearly dangerous, illegal, cruel, or just deeply shitty.
Due to the sheer volume of such acts, Complicity™ will be especially useful when McConnell, Graham, or Pompeo, for example, starts trying to re-write history, minimize his own participation, or continue a public career. A full, immediately available compendium of damning votes, quotes, and decisions will trace the precise parameters of complicity.
For instance, what did the enabler say or do when Trump:
Implemented a policy of separating immigrant children from their parents and housing them in cages;
Commuted the sentence of Roger Stone, who lied to federal investigators to protect the president;
Downplayed and dismissed the killing and dismemberment of a journalist by Saudi agents;
Publicly conveyed warm wishes — twice — to accused sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell;
Betrayed the Kurds — longtime allies of the U.S. — by pulling out of Syria and ceding the area to their sworn enemy, Turkey;
Repeatedly sold out American interests and security in order to curry favor with dictators such as Putin, Xi, Erdogan, and bin Salman;
Asked for China and the Ukraine to help him get re-elected in 2020;
Attacked, demeaned, or retaliated against: Sen. John McCain, Lt. Col. Adam Vindman, Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, foreign affairs specialist Fiona Hill, infectious disease director Dr. Anthony Fauci, and the loved ones of Capt. Humayun Khan and Sgt. La David Johnson, respectively, both of whom were killed abroad in the line of duty;
Broadly categorized immigrants from Mexico as drug dealers, rapists, and gang members;
Bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy;”
Told China’s president-for-life that internment camps for Uighurs in Xinjiang were ‘the right thing to do’ and would not disrupt relations with the U.S.;
Packed the federal judiciary with radically unqualified, ideologically extreme lawyers such as Justin Walker in Kentucky;
Suggested he may not leave office if he loses a close election;
Publicly mocked and imitated the disabled journalist Serge Kovaleski;
Encouraged supporters to beat up protesters, offered to pay legal fees if they did;
Called journalists “enemies of the state;”
Encouraged police to mistreat suspects while in custody;
Oversaw broad rollback of protections for clean water and air;
Put industry lobbyists in charge of regulatory agencies;
Granted clemency to former Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher after his conviction for war crimes;
Publicly sided with Putin, not U.S. law enforcement, over Russian interference in the 2016 election;
Bragged he could shoot a person “on Fifth Avenue and I wouldn’t lose voters;”
Argued through lawyers in court that if he did shoot a person on Fifth Avenue, he would have immunity against arrest or prosecution, by virtue of his office;
Used federal agents and tear gas to clear lawful protesters near the White House so that he could pose with a Bible outside a church;
Used unidentified federal agents in unmarked vehicles to arrest and detain protesters in Portland without probable cause;
Said the Covid19 pandemic would “disappear one day … like a miracle;”
Mused aloud about injecting or ingesting bleach to fight coronavirus;
Trafficked in persistent, casual, open racism, e.g. “Kung Flu” virus and “shithole countries” like Haiti and African nations;
Fired an FBI director to hinder investigation of Russia, WikiLeaks, and the Trump campaign;
Disregarded and failed to act on credible intelligence that Russian troops were offering payments to Taliban fighters who killed American soldiers in Afghanistan;
Earned millions of dollars at Trump hotels and resorts through occupancy by federal officials, foreign officials, U.S. military, and campaign staff and events;
Asked Robert Wood Johnson, the U.S. ambassador to the U.K., to persuade British Open officials to use the Trump golf course in Scotland; and
Opposed the widespread use of mail-in voting, even during Covid19, and even though he and many in his administration use mail-in voting themselves.
These misdeeds are just off the top of my aging head. That’s why we need Complicity™. (And no, Ivanka, complicity doesn’t mean “wanting to be a force for good and to make a positive impact.”) The sheer volume of corrupt acts is overwhelming. Thus, it will be crucial to know, within two or three clicks, what exactly Graham, McConnell, or Barr said or did at each milestone in Trump’s Sherman-like march against American democracy.
I have mentioned previously the excellent podcast Slow Burn and its look at David Duke thirty years ago in Louisiana. The series is well researched, and as with the earlier Slow Burn series on Watergate, it offers important parallels and lessons for today.
Not only was Duke promising to “make America great again,” but he was skillfully stoking racial resentment and division without coming right out and saying so. Whether emphasizing the need for welfare reform, highlighting crime by African-Americans, or talking about an “endangered” white Christian heritage, he was able to win more than half the white vote in the 1990 run-off for governor.
One storytelling obstacle which Slow Burn faces is our historical knowledge that Duke only got so far. Listeners who were alive at the time already know, even before Slow Burn tells the story, that Duke lost the election, that he wasn’t a significant political figure afterward (though he did, predictably, voice big support for Trump in 2016 and showed up at the infamous Unite the Right rally the following year in Charlottesville).
A telling moment in the podcast is when a Duke opponent recalls warning a voter about the possible effects of a Duke victory on democracy itself.
The voter scoffs at the idea, certain that democracy, as a form of government, is secure.
What Slow Burn lacks in suspense, the upcoming presidential election unfortunately does not. Today the white supremacist promising to “make America great again” not only holds office, he holds the top office. And he is a legitimate threat to consolidate more power and do four more years of democracy demolition.
His niece Mary Trump believes American democracy will not survive a second Trump term. Granted, she’s a clinical psychologist, not a historian. But in effect, she is making the same point as the David Duke critic back in 1990 — democracy isn’t a given, its survival is not guaranteed.
One reason democracy withstood the Watergate crisis in the early 1970s was the willingness of top Department of Justice officials to stand up to the president, to allow investigations which could harm him or his allies.
In the Trump era, the DOJ safeguard is gone.
Another guardrail during Watergate: GOP senators were willing to confront the president once evidence materialized of serious wrongdoing.
That barrier too is no longer operative, as evidenced by the witness-free Senate impeachment “trial.”
We can count on one finger the number of GOP senators who reliably use plain language to point out Trump corruption — Sen. Mitt Romney.
Still another safeguard available during Watergate was a general understanding that the executive branch was subject to oversight and thus its officials could be expected to show up and testify — or at least cite the 5th-amendment — when called in front of Congress.
As the Ukraine affair illustrated, the official Trump administration position on oversight is, Nope.
The other two branches of government have done shamefully little to defend or vindicate the principle of oversight, even though it is central to our system of checks and balances.
I’ve already suggested plenty of work for young app-developers to get started on. But once they finish, I have one more job for them.
Start working on the PhoneVote app.
Yes, I know there are cybersecurity concerns, and I know the GOP seems congenitally opposed to anything increasing the overall number of voters. But I also know — just on a real-world, common-sense level — that it’s increasingly insane, backward, Luddite, retrograde, dangerous, and anti-democratic to cling to an antiquated paper-ballot system. This is especially true if pandemics are going to be a recurring part of our future. It’s absurd to ask people to risk their lives to vote when safe alternatives exist.
I trust online systems for my financial transactions. I may live to regret doing so, of course. But so far — around the world — online banking seems to be working. I certainly care as much about my money as my vote.
If we can trust online banking, there seem few defensible reasons not to work carefully, but aggressively toward online voting.
My son is so disciplined about his daily weightlifting. I decided to get disciplined about something myself — anything.
I picked meditating. I went back to it twice a day, 20 minutes at a time.
Most of my meditations are monkey-mind bullshit — just incessant mental chatter, various everyday worries colliding with each other.
Some sessions are frustrating. Time drags. I feel uncomfortable kneeling. Mosquitos annoy me.
Other times, the session is easy. Twenty minutes feels like five minutes.
Even just the last few days of meditating seem to have improved my mood and reduced my need for naps.
I also paused — for the first time in 51 years of life — and actually took the time to watch a spider spin an entire web. That was mind-boggling, and cool.
Randomly, two new visualization exercises occurred to me during recent meditations.
In one, I’m on a mountainside in Montana, Alaska, maybe Canada. I’m slowly, methodically, tossing one rock after another down into a cold, rushing river far below me. I’m throwing lefthanded. The rocks are slightly smaller than a baseball.
Each rock represents a specific worry, fear, desire, plan for the future — a thought of any kind.
As I toss the rock, I’m releasing that one thought back to the universe, to the river down below.
I’ve never really been able to visualize or conceptualize God. In this visualization, I don’t need to. The river represents God, or a higher power, or whatever else you want to call it. Or maybe the river just represents nature, and I’m releasing my hopes, plans, dreams, worries, and sadness back into nature. That’s fine too. The important part is, I’m discarding, letting go.
My second visualization is more odd.
Sometimes when I am stressed out or preoccupied, I feel the discomfort in my body as a gentle, but persistent squeeze around my heart, almost as if a small octopus had crawled out of the ocean and settled on my heart. The octopus gives a slight, but steady squeeze.
In the visualization, I give the octopus a small dose of MDMA and then gently release him back into the cold waters of coastal Maine.
The idea came from a news story I once read about the effects of MDMA on octopi. Basically researchers discovered that octopi — normally antisocial creatures — get friendly and cuddly when MDMA is administered.
I’m not sure it’s ethical to take creatures out of nature or to raise them in capitivity, let alone to dose them with Ecstasy. But what’s done is done. These octopi were already dosed. All I did was read about it.
Further, this is just a visualization exercise. I don’t have any actual MDMA, nor an actual octopus on my heart. I’m giving imagined MDMA to this one particular, imagined octopus who keeps showing up, once or twice a day, to squeeze my heart.
Maybe if I would stop giving MDMA to the octopus, he would stop visiting me.
Maybe I should start weaning him to smaller doses and then cut him off altogether.
Or maybe if I would soften my heart and not be so judgmental about myself and others — so fixed in my view of the world — then there would be no rocky spot for him to surround and squeeze in the first place.
If the octopus started discovering each day that: 1) I’m fresh out of virtual MDMA, and 2) my heart is no longer hard or closed, then maybe he’d quit visiting. He could go score his virtual MDMA elsewhere, or learn to get along better in his undersea world without drugs.
Feel free to try either of these visualizations yourself.
It’s a moment of particular relief when your hand dips into the cold water and releases a smallish octopus back toward his home, which is far below — and behind — your slow-moving boat.
At least for a few minutes, you feel the difference. There’s no heart-squeeze.
It was sad and frustrating to learn that my old newspaper editor Mike Konrad died today of Covid19.
Earlier in the pandemic, the deaths of songwriter John Prine and Los Angeles-area family practitioner Dr. Paul Constantine hit me hard, but in a different way.
Those deaths were sad and frightening. But now there’s a new emotion — anger.
Four months into the pandemic, the death of Konrad feels like it was foreseeable and preventable. It feels like a failure of protection by the country which Konrad loved so much and which he served loyally as a thoughtful, open-minded, apolitical small-town newspaperman for nearly 30 years.
Konrad, 64, retired from the Tampa Bay Times three years ago and was loving his retirement.
He watched as much spring-training baseball as he could.
He played clarinet weekly with a local music group.
He had no obvious underlying conditions marking him as high-risk. He was full of energy, insight, plans for the future.
If the United States is indeed “great,” or ever was, the greatness stems in large part from the everyday goodness of people like Konrad and the above-mentioned John Prine and Dr. Constantine.
All three men — in music, medicine, and journalism, respectively — epitomized sincerity, humility, and decency. A nation depends on people like this, people who tend toward service, people who don’t push to the front of the line, people whose actions don’t shout, “Look at me!”
When I started working for Konrad in 1993, he seemed like a throwback to an earlier time. He was from tiny Effingham, Ill., pop. 12,000. He had been in the marching band at the University of Illinois and had worked for the Daily Illini newspaper. He loved baseball, especially the St. Louis Cardinals.
In broad strokes, he felt like a type who would have been easily recognized and depicted by Sinclair Lewis or Thornton Wilder. I could imagine him taking his turn on stage in Our Town.
I was just three years out of college. I was nervous. The Times was a step up, reputation wise, from where I’d worked previously. I worried whether I would make the cut, whether I would earn my way into the group of reporters breaking big stories, winning awards, taking time off to write books.
The newspaper’s small bureau in Brooksville, Fla., was only 45 minutes from Tampa, but culturally, the area felt more like south Georgia. On the east side of the county, residents liked NASCAR, beer, and Confederate flags.
The newsroom was anchored by Konrad and reporters Dan DeWitt and Wes Platt. They were immediately friendly and encouraging. Their attitude was, there’s plenty of work, grab a shovel. No egos, no office politics, no turf protection. Later in life, I would realize how rare and special such an office is.
Konrad was a fast editor. If I turned in a story at deadline, he marched through it, fixed errors, sent it along. No big deal. He was rational, efficient — a worker. But he also had a sense of humor. He’d smile the barest hint of a smile when young reporters returned to the office eager to recount the latest crazy tales about west-central Florida.
The smile was as much for the enthusiasm of the brand-new reporter as for the events being described.
Very little shocked him. Everything interested him. He always wanted to know more.
In his 2018 interview with his hometown Effingham Teutopolis News Report, he was asked about journalism in these polarized times, when reporters are branded “enemies of the state.”
The country is now separated into two camps. And people don’t realize issues are not just black and white, but heavily gray. That has driven a lot of this hostility. And we might not be doing a good enough job of explaining the issues. Reporters are trying to verify the facts all the time. But people look at our editorial page and think our news coverage is tainted. People confuse facts with opinions. Real reporters let the facts take them where they should go.
That one line — “we might not be doing a good enough job” — typified Konrad. Instead of picking sides, instead of reverting to rhetoric, he habitually sought a principled middle path. He asked, how can we do better?
He believed that patiently pursuing and publishing information about government and law enforcement made the world better, more fair. This may sound like an obvious or old-fashioned belief. But when it animates a bureau chief across 25 years and when his employer shares the belief, it improves the lives of citizens.
That’s what is particularly heartbreaking about Konrad’s death today.
His death is a failure of government, the sort of failure which a healthy, vibrant, barely-smiling Konrad would have encouraged young reporters to go track down, fact by fact, and then bring to light. Early in the pandemic, there were many unknowns. Learning on the fly was unavoidable. Four months in, this is not the case. We know masks, contact tracing, and a massive continuing commitment to testing are essential. We know the premature reopening of businesses — or entire states — kills people. It kills editors, grandmothers, favorite teachers, war veterans.
Journalism was not my life’s work. But seven years in the profession shaped how I see the world. I certainly don’t see reporters as “enemies of the state.” I see most of them as dedicated, underpaid civic servants, on par with nurses, firefighters, or sanitation workers.
A recent piece in the New York Times about the Pottstown, Pa., reporter Evan Brandt showed well what a dying breed the small-town reporter has become.
Another who comes to mind, in this vein, is the late Gordon “Scoop” Turner, who worked for 68 years at the Cheboygan Daily Tribune in northern Michigan.
I had the good fortune to work alongside Turner during the summer of 1988. He drove me around Cheboygan in his tiny, beat-up car and introduced me to people and places I needed to know in order to do my job.
As we drove around, Turner had an enthusiasm for the area and for his job, at age 82, which often fades in other reporters by their late 20s or early 30s. He had the same fundamental curiosity to see what happens next that Mike Konrad had.
In the latest installment of the excellent podcast Slow Burn, there’s an audio clip of the white supremacist David Duke promising 30 years ago to “make America great again.”
Perhaps other, less racist leaders have used this same phrase, not just Duke and President Trump. On some level, the phrase is just a vague, vacuous space-filler in a stump speech. On another level, it sounds like code for “America was better when your neighborhood was white.”
The U.S. has not been great during the pandemic. Individuals have been heroic. Pockets of the country have been well-organized and responsive to the shifting understanding about how best to prevent and treat the disease.
But we allowed a no-brainer like masks to become controversial and politicized. Governors in southern states sought favor with Trump and Fox News by hurrying to re-open. Agencies which were designed to take the lead during times like this were hollowed out, defunded, undermined, ignored. Officials who spoke candidly or who made the cardinal error of peeling TV viewers away from Trump himself were shoved to the side, public health be damned.
The newspaper editor Mike Konrad was great, in his goodness. It will be up to the next generation of reporters to sift patiently through the facts and do the groundwork necessary to explain the failure of our government to protect sincere, hard-working Americans like Konrad.
His loss is our loss, too.
A lot of wisdom, common sense, and decency died with him today in Florida.