I haven’t blogged in a while, which is partially to do with the fact that I’d more or less forgotten the whole reason I started these “A Few Things” posts to start with—namely, that at any given time I have a handful of unfinished posts on a variety of topics, but which don’t see the light of day because I have difficulty finishing them to my satisfaction. So I’ve had to remind myself that not every one of my blogworthy thoughts needs two or three thousand words; a quick(ish) precis will often serve.
With that being said, here are a few things that were in the hopper …
Vaccine Envy and the Spectacular Vindication of Max Brooks Way back when, shortly after the earth cooled (or so it feels), Canadians could and did feel somewhat smug about our response to the pandemic in comparison to the U.S. … generally speaking, Canadians did not fight the quarantine restrictions, and we watched as the Trump Administration flailed about getting everything exactly wrong, and we took pride in our system of free health care and our much lower infection rates. This was a time when even the much-loathed Doug Ford seemed to step up to the challenge, garnering grudging nods of respect from people like me for his no-nonsense response to COVID (more on this below).
Well, as they say, that was then … it’s not as though the U.S. is any less politically polarized, but the Biden Administration seems determined to remind the world what America can do when competent leadership directing competent experts puts the system into overdrive and expends massive resources to solve a problem. Back in those early days of Canadian smugness, author Max Brooks was much in demand on podcasts; Brooks, who happens to be the son of Mel Brooks, is most famous for his novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which has become one of the classics of the zombie apocalypse genre. Though the novel is global in its scope—chronicling how a zombie plague would play out worldwide—the narrative spine deals with the American response. The TL;DR is that the U.S. is caught on its heels through a combination of cynical politics, a complacent and apathetic populace, and self-interested capitalists, but that once the people come to understand the enormity and gravity of the threat, they come together and rediscover the value of sacrifice, hard work, and community, and ultimately stage the most effective response in the world.
The novel is a quite explicit love letter to the Greatest Generation and the New Deal era. Max Brooks is himself quite clear on this point in interviews, talking about how his parents were both survivors of the Great Depression, and were schooled by the Second World War (Mel Brooks was in the Army Engineer Corps and was responsible for disarming land mines). In those interviews he gave in the early days of the pandemic, he talked about how many of the nations that had responded well, such as South Korea and Taiwan, did so because they lived under fairly constant threat, and so were the most primed to respond quickly. The U.S., he said, takes time to (a) become cognizant of a threat, (b) get its shit together, but (c) always makes up for early stumbles and becomes a world leader. Many of those interviewing him, in those early days of the Trump pandemic fecklessness, voiced skepticism.
But, well, it looks as though Brooks’ perspective has been borne out, especially considering that acute vaccine envy I seem to experience daily when my American friends post their vax selfies.
The Limits of Bullying To return to the topic of Doug Ford …
About a year ago I started writing a blog post about how, though there is little more I loathe in this world than a bully, sometimes in the right context a bully is what you need. I was writing this, as might be obvious, apropos of the grudging respect being given Doug Ford in Ontario and the outsized adulation lavished on Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York. Sometimes in moments of crisis, I mused, having someone you might otherwise dislike for their braggadocio lay down the law offered a strange form of comfort.
It should go without saying that I am now extremely happy I did not write that post.
Though to be fair, it proved to be something of a non-starter. I had written maybe two paragraphs when the obvious counter-argument made me trail off—that is, that though Ford and Cuomo seemed to be doing an effective job in those early days, they were hugely outnumbered by leaders who did not need bellicosity to get the job done (not uncoincidentally, many of these leaders, like Angela Merkel and Jancinda Ardhern, are women).
It has now been over a year since the coronavirus upended the world, and there are few examples of early effective responses that have not met reversals—though few more spectacular than Cuomo and Ford. Cuomo’s example is a good object lesson in the fact that being a bully and an asshole is only effective if you can deliver the goods; as we have learned in the past weeks, he wasn’t delivering the goods so much as obscuring his failures, and once the double-whammy of his COVID missteps and the critical mass of women he has harassed became clear, there weren’t many people left who had his back. Turns out, if you spend your career being an asshole, you accrue a lot of people who are more than willing to stick the knife in once your fortunes change.
Doug Ford, on the other hand, is a very different case. Whatever else you might say about Andrew Cuomo, he’s not an utter moron. Ford’s problem isn’t so much that he’s an asshole and a bully, it’s that he’s a monstrously stupid asshole and bully. He’s so obviously in over his head that I’d feel sorry for him if he weren’t so contemptible. His appeal has always been the same species as Trump’s, which is that a segment of the population who feel victimized by “elites,” by the mandarins of the Liberal Party and the CBC, and by increasingly diverse and vocal Ontarians, elected him specifically to be their bully … which is not a task that requires much in the way of tactical shrewdness or intellectual depth, just the ability to infuriate the Left and deliver arrogant verbal smackdowns in press conferences.
There’s an irony in the fact that Ford’s appeal lies at least in part in the truism that the most satisfying way to deal with a bully is to sic a bigger and badder bully on them—but COVID-19 is also a bully, and doesn’t discriminate.
Biden Departs Afghanistan I may return to this in a longer post at a later date, as it’s something I’ve been thinking a great deal about. After twenty years, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan will be brought home. The announcement evoked the predictable storm in media and social media, with some celebrating Biden’s decision, some expressing ambivalence, and many calling it disastrous.
Biden responded with an eminently sensible question of his own: if not now, when? Unless the U.S. is going to commit to a permanent presence in Afghanistan as the necessary price of stabilizing the country, there’s no other withdrawal timeline that makes sense. What’s somewhat galling about the castigations of Biden’s announced withdrawal is how likely it is that a good number of his critics almost certainly do tacitly endorse a permanent occupation … but of course won’t say as much because such an admission would be politically toxic. The American presence in Afghanistan has always been a little like the weird existential state of being a smoker—with only one or two notable exceptions, every single smoker I have ever known in my life indulged in the habit on the assumption that they were going to quit, of course … someday. The American presence in Afghanistan was always predicated on it eventually ending. There were, of course, end-conditions: destroying Al-Qaeda in the country, building of a self-sufficient, competent Afghan defense force, and solidifying a non-corrupt democratic government, for example. Check that first box, but the other two are as unlikely today as they have been for twenty years.
One thing the announcement of the withdrawal has done is make me mentally revisit those early years of the Bush Administration—the shock and trauma of 9/11, the quasi-hopeful aftermath when the world rallied behind the U.S., the prospect that the targeted, multilateral incursion into Afghanistan would eliminate Al-Qaeda and bin Laden, and that would be that.
It was a nice thought. But no: Bush’s neoconservative brain trust declared the War on Terror, rolled back civil rights with the Patriot Act, and instead of finishing off bin Laden at Tora Bora in December 2001, let him escape as they turned their focus to Saddam Hussein and Iraq.
There are two things that stick in my mind as I read the various excoriations of Biden for leaving Afghanistan. One is that a war that dragged on for an attenuated twenty years originally had an extremely limited scope, and was meant to end upon achieving the specific goal of killing or capturing bin Laden. The other was that the precipitating event that started the war was the result of an avoidable intelligence failure that occurred in part because the Bush team were dismissive of the warnings the Clinton Administration left for them, as well as breakdowns between warring fiefdoms in the C.I.A. and F.B.I. (a breakdown meticulously chronicled in Lawrence Wright’s excellent book The Looming Tower)
Even with these issues within the intelligence community, there were numerous red flags that were raised, to the point where CIA director George Tenet, interviewed by Bob Woodward, recalled musing immediately after the attacks, “I wonder if it has anything to do with this guy taking pilot training.” And let us not forget the notorious memo George W. Bush was given titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike In U.S.”
The point here is that 9/11—the entire reason for the war in Afghanistan—had been preventable. An emboldened Taliban and reconstituted Al-Qaeda potentially pose the same threat as they did in the late 1990s, which puts the onus on the intelligence community to fix the problems it developed back then.