Category Archives: Isolated Thoughts

Isolated Thoughts: Of Bread and Patience

I have joined the ranks of those people who have turned to bread-baking during this time of self-isolation. Well, I joined their ranks a few weeks ago, but it was only yesterday that I baked a loaf of sourdough with which I was actually satisfied.

sourdough

I’ve baked a handful of other loaves, but because all of my attempts to create a sourdough starter from scratch failed, I resorted to a jar of yeast—otherwise an endangered species at all grocery stores these days—residing in my pantry. The bread was middling to good, with a handful of failures. And to be honest, with this one I still had to cheat a bit—when I saw individual packets of instant starter on a Sobeys shelf otherwise scoured clean of yeast, I grabbed a few. I fed the starter for a week (and continue to do so). And then, after finally learning what “autolyze” meant, I made this loaf.

And then, according to quarantine law, I proudly posted a picture of the loaf on Facebook.

Here’s the thing: I’ve actually long been interested in making sourdough from scratch, but have always been frustrated in my attempts to find a simple, step-by-step recipe; for basic bread, there are hundreds, but once you venture into the realm of sourdough, it’s as if you’re seeking entry into some sort of mystical society. What ingredient lists you can find are inevitably buried in lengthy discussions of wild yeast, finicky lists of the pros and cons of different flours, how best to “autolyze” your dough, how to properly feed and sustain your starter, and so forth. And by the time you get to the step-by-step instructions, they tend to break down the process into day-long increments, usually starting at nine in the morning and only culminating by early evening.

In other words: it requires patience.

I’ve been thinking a lot about patience, ever since my requisite fortnight of quarantine ended and I was able to make my first grocery shopping trip. The whole experience was bizarre, though it has since become commonplace: waiting in a fathom-spaced line outside the store because they limit the total number of shoppers inside; following the arrows that have been placed on the floor; keeping your distance from the person in front of you; waiting while the person in front of you—or the person in front of the two or three people in front of you—stares at the shelves in perplexity, looking for the product they need or trying to remember what it was, or (as is now not uncommon) trying to figure out a substitute for what isn’t currently stocked. Then at checkout, you wait in another carefully spaced line, and wait while the cashier disinfects their station and the conveyor belt before putting your purchases down.

It occurred to me then, and it’s something I have commented on to people since—especially to the cashiers and other shoppers when they apologize for how long they’re taking—that one benefit of this experience is it’s making us learn patience.

We see it on social media in the massive puzzles people are doing, or all the board games that have been dusted off, or the new crafting projects people have taken on—and, yes, in the ubiquitous baking of bread, which a busy day that takes you away from the home makes a more onerous task. Yes, part of all this has to do with finding ways to ameliorate boredom, but boredom and patience have key elements in common. After all, what is acute impatience if not an expression of boredom—with how long the stoplight is taking to change, with the person torturing the cashier over coupons, with the slow walkers hogging the sidewalk? We have, over the last few decades, become a culture that valorizes speed and efficiency and vilifies unproductiveness and lassitude. A common sentiment expressed in this period of enforced lassitude has been the anxiety over not using this time productively, as if being forced into inactivity makes one morally obliged to write that novel or screenplay, to learn a language, or finally get around to reading War and Peace or Middlemarch. I looked forward to my obligatory quarantine with the thought that I would write so damn much. Spoiler alert: didn’t happen. It took me three weeks of boredom and doing nothing before I wrote more than notes in my journal, and even then it has mostly been this blog—which as I commented in my post-before-last, is as much a coping mechanism as anything.

All of which isn’t to say that we aren’t impatient for this to all end and to get back to normal. But here’s the benefit of boredom, and the patience it necessitates: it allows us to conjure up new normals, which might have been unthinkable beforehand. It opens a mental space to recognize the fallacious elements of the very idea of “normal,” and that what we had before wasn’t an inevitable state of being. And, hopefully, it makes those of us privileged enough to be bored more understanding of those for whom “normal” was a shitshow, and to make common cause going forward.

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Isolated Thoughts: Conspiracy Corner—The China Syndrome (no, not the movie)

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I learned a new term this morning as I listened to the most recent episode of “Pod Save the World,” one of the many excellent podcasts by Crooked Media. It is hosted by Tommy Vietor and Ben Rhodes, both of whom worked for Barack Obama’s foreign policy team, Vietor as the National Security Spokesman, Rhodes as Obama’s head foreign policy speechwriter (Rhodes’ memoir of his time in the Obama Administration, The World as it Is, is an excellent read). Speaking of recent reporting that Trump and his lackeys are pressuring intelligence officials to find evidence that COVID-19 was produced in the oft-mentioned infectious diseases lab in Wuhan, China, Vietor called this “conclusion shopping,” which describes an effort find—or, ultimately, manufacture—evidence that will support an already-assumed conclusion. They offered the example of, say, the conclusion being that Iraq must be invaded … or in this case, the conclusion that the novel coronavirus was entirely China’s fault, and quite probably not accidental.

One of the things I find particularly depressing about the present moment generally, and about this issue specifically, is that Trump et al are making absolutely no pretense about this: Trump needs an enemy he can berate and point to and tell his base they’re the reason your life sucks, and he does it with all the subtlety of a carnival barker because he knows that Fox News and the rest of the conservative noise machine will take up the refrain and that a rump of the American population—his MAGA-hat wearing base—will unquestioningly believe him over anyone whose job it is to know better. Conclusion-shopping is easier when your supporters will accept your conclusion unquestioningly, and be indifferent to whatever evidence you present, except as talking-points to be shouted. The Bush Administration at least attempted subterfuge, using the trauma of 9/11 to paper over the inconsistencies in the charge that Saddam Hussein was involved, and planting stories that were picked up by useful idiots like Judith Miller at the New York Times, creating a narrative that did not hold together if you looked closely, but which was convincing enough that a plurality of Democrats in Congress—including Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden—voted in favour of invading Iraq.

It didn’t take long for the subterfuge to be exposed, but by then the die was cast, and Bush and his people were singularly unapologetic. At the time I was fond of being ironically nostalgic for Watergate and Iran-Contra, in which Nixon and Reagan’s elaborate cover-ups at least hinted at a measure of shame. Never in a million years could I have imagined a presidential administration that would be more shameless than Bush et al … but here we are.

(Also, as an aside: as much as I appreciate the sentiment of George W. Bush’s recent paean to solidarity in the face of adversity, let’s not get nostalgic for a president whose deliberate, calculated mendacity not only precipitated a disastrous and unnecessary war, but whose tactics in doing so laid the groundwork for where we are now. By all means, enjoy the schadenfreude of Trump’s unhinged Twitter response to Bush’s anodyne call for unity, but don’t for a second let Bush off the hook for being at least partially responsible for where we are now).

The problem Trump has now in bashing an enemy is that it is difficult to fit his usual suspects—the media, the elites, the Establishment, immigrants—with the black hat, because not only does a virus not discriminate in who it infects, its effects are plainly visible and cannot be spun. Nor, for that matter, can the incoherent ramblings of his press briefings and his painfully obvious lack of empathy. Until now, red states have been spared the worst of the pandemic, but that is changing as governors like Brian Kemp of Georgia and Ron DeSantis of Florida charge onward to re-open their states well ahead of the advice of medical experts.

So Trump needs a new enemy, and has signaled that it will be China. I don’t for a moment want to be an apologist for Xi Jinping and his dictatorial regime, nor do I want to downplay the unavoidable fact that the regime’s reflexively secretive and oppressive tendencies exacerbated an outbreak that more an honest and transparent response would have, at very least, ameliorated. But then, criticism of Xi’s regime isn’t the ultimate point of Trump’s current conclusion-shopping; if it was, we might have a more nuanced discussion about authoritarian versus democratic responses to such a crisis. The ultimate point isn’t to place blame on a system of governance, but a non-white ethnicity—which is why you’re likely to see a confusion of conspiracy theories about the collective malevolence of a technocratic dictatorship conflated with racist depictions of backward, bat-eating Chinese peasantry. The fact that these two elements are obviously at odds hasn’t mattered, nor will it going forward. The narrative, such as it is, given Trump &co.’s utter shamelessness, is painfully predictable: China is America’s implacable enemy, and ruthless, so the virus was almost certainly created in this Wuhan lab and released to cause a debilitating global pandemic; also, Chinese people are culturally other, and have backward social practices (they eat bats! At “wet markets” no less, and doesn’t that just sound disgusting?); then, Joe Biden will be hammered in ad after ad, and Fox News piece after Fox News piece, for being “soft” on China, and Hunter Biden’s questionable financial dealings in China will be held up as evidence of his and his father’s corruption. Ad nauseum.

Of course, this all isn’t a prediction: it had already happened, it is still happening, and it will continue to happen, with the only difference being the volume as we go forward.

As with any conspiracy theory, none of this needs corroboration or even a logical through-line. Already there have been countless conservative op-eds and think pieces attacking liberal objections to this narrative, characterizing the response as mealy-mouthed political correctness and identity politics more concerned with ostensible racism than the hard facts on the ground. Why shouldn’t Mike Pompeo insist on calling it the “Wuhan virus”? That is where it originated, after all! China has been the epicenter of many outbreaks! You libtards are more worried about offending people than with solving problems! … and so on.

One of the key reasons for objecting to designating COVID-19 as a “Wuhan” or “Chinese” virus isn’t because it didn’t originate there—because of course it manifestly did—but because such characterizations are (a) counterproductive in the diplomatic realm, where China, like it or not, is a key player—especially now, with a feckless and incompetent U.S. president who has effectively abdicated America from its usual role in global crisis management—and (b) because those making the objection are doing so in recognition that the designation is, more often than not, being made in bad faith by individuals more interested in assigning blame than finding solutions. Did the virus originate in China? Yes. Does that implicate Chinese (and thus by extension in the white imagination, all Asian) people? Of course not. But that is what happens, as we have seen in the uptick of anti-Asian hate crimes perpetrated in the U.S. and elsewhere.

One of the ironies at work here is that a scenario in which a tech at the Wuhan lab got infected, or there was an error made in the disposal of hazardous waste, is entirely plausible. (Trust me when I say you do not want to, even casually, look up info on human error in research labs, not if you want to sleep well). Thus far, intelligence officials and medical investigators have said this was unlikely, that the outbreak probably did occur because of zoonotic transmission.  But if the outbreak did occur because of human error? Well, blame the error, and perhaps safety protocols. This is why medical research of this nature and pandemic prevention tends to be international in character—to have as many expert eyes on things as possible, something denuded by the Trump Administration’s firing of their representative in Beijing. The problem with Trump’s conclusion-shopping is that it is basically conspiracy-shopping—all he needs is the slightest hint that it may have been the lab’s fault for his enablers and supporters to go all in on the assumption that the virus was specifically manufactured as a bio-weapon.

And hey, did you hear? Joe Biden is in league with them.

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Isolated Thoughts: Taking Stock, Seven Weeks In

I had a bad day yesterday: I woke up to a low-grade anxiety attack and spent the better part of the day feeling sad, listless, and generally useless. Some time around 4pm the fog lifted, and I started to write, hammering out my previous post on The Last Ship and about half of another post on recent HBO programming.

This morning has been better, in spite of the fact that it’s miserably cold and pissing rain. Though in truth, I enjoy sitting in my home office on dismal, rainy days, pathetic fallacy be damned, so the rain wasn’t likely to depress me—and in fact, I just sort of shook my head at it, as if the universe was conspiring to put me in a funk. And then the words “murder hornets” popped into my head and I started to giggle uncontrollably at the sheer absurdity of it all. As I asked in a previous post: What’s next? It makes an odd sort of sense, however, that if the universe is conspiring to compound all of the absurdity of the recent weeks, its choices were limited after the President of the United States suggested drinking bleach and getting an ultraviolet enema might be a viable treatment for COVID-19. In order to truly up the ante, murder hornets were a logical choice.

It has been interesting, day after day, to see how people are coping on social media and otherwise. My partner Stephanie has broken out her guitars after months of not playing, and ordered an electronic drum pad. She taught herself “Miracle Drug” by U2, and is, as I write, in the process of recording her tracks on her laptop. Online, I see all the baking and cooking people are doing; many people are posting pictures of daily pandemic life, sharing intimate or artistic portraits of what the lockdown has meant for them and their families; many others have taken up various seven- or ten-day challenges to post covers of books or albums that they love; they share affirmations about mental health; one of my friends has asked a question for the hive mind every day of the quarantine, from favourite colour to what person, living or dead, you’d most want to have lunch with.

Though few of these things are especially new to social media, their volume, frequency, and earnestness is. At least part of that, presumably, proceeds from the boredom of being cooped up; but there is also a profound expression of shared humanity in it all. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, perhaps, as it can also serve to remind us of all the people out there we cannot see in person; but there is also a comfort to is, an affirmation that we are not alone in the difficulty of weathering this crisis.

For my part, I’ve written more on this blog in the three weeks since I started this “Isolated Thoughts” series than I had in the year and a half preceding it. I don’t exactly garner much of a readership—my posts top out at about fifty views, according to my stats—but then that has never really been the point of my blogging. I write here to work through certain thoughts, to give them an airing; it is not unlike writing in a journal in that respect, except that the public nature of a blog and the knowledge that some people will read it forces me (hopefully) into somewhat more coherence than when I jot stuff in my Moleskine.

So we keep on. Keep posting pictures of your sourdough loaves, your pets, your favourite albums, your rants and fears and loves; talk about your good days and your bad, and I’ll keep posting my isolated thoughts. I have quoted my favourite W.H. Auden poem on this blog before, but there’s that one line that utters what is, for me, one of the most profound truths: “We must love one another or die.”

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Isolated Thoughts: Pandemic Viewing, Guilty Pleasure Edition—The Last Ship

Sometimes post-apocalyptic narratives begin with a slightly gimmicky hook, that tends to follow a formula: what if the end of the world came when [person/people] were [doing something] in [unique location]. Perhaps my favourite example of this is the BBC zombie apocalypse mini-series Dead Set, in which the survivors of the undead pandemic are the contestants on Big Brother—sealed in their closed set, they are initially oblivious to the carnage happening beyond their walls.

Now, I might have more to say about Dead Set in a future post, as I consider it one of the finest examples of the zombie genre, and it is an extremely smart and trenchant critique of celebrity culture. But that is not what I want to talk about today. Today I want to talk about a television series that is perhaps the most flagrantly jingoistic apologia for the American military I have ever seen, the most emotionally manipulative paean to honour and duty since A Few Good Men, and the most overt recruitment ad for the Navy since Top Gun: the series The Last Ship.

last-shipReader, I loved it. And I am very conflicted about that fact, given that it genuinely is little more than five seasons worth of U.S. Navy propaganda. Hence the designation “guilty pleasure” in my title, in spite of the fact that I have long believed one should not ever feel guilty about the reading and viewing in which you take pleasure.

(Unless it’s Twilight. Because seriously, fuck that shit).

To plug in the variables in my above formula, The Last Ship’s premise is that the end of the world in the form of a virulent strain of flu comes when the sailors and soldiers on the missile destroyer U.S.S. Nathan James are on a four-month radio-silence mission in the Arctic. Unbeknownst to the captain and crew, the scientists whom they’ve been transporting have been tasked with finding the “primordial strain” of a virus that is tearing through the Middle East. The mission the ship is on is little more than a cover for the scientists’ work. The captain and crew have no idea, because radio silence, that the United States has, in the four months since they put to sea, been savaged by the illness. They only realize that something is hinky when they’re attacked by Russians intent on kidnapping the lead doctor and taking her samples. What follows is a battle sequence that fetishizes the kind of high-tech violence a top-of-the-line missile destroyer can unleash, and which sets the tone for the way the series will unfold.

You get the idea.

To be clear, the Russian attack, and the subsequent revelation of the doctors’ true mission and the truth about the global pandemic unfolds in the first fifteen minutes of the first episode. Whatever the series’ flaws, economy in storytelling is not one of them, except for the requisite sequence that seems to happen in every episode when throbbing, sad music plays over a montage of (a) sailors mourning the death of a comrade, (b) the captain looking tormented by the difficult choices he has had to make, (c) stoic sailors and soldiers carrying on in their duties in spite of the difficulty/pain/trauma, or (d) quite often, all of the above. The captain is played by Eric Dane (aka McSteamy from Grey’s Anatomy), and his second-in-command by Adam Baldwin (aka Jayne from Firefly, aka Mr. Gamergate, aka another reason I’m conflicted about the series), and they are all about honour, naval tradition, and square-jawed stoicism in the face of adversity.

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What’s interesting about The Last Ship in the broader context of pandemic/post-apocalyptic narratives is that it’s something of an outlier: the more common tendency is to depict societal institutions failing and collapsing when confronted with catastrophe. The brilliant pilot episode of The Walking Dead memorably depicts military barricades littered with corpses, and tanks and armoured vehicles sitting forlorn and empty, having proved useless in the face of the onslaught of the undead. World War Z shares in a very slight degree with The Last Ship a faith in military ingenuity, but that only happens after the U.S. Army fails spectacularly to stem the zombie tide, and is only efficacious when it learns to reinvent itself. The Last Ship, by contrast, presents the Navy as it is as the bulwark against chaos, not only in its aforementioned fetishization of advanced weaponry, but in its valorization of longstanding naval tradition. The very stubborn refusal to change or compromise is explicitly framed as a virtue, which, indeed, is in keeping with naval tradition more generally (in the U.S. military, the Navy tends to be the most conservative branch, resistant to change; by contrast, the Marines, who rely on the Navy for their budget and equipment, tend to be the most improvisational, as they traditionally have always had to do more with less).

Over its five seasons, The Last Ship indulges in increasingly more ludicrous plot arcs, but in its early stages comprises some pretty decent, taut storytelling (aside from the aforementioned portentous montages), and speaks to some of the issues I’ve raised in recent posts about narratives dealing with the aftermath of catastrophe and the rebuilding of society. The idea of America persists (because of course it does) in The Last Ship, but is at various points tenuous—the Nathan James returns home with a vaccine and a cure for the virus (because of course it does), but also has to contend with the breakdown of governance and the difficulty of re-establishing a republic after the descent into Hobbesian chaos. The series features the kind of regional fracturing I mentioned in my last post, with regional governors being initially amenable to a central government and the swearing-in of a president (á là Designated Survivor, the sole surviving member of the presidential line of succession is the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development), only to later become more obstreperous and unwilling to accept presidential authority, culminating in a conspiracy to (successfully) assassinate the president, and (unsuccessfully) eliminate the federal government and wall off the regional authorities from one another.

And what is the glue that finally holds the battered nation together? Duty and honour, as our naval heroes remind their army comrades—who have come under the command of the conspirators—what their oath to the Constitution entails.

I may have rolled my eyes a little at that part. But I was also enthusiastically eating my (figurative) popcorn.

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Isolated Thoughts: The End of America, or, Living the Dystopian Tropes

One of the attractions of teaching a pandemic fiction course in the Fall is that it will be interesting to teach speculative fiction that doesn’t really require much speculation, given what we’re living through in the present moment.

A fairly standard bit of furniture in dystopian fiction is the dissolution of the nation-state as we know it, with whatever country in which the story takes place still possessing vestigial elements of its old self, but otherwise re-shaped by war, political upheaval, environmental catastrophe, pandemic, or all of the above. In the most extreme cases, as with The Road by Cormac McCarthy, all has been erased (including identifiable landscapes) and survivors must negotiate the Hobbesian lawlessness as best they can. In Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, there is no nation, just an archipelago of self-governing settlements. This latter vision, as I mentioned in a previous post, is where The Walking Dead has arrived. I also wrote at length about how a key narrative and thematic element of Max Brooks’ World War Z was imagining how a certain idea of America might persist through an apocalyptic catastrophe.

In other cases where there is no catastrophe per se, the dissolution of the nation-state is often depicted as an inevitability proceeding from contemporary circumstances. This, indeed, is a favourite consideration in much cyberpunk, like William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash—in both cases, the stories take place (at least partially) in a political entity still known as the United States, but in which civic government has effectively been displaced by massive transnational corporations.

And then there is the figuration of the fracturing of a former civic entity into regions of distinct character and governance. America is a useful country for this particular futurism, considering the size and regional distinctiveness of the continental U.S., to say nothing of the fraught history of federalism and those several years in the nineteenth century when the country literally broke in two.

Richard K. Morgan’s novel Black Man envisions a future in which the U.S. has fractured into three political entities: the U.N. States, which is a loose transatlantic confederation of northeastern states, part of eastern Canada, and the U.K; the Rim States, which as the name suggests comprises the Pacific Rim, itself also a post-national confederation including part of British Columbia. And finally there is “the Republic,” the middle swath of the country that has laid claim to white Christian identity as the basis of America and which is essentially an economically depressed theocracy (to those in the other two regions, it is frequently identified by the derisive nickname “Jesusland”). The three regions all bear characteristic familiar to the present moment, with the Rim driven by technology and the sort of Randian faith in disruption that currently marks Silicon Valley; the U.N. States are identified by their cosmopolitanism and transnationalism, such that the priority isn’t national identity but economic alliances; and the Republic is revanchist, anti-science, and resentful of its economic backwardness while still viewing itself as the “authentic” America.

Since I first read the novel eleven years ago (I wrote about it at some length on my previous blog), Morgan’s future America has seemed more and more of an actual possibility. And lately it’s been on my mind an awful lot as I keep seeing maps like these in the news:

state groups

One of the central tensions in the United States since even before its founding has been the argument between having a strong central government versus a weaker one that would leave most of the governing up to the individual states. The original argument was embodied by Alexander Hamilton on one hand and Thomas Jefferson on the other, and today pretty much falls along the axis of Democrats and Republicans, with the former advocating for a larger government and the latter frequently quoting Ronald Reagan’s famous line that government isn’t the solution to the problem, government is the problem, and doing their best to reduce its size to  the point where, per Grover Norquist, it can be drowned in a bathtub.

Which is what makes what’s going on now kind of fascinating from the perspective of political history. On one hand, you have a Republican executive and Senate, in an effort to staunch the economic hemorrhaging caused by the coronavirus, spending like drunken sailors on shore leave—over twice as much money as Obama’s 2009 stimulus, which they howled about at the time. On the other hand, the utter incompetence of Donald J. Trump and all of the hacks he has running the show has meant that, at a time when one ideally wants a strong central government, we’re witnessing the effective abdication of federal power, ceding it to the states.

There’s a truism about Republicans, which is that they inveigh against big government when they are out of power, and when they are in power they cut budgets and funding and reduce the size of every governmental department except the Department of Defense. When the federal government then, not unpredictably, struggles to perform its basic functions, Republicans point to that as evidence of government’s innate incompetence.

Not that this sort of thing is limited to the U.S.—it’s been part of the Right’s basic playbook since the Reagan/Thatcher years, but the 21st century has escalated it by a magnitude with the antagonism to expertise and science and the elevation of, say, a horse breeder to the directorship of FEMA just in time for one of the most devasting hurricanes to ever strike the Gulf Coast. But Bush’s appointment of Michael “Heckuva job, Brownie!” Brown to FEMA was just a hint of things to come as the Tea Party stormed the halls of Congress in 2010 with people whose entire purpose was to bring government to a screeching halt. And then with Trump’s election, we have seen the elevation of the most spectacularly unqualified, semi-literate, narcissistic incompetent to the most powerful office in the world; and along with him he brought an army of hacks and enablers who haven’t the faintest idea of how to govern in the best of times. It’s not for nothing that the “adults in the room” at this point are all career bureaucrats, people like Dr. Anthony Fauci who have spent long and distinguished careers in public service—the very people Steve Bannon had in mind when he fulminated against “the Deep State” and avowed that his principal goal was “the deconstruction of the administrative state.”

At the rate we’re going, he may get his wish. I have read a number of think-pieces that have speculated that the current state of affairs, in which state governors have entered into loose regional coalitions to manage their pandemic responses, essentially giving up on any meaningful assistance from the White House, might ironically end up being a spectacular vindication of Thomas Jefferson’s vision of federalism. Alexander Hamilton’s legacy, by contrast, will have to be satisfied with Broadway box office returns and a raft of Tony awards: Donald Trump is precisely the corrupt and incompetent man of low manners he argued that the Electoral College would guard against.

That didn’t really work out so well. And it might be that Trump’s own most indelible legacy will be the fracturing of America into regional coalitions that will be resistant to kowtowing to the federal government in the future. Though I somehow doubt Thomas Jefferson would feel particularly edified to have his philosophy of governance realized by a subliterate cretin.

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Isolated Thoughts: (Un)Acceptable Losses

If you were looking for a useful summary of where American fiscal priorities lie, you could do worse than the recent flyovers performed by the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds.

On April 28, the two elite fighter wings did routines over New York City, Newark, Trenton, and Philadelphia. They started at noon with NYC, and finished with Philadelphia just after 2pm. The entire point of the exercise was to pay tribute to healthcare workers, first responders, and other essential workers putting themselves in danger of infection.

This completely unnecessary display was monumentally idiotic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that it would either be lost on people practicing self-isolation, or, worse—as predictably happened—it would lead people to flout social distancing guidelines in order to go out and see the show.

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New Yorkers out watching the flyover show.

I get that it is important to find ways to keep people’s morale up in this difficult time, especially those who put themselves at risk. And while I’m sure healthcare workers appreciate the daily rounds of applause from New Yorkers, I’m doubly sure they’d appreciate more the resources and the funds necessary for doing their jobs safely and effectively. Being called “hero” isn’t a sufficient substitute for proper PPE, or, in the case of food service and grocery workers, a living wage.

The Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels took just over two hours to perform their shows. The Blue Angels are F/A-18 jets, the Thunderbirds F-16s; both classes of aircraft burn $25,000 worth of fuel in an hour, which multiplied over twelve jets over two hours comes to a price tag of $600,000. All for a tribute that people obeying the rules couldn’t watch.

If we take the calculation a step further: the fly-away cost of an F/A-18 Superhornet is $70M. The Thunderbirds’ F-16s are a much better deal at $19M apiece, but that still makes for over half a billion dollars worth of hardware flying in formation, paying tribute to people who almost certainly wish that kind of money would be spent on ventilators, or going to ameliorate the hospital bills of the uninsured, or supplementing the income of those stocking shelves and delivering food.

The other day featured a whole bunch of headlines in my news feed announcing that the total number of deaths in the U.S. due to COVID-19 had exceeded the number of American deaths in Vietnam. And a traitorous, sneering voice in my mind I can never quite root out snarked, “Well, at least the Vietnam War was good for the economy.” I’m not proud of having that thought, but it seems germane here: for a nation that tends to cry “socialism!” when Democrats try to increase funding for food stamps or talk about universal health care, there is a broad and blithe acceptance on both sides of the aisle for mind-numbing military budgets, and I find it baffling that nobody seems outraged at the expense of sending two aviation teams into the skies above the tri-state area as a tribute to people dealing with significant equipment shortages.

Meanwhile, we have been treated on almost a daily basis to another example of priorities as Fox News and right-wing astroturf groups beat the drum for ending the lockdown.

To be certain, there is a serious and important discussion to be had about the deleterious effects that quarantining has had on people’s mental health, and the fact that the shuttering of the economy is hurting many, many people in ways both physical and psychological. Too often, however, that point is being made in bad faith as an argument to “re-open the economy.” If you’re going to point to the erosion of people’s mental health, then you also need to address how we improve treatment and access to resources going forward in ways that move beyond simply getting back to work.

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But again, priorities: I couldn’t help but notice that the vast majority of complaints the anti-lockdown protesters in Michigan and elsewhere were making betrayed their privilege: “I want a haircut!” read one sign, and someone else complained that he wasn’t able to buy grass seed for his lawn. Other people complained about the stupidity of the rule that prevented them from traveling to their second in-state property. I will agree that this last provision seems odd, but then again, if your biggest problem is getting to your second house, you’re not suffering all that much. I might have had more sympathy with the protests if the general sense expressed was “I need to get back to work!”, but what was being said was more along the lines of “I need OTHER people to get back to work!”—to cut hair, sell grass seed, and so forth.

What lives are valued? The way in which the “need” to re-open the economy has been framed has largely been a question of what comprises acceptable losses. The earliest voices making this case characterized it in terms of patriotic sacrifice. Texas’ Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, appearing on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News, declared that grandparents should be willing to die from the virus if need be, if it means getting the economy humming again. He said to Carlson, “No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all Americans love for your children and grandchildren?’ And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.” Another voice joining the chorus was none other than Glenn Beck, who said on his radio show—or possibly podcast, I’m not sure of his platform—that at fifty-six years old, he was right on the edge of the “danger zone,” but that he was willing to put himself at risk to help jump-start the economy. “I would rather have my children stay home and all of us who are over 50 go in and keep this economy going and working,” he declared. “Even if we all get sick, I’d rather die than kill the country, because it’s not the economy that’s dying, it’s the country.”

Very noble sentiments, to be sure, or they would be if the first wasn’t coming from a politician with a gold-plated health plan and the latter from a man whose actual job entails yelling into a microphone in his home studio—not exactly an occupation that puts you at a high risk of infection. Both of them have the option of working from home; like the people protesting in Michigan about haircuts and grass seed, it’s not their right to work that animates their rhetoric so much as their perceived right to have other people work for their benefit. “Re-opening” the economy will not put the affluent at risk, but the workers.

As a popular meme that has made the rounds lately says, with mock disingenuity, “It’s almost as if it’s the workers who create value. Huh. Someone should write a book about that.”

But all that is at least partly beside the point I want to make. The very idea that it is acceptable to sacrifice the elderly and the infirm in the name of economic stability isn’t just pernicious and cruel, it’s also wildly inconsistent with past conservative hysterias. Glenn Beck might opine that the elderly are expendable in the name of the greater good now, but ten years ago he was one of the people screaming bloody murder at the fiction that the Affordable Care Act would necessitate “death panels” to rule on who would receive health care and who would not. Remember that fun time? It was all scare-tactic bullshit of course, but the premise was that expanding health coverage would lead to a shortage of available care, which would have to be rationed by cruel government factotums—the aforementioned death panels—based on who was a worthwhile subject, and who was a lost cause. In this case, there was no suggestion that the elderly and infirm sacrifice themselves for universal health care, but rather that they would be brutally culled by lefty ideologues. Or as Beck pithily put it on his bananapants Fox show, “Night night, Granny!”

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All of this is by way of making the obvious point that what qualifies as “acceptable losses” tends to conform to one’s priorities. In the name of universal health care? Stalinism! In the name of a stable stock market? Not just acceptable, but indeed noble and patriotic! (Of course, this contrast is itself a fallacy, as the prospective holocaust of the elderly under Obamacare was always already a fiction invented by Republicans).  Remember when Dick Cheney defended the egregious rollbacks of civil liberties in the Patriot Act, saying that even one single death due to terrorism was too many?

Mind you, as I pointed out in a recent post, one of the Bush Administration’s strategy’s for defeating the terrorists was to keep shopping. The nostalgia for the volunteerism and sacrifice of the Greatest Generation in Max Brooks’ World War Z is more and more attractive … not least because in Brooks’ imagined future, all jet fighters are mothballed because they consume too much fuel and are too expensive to use. Just a thought for the present moment.

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Isolated Thoughts: The Exquisite Agony of Watching The Plot Against America

Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Plot Against America, both the novel and the mini-series.

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One of the most affecting scenes in HBO’s mini-series The Plot Against America, adapted by David Simon (The Wire, Treme) from the novel by Philip Roth, is also one of the most painful to watch. It comes at the end of the second episode, as the Levins, a Jewish family in the Weeqhahic neighbourhood of Newark, New Jersey, sit around the radio listening to the general election returns of 1940. Having successfully gained the Republican nomination, Charles Lindbergh—hero aviator, isolationist, avowed anti-Semite, and Nazi sympathizer—is, against all expectations, defeating the incumbent Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

It is an agonizing moment of narrative inevitability. We know Lindbergh will win, of course, as that is the basic premise of the story. But as the crackling voice on the radio calls states for Lindbergh, we see the incredulity on the face of father Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) and his wife Bess (Zoe Kazan). Up until this point, the impossibility of a Lindbergh victory has been a point of faith for Herman. Bess had her doubts, but took comfort in Herman’s certainty. Now, as the reality of a Lindbergh presidency sinks in, incredulity turns to fear.

It is a beautifully crafted bit of televisual art, and utterly painful to watch on three levels. First is the level of story, as we empathize with the fear and confusion of the Levins. Second is the level of history, as the moment punctures the safety and comfort of a certain idea of America and introduces into the Levin’s living room the dread and threat we normally associate with such households in 1930s Europe. And third is on the level of memory: it is impossible to watch this scene, as is by design, without remembering the same sense of incredulity and despair that came with watching Donald Trump eke out a victory in a handful of key states.

David Simon had first been approached about adapting Plot in 2013, but was preoccupied with other projects. After November 2016, however, a story about a barnstorming celebrity with racist views and sympathy for dictators winning an unlikely presidential election suddenly had new and frighteningly immediate relevance.

 

The Prophetic Plot

I first read Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America when it first came out in 2004. I was at that point on something of a year-long Philip Roth reading binge, having neglected his fiction prior to then, but realizing that if I meant to fashion myself as an academic specializing in 20th Century American literature, especially postwar fiction, then not having read any Roth comprised a significant lacuna in my reading (for those less familiar with Roth and his prolific output, I just counted: I have read eighteen Roth novels, which means I have left eleven works in his corpus unread).

plot against americaPlot is an alternative history imagining a United States in which Charles Lindbergh runs for the Republican presidential nomination in 1940, and proceeds, against all odds and expectations, to defeat Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the general election. Lindbergh does so by exploiting his celebrity, which was at the time considerable; his campaign essentially comprises him flying from city to city and town to town in his iconic airplane, landing to cheering crowds who are often (at first) simply excited to see the national hero as opposed to being enthusiastic about his message. Lindbergh then delivers a short, rousing stump speech before climbing back in the cockpit and flying to his next campaign stop. He adopts the isolationist rhetoric of the day—“America First”—of which he was historically an enthusiastic proponent, and frames the electoral choice in stark terms of a vote for Lindbergh or a vote for war. Following his surprising victory, Lindbergh reverses all of FDR’s policies giving aid and support to Great Britain, and establishes America’s neutrality in no uncertain terms—all while making his admiration for Hitler and the Third Reich obvious, with a surprise diplomatic visit to Germany and hosting Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop at a state dinner. And unsurprisingly, Lindbergh’s friendliness with the Nazis gives license for American racism and anti-Semitism to flourish.

When Plot first came out, it was at the height—or, if you like, the nadir—of George W. Bush’s tenure as president, little more than a month before his reelection. Common wisdom at the time was that the novel allegorized the Bush Administration’s divisive politics, the post-9/11 rollback of civil liberties, and the ramped-up racism against Muslims. Roth himself always denied in interviews that there was anything in his novel specifically attacking Bush et al, and many reviewers and critics assumed her was just being coy.

Personally, I was never sure. Plot always felt to me like Roth being Roth, offering a thought experiment not meant as allegory so much as broader historical critique. You could see Rumsfeld and Cheney in the novel’s pages if you squinted hard enough, but it was never a perfect fit.

And then twelve years later when Trump was elected, everybody realized: The Plot Against America wasn’t a political allegory. It was a goddammed prophecy.

 

American Inevitability

I’ve taught The Plot Against America three times now. The first time was seven or eight years ago, and I was frustrated that my students seemed more or less indifferent to the novel. Nobody much wanted to engage with it, or had much to say in class discussion, and the energy in the room when we covered it was pretty flat. It was disappointing, as it always is when you teach a text you love and your students aren’t on board; but I chalked it up to the general lack of historical knowledge that has inevitably led to at least one rant in every class I teach to read more history!

Then after Trump was elected, I made the attempt two more times, thinking that of course the relevance of the novel to the present moment would inspire a more energized reaction among my students. But no—the same flat response. A colleague of mine has also attempted to teach Plot in his first-year classes, and has experienced a similar lack of interest.

My sense has always been that my students’ lack of deeper familiarity with the history in which the novel is steeped dilutes their interest in the obvious parallels to Trump and the present moment. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I wonder if the real issue is not a failure to educate recent generations about World War Two, but rather the overwhelming success of the American mythology machine. By which I mean: in the American popular imagination, as it has been primarily conditioned by Hollywood, the United States was always already the defiant enemy of Nazis and fascism. The ambivalence—and indeed, outright hostility—that a large proportion of U.S. had in the late 1930s to getting involved in another European war, while not lost to history, has been effectively erased by very nearly every single representation of World War Two to emerge from the American culture industry; so too has the fact that there was a not-insignificant number of Americans actively sympathetic to the Third Reich who advocated for an alliance with Hitler. In February of 1939, the German American Bund—an explicitly pro-Nazi organization founded in 1936—held a rally at Madison Square Gardens in New York City attended by 22,000 people. It was an event destined to go down the postwar memory hole (of everybody but historians), but it was resurrected in a seven-minute 2017 documentary titled A Night at the Garden. The film short is comprised entirely of archival footage from the event.

Notably, the HBO adaptation of The Plot Against America used an almost identical backdrop in Madison Square Gardens for the scene in which Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf—played with sublime, arrogant obliviousness by John Turturro—endorses Lindbergh for president.

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All that’s missing from Plot’s set design is the swastikas that were present in the historical rally (and by “missing,” I mean deliberately omitted for obvious reasons).

Night at the Garden

I’ll come back to this scene in Plot momentarily. Otherwise, the point I’m trying to make is that the lack of enthusiasm for the novel when I have taught it (always allowing for the fact that a given number of students will always dislike some of the assigned reading, no matter how genuinely awesome it is) almost certainly has something to do with this particular lacuna in the popular imagination of WWII. A good friend of mine once observed that Stephen Spielberg realized early in his career that Nazis make the best villains—something that I laughed at in the moment, but which stuck with me afterward. Why do Nazis make the best villains? Because the storyteller has to expend no effort to explain why they’re villains. They are, to use Northrop Frye’s repurposed geometry, overdetermined. But the corollary of that in American popular culture has always been that they are thus the necessary antithesis of Americanness, and ergo that the United States was only ever the emphatic and unequivocal enemy of the Third Reich.

In spite of the fact that Roth’s novel, with its evocation of the isolationist sentiments and de rigueur anti-Semitism of the 1930s, works hard to disrupt the prevailing popular mythology, The Plot Against America nevertheless very weirdly reinscribes certain elements of that mythology. Not in terms of content, but narrative: for all of the virtuosity of the novel, the ending always felt to me like a bit of deus ex machina. To wit: in 1942, as things in the U.S. start to devolve toward more overt fascism, Lindbergh’s plane is lost on a return flight from Kentucky to D.C. Chaos momentarily ensues, and the newly elevated Vice President Burton Wheeler—historically, someone with even greater authoritarian tendencies than Lindbergh—seizes control of the government. But when the bereaved First Lady makes an impassioned plea on the radio for Congress to remove Wheeler, instate the next person in the line of succession, and legislate a special general election for November, 1942, order is restored. Roosevelt regains the presidency; when he reverses Lindbergh’s policy of neutrality, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor … and the history we know reasserts itself, albeit a year or so later. TL;DR, the Allies are victorious and the 20th century proceeds in familiar fashion.

While I’ve always been ambivalent about the tidy way Roth ties up what was otherwise a shattering alternative history, I also cannot deny how comforting it was to get the train back on the tracks after such a dislocating narrative experience—but then again, that comfort highlights the broader problem. That problem being that, ultimately, the novel presents an American flirtation with fascism as an historical aberration, a blip on destiny’s timeline: one emerges from the novel with the sense of American democracy’s historical inevitability intact. On reflection, this sense of inevitability perhaps gives the lie to the early interpretations of Plot as a trenchant critique of the Bush Administration, given that the neoconservative ethos informing Bush et al—and which led directly to the war in Iraq—was rooted in precisely this sensibility, the conviction that American-style, market-driven liberal democracy was the logical end-point of cultural and societal evolution, and that all it would take to bring it to the troubled Middle East was depose a dictator and say “you’re a democracy now!” to the grateful locals.

Well, we saw how that went.

To be fair to Roth, at the time when Plot was published, even as it was becoming evident that the Iraq War was turning into a quagmire, the sense of American inevitability was still difficult to escape—and indeed, four years later it would underwrite much of the rhetoric employed by Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency. I should clarify here that this formulation of “American inevitability” is more or less synonymous with the concept of American Exceptionalism, given that the latter tends to be constituted within a sense of destiny—codified over a century and a half ago in the Monroe Doctrine as “Manifest Destiny,” and after the collapse of the Soviet Union by Francis Fukuyama as “the end of history” in his book of that name—not “end” as in apocalypse, but culmination. The neoconservative ethos cited above found its intellectual armature in Fukuyama’s political philosophy, which in The End of History was the perfect distillation of post-Cold War American triumphalism that characterized the U.S. as, in Bill Clinton’s phrasing, “the one indispensable nation.”

I have, these past three years, read more than one think-piece arguing that our current mess is at least partially due to the complacency of those post-Cold War years, when liberal democracy was considered so inevitable that little attention was paid to the growing illiberal tendencies of nations like Russia or Brazil. It is difficult not to see some of that complacency at work in the fact that even as historically astute a novel as The Plot Against America ultimately hews to a tacit assumption of American inevitability.

As David Simon has said in interviews about his adaptation, however, that assumption is one that is more or less impossible to make in the present moment.

 

Killing Snakes

(Just as an aside, I think I might have to do a separate post that would just be a review of Plot. Given that this post has turned into more of a political-historical consideration of the novel and the series, I’m giving short shrift to the adaptation’s virtuosity. It is a genuinely brilliant piece of televisual art, possibly the best work David Simon has done since The Wire. The evocation of 1940s New Jersey is gorgeously rendered, the writing is subtle and nuanced, and the performances are bravura—Winona Ryder continues her career’s impressive second act, portraying the shallow and needy Aunt Evelyn, older sister to Bess Levin; John Turturro is at his smarmy best as the arrogant Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, who becomes a useful idiot for the Lindbergh campaign and then administration; Morgan Spector is heartbreaking as Herman, who watches all his bedrock beliefs about America exposed as illusory. But the heart of the series is Zoe Kazan as Bess, who does more with her facial expressions alone than most actors could do with a monologue. But hopefully I’ll have more to say about all that in a future post).

If a sense of American inevitability was still pervasive in 2004, and was perhaps somewhat bolstered by the Obama presidency’s unabashed embrace of American Exceptionalism (most perfectly distilled in Obama’s repeated assertion that “in no other country is my story possible”), Trump’s election and the years since have disabused us of the notion. David Simon has never been guilty of the starry-eyed vision of the U.S. informing, say, The West Wing or Hamilton. Indeed, in all of his television work, starting with Homicide: Life on the Street, through The Wire, Generation Kill, Treme, Show Me A Hero, and, most recently, The Deuce, has always been about depicting the dark side of the American Dream: the parallel and intersecting interests of the drug trade with licit American life in The Wire, for example, or the evolution of pornography into an economic juggernaut in the 1970s in The Deuce.

The consistent theme in his work has been how apathy and going along to get along corrupt institutions and leave them vulnerable to motivated and unscrupulous greed and graft. Which is not, as he says in practically every interview with him I’ve seen or read, an excuse to give up. The title of his blog, The Audacity of Despair, really kind of says it all: it’s an ironic nod to Obama’s soaring rhetoric, but not as cynical as it might seem at first glance. It contains a challenge to fight on:

[W]e were trying to figure out what the slogan was for the show, the tagline. We were struggling with it. Some things were too dead-on for the political moment, and some things weren’t on enough, and I came up with something my father said at every Passover Seder of my memory. If you opened his copy of the Haggadah, he would have it written in. And he said it: “Freedom can never be completely won, but it can be lost.” Then he would explain that, and in the explanation, I came to understand citizenship. What he would say is, self-governance is really hard. Churchill, no great liberal, nonetheless said that democracy was the worst form of government until you considered all the alternatives. It’s never perfect, it’s never perfected. There’s always someone who’s not being delivered the same promise of freedom as everyone else. There are some freedoms that get betrayed and have to be rescued. The work is never done. We will never get to the point of being able to dust off our hands and say, “Well, there it is, we finished our republic.”

Every day, you’ve gotta get up and kill snakes. Every fucking day. The day you think you’re done and you stop, or you assume that the freedoms there on the page are going to exist regardless of who’s in office, that’s the day you begin to lose it. The only way to self-govern is to say, “This is unwieldy, this is complicated, this requires perseverance, and tomorrow’s going to be the same as today.” It can often seem impossible. But what’s certain is that if you don’t do the work, you’ll lose it.

The enemy of democratic freedom, in other words—or, one of the big ones, at any rate—is complacency. In this respect, The Plot Against America is an almost uncannily perfect vehicle for Simon’s sensibility, as it offers source material specifically about how easily democracy as an institution can be corrupted by pre-existing prejudices and hatreds that need only official permission to transform from systemic to overt. In the first episode, the Levins drive to an upscale neighbourhood to look at houses—Herman has been offered a promotion that will necessitate moving. But Bess is nervous about leaving their majority-Jewish neighbourhood, and sees the suspicious glances from prospective neighbours to which Herman is oblivious. But the culminating moment, which convinces Herman to turn down the promotion and stay put, comes as they drive past a German-style beer garden where members of the Bund carouse and glare at the Jewish family as they drive past.

It is a moment that is at once eerily reminiscent of the faux-idyllic scene in Cabaret in which a Hitler Youth member sings “The Future Belongs to Me,” but also anticipates the fear and threat of the moment in the final episode when Herman watches a hooded Klansman pass in front of his car.

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The seeds, in other words, of fascistic anti-Semitism are firmly planted at the outset; but what brings the more moderate swath of the population, who might not want Jews moving into their neighbourhood but would be horrified to be accused of anti-Semitism, to vote for an avowed anti-Semite? Lindbergh’s celebrity is one factor, as is his promise to avoid war. But more effective is to flatter those people’s sensibilities, which is why one of the most interesting (and repulsive and infuriating) characters is Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf. Bengelsdorf, in an oily admixture of self-importance, opportunism, and oblivious arrogance, becomes an enthusiastic apologist for Lindbergh. In a crucial moment shortly before the general election, he endorses Lindbergh at the aforementioned rally that visually echoes A Night at the Garden:

It is worth dwelling on Alvin’s words in this scene, as it is one of the points in Plot that most obviously resonates with the present moment:

HERMAN: Does any of you think one single Jew is going to go out and vote for this anti-Semite because of that stupid lying speech? What does he think he’s doing?
ALVIN: Koshering Lindbergh!
HERMAN: Koshering what?
ALVIN: They didn’t get him up there to talk to Jews! They didn’t buy him off for that. He’s up there talking to the goyim! He’s givin’ all the good Christian folks of this country their personal rabbi’s permission to vote for Lindy, and not to think themselves Nazis, or anti-Semites.

It was a source of some genuine bafflement to a handful of pundits when, at the most recent State of the Union, Donald Trump highlighted a handful of African-Americans. It has become a standard bit of political theatre at the SOTU for the president to point to specific guests in the audiences as exemplars of American virtue; that he would pack his deck with African-Americans seemed to some a transparent, but futile, bid for Black votes (especially futile considering the juxtaposition with giving Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom). But as some more astute observers pointed out, it had nothing to do with courting Black voters. It was rather a gesture aimed at white suburban voters, especially white women, who find Trump’s blatant racism distasteful but will vote for him if provided with a fig leaf. They need an excuse to vote for him, a subtlety almost certainly lost on Trump but not on his enablers.

What Philip Roth’s alternative history articulates is that hatred and authoritarian populism are easily roused with the right permission structure. What the novel papers over in its too-easy return to familiar history is that Pandora’s Box is not so easily closed: those forces unleashed by Lindbergh won’t be contained, any more than those to which Trump has given oxygen. My principal misgiving about Joe Biden’s candidacy from the start was not about his age or proclivity for gaffes, but that he campaigned on the premise that Trump is an aberration, and Biden’s election would return everything to normal.

There is no more prelapsarian “normal,” something Roth’s novel misses. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, David Simon had misgivings about the ending of The Plot Against America, which he tentatively brought to Philip Roth:

I’ll be honest, I didn’t have the courage to walk in and go, “This is what I’m going to do.” I pointed out where I thought we might have some problems with the ending and I asked him if he had any ideas. He went to that portion of the book, reread that page and a half two or three times. He kept going back and forth, and I was sitting across the coffee table from him, this great man of literature. The TV hack and the great man of literature. He’s rereading his work and he’s frowning and I’m waiting. It felt like an hour and a half, but it was probably about four minutes, and he closed the book and said, “It’s your problem now.”

Simon says he took this as tacit permission to change things. Unfortunately, that was the last time he was able to speak with Roth: the author died not too long after that meeting.

For the most part, the adaptation stays very true to the original. The major structural change is that the series has multiple perspectives, whereas the novel is a first-person narrative told from the perspective of a nine-year-old Philip Roth (for those unfamiliar with Roth’s fiction, deploying a quasi-fictional version of himself as the main character and narrator is something he has done in multiple novels; I can’t fault Simon for changing the family name to Levin, given that he’s already taken on the task of adapting the work of one of America’s preeminent novelists—depicting a nine-year-old Philip Roth would be a bridge too far for me, too). Because of this, the series can directly depict narrative sequences that, in the novel, come to us secondhand from Philip.

The most significant change Simon made, however, comes at the end. History as we know it does not reassert itself—instead, we end on election night, with Roosevelt’s election in question. The now-familiar image of Herman Levin sitting beside the radio is preceded by a montage scored to Frank Sinatra’s 1945 “The House I Live In (That’s America to Me),” a song specifically commissioned in 1945 to combat ant-Semitism:

What is America to me
A name, a map, or a flag I see
A certain word, democracy
What is America to me
The house I live in
A plot of earth, the street
The grocer and the butcher
Or the people that I meet
The children in the playground
The faces that I see
All races and religions
That’s America to me

While Sinatra croons, we end the series with images of people being denied at the polls, of ballots being stolen and burned, and, in one case, a voting machine being carted away. “What’s wrong with it?” someone calls, and is curtly told, “It’s broken.” The voters featured in the sequence are predominantly African-American, or blue-collar Italian or Jewish, those most likely to vote for FDR. It’s an ending that works, much more than the original would have, in this present moment. The genius of Roth’s novel is to dredge up a history that the United States goes out of its way to forget, i.e. the profound ambivalence to getting involved in what many dismissed as “a Jewish war,” and tease out of that an entirely plausible alternative; its failure is to reassure the reader that this alternative would be easily quashed, suggesting the inevitability of the American 20th century as discussed above. Where Simon’s adaptation ends is with the reminder that the fascist sympathies excited by Lindbergh would not go gently into that good night, any more than Trump-inspired nativists will disappear if he’s voted out in November.

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Isolated Thoughts: The Walking Dead and the Aftermath of Apocalypse

Warning: this post contains spoilers (of a sort) for The Walking Dead.

Since its brilliant pilot episode aired ten years ago, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with The Walking Dead, with the balance more frequently on the latter than the former. I’ve found it interesting from a critical perspective for reasons that should be obvious—I have, after all, been preoccupied with the 21st century’s critical mass of post-apocalyptic narratives for several years now—but I’ve also found it jarringly uneven. What it represents is more relevant to me than what it is, which is to say the show itself I can take or leave, but the fact that it has run so long, maintained its popularity, and is yet another example of “genre” being assimilated into prestige television, gives rise to some very interesting considerations.

Not least of which is how a long-running television series adapts narrative formulae that evolved for a movie-length story. As I said in my post on World War Z, Brooks’ novel is unusual in the genre insofar as it is preoccupied less with the catastrophe itself and more with how society rebuilds in the aftermath. Considering how long TWD has run, it is perhaps unsurprising that the series has put down roots, so to speak, and devoted at least some of its storylines in the past several seasons to how postapocalyptic societies forge new bases in law and civic responsibility. It took the show quite a while to get there, however, largely because it spent its first five (six, really) seasons cycling through the basic zombie movie formula … again and again. And again.

To wit: your standard zombie film begins with the outbreak or immediate aftermath, through which the protagonists must fight their way and flee. They will then find their way to respite and safety, whether that be a mall, the Winchester Pub, or Bill Murray’s house. That safe space then proves untenable: it is either breached by a critical mass of the undead, or else someone’s malice or stupidity renders the space unsafe, and then the protagonists must again fight their way through and flee. They then either find their way to another safe space that we are led to understand will not be breached, or find rescue, as in 28 Days Later; or they all die, as in Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead; or the ending is left ambiguous, as in George Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead, in which the two survivors fly off in a helicopter into the night.

For TWD’s first six seasons, Rick Grimes and his merry band reiterate this pattern, with each cycle culminating, much like boss fights in video games, in a showdown with increasingly villainous Big Bads. In season one, the survivors find safety in their initial camp until it is overrun, and then the CDC complex in Atlanta, until it is destroyed by the sole remaining doctor there, who has gone mad; then they make their way to Herschel’s farm, then the prison, then the uncannily wholesome town of Woodbury, then Terminus, and finally the settlement of Alexandria. Along the way they battle the zombies themselves, then the ignorance of those who don’t grasp the severity of their threat, then the Governor, then the cannibals of Terminus, and finally the sociopathic Negan and his cultish followers (I’m leaving out a handful of side-trip threats, but you get the idea). Now the Big Bad is Alpha and her Whisperers, but at this point the characters seem to have settled into a more or less permanent archipelago of settlements, and for a while there it seemed as though the show’s preoccupation was shifting from peripatetic flight from one safe space to the next, to how these neighbouring settlements might manage to function as a society.

The key moment signalling this shift was quite probably inadvertent, but it caught my attention, so who knows? At the start of season eight, Rick’s people in Alexandria and those in their allied settlements prepare to fight back against Negan and his Saviours. The leaders of the three communities—Rick, Maggie, Ezekiel—stand in the flatbed of a truck and deliver rousing speeches to inspire their people as they prepare to do battle. My first thought was of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, which is often staged in a similar fashion, with Henry standing in a cart or tumbrel while he enjoins his army to do battle against fearsome odds.

TWD - St. Crispins

Top: Rick et al exhort their people to courage. Bottom left: Laurence Olivier in his 1944 film Henry V. Bottom right: Kenneth Branagh in his 1989 adaptation.

And in case we missed the reference, Ezekiel specifically quotes the speech, or rather paraphrases it, as he says “For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother,” then turns to acknowledge Maggie, adding, “And she today … my sister.” Nice catch there, Zeke.

ezekiel

Ezekiel, really feeling the moment.

When I say that this scene is “probably inadvertent,” I don’t mean it accidentally echoes Henry V, because it is quite obviously deliberate. What I wonder is whether it is merely a convenient allusion to what is the most famous pre-battle speech in history, or whether the writers meant to evoke the subtler significance Henry V specifically and Shakespeare more generally had for the evolving sense of British nationhood from the late middle ages into modernity. Henry V came to be seen as an iconic English king, and the Battle of Agincourt a defining moment—the victory in spite of the five to one advantage the French had was taken as evidence of England’s divine providence. After the battle, when it becomes obvious what massive losses the French suffered, Shakespeare’s Henry attributes it to God’s intervention:

O God, thy arm was here;
And not to us, but to thy arm alone,
Ascribe we all! When, without stratagem,
But in plain shock and even play of battle,
Was ever known so great and little loss
On one part and on the other? Take it, God,
For it is none but thine!

Further, the play symbolically brings together the factious identities that will eventually be knitted into the United Kingdom, with a representative Irishman (MacMorris), Welshman (Fluellen), and Scotsman (Jamy), who spar verbally with their English comrade Gower, but who ultimately fight together. Kenneth Branagh did a nice job of visually evoking this symbolic union in his 1989 film adaptation: as Henry addresses his army, we get reaction shots of different groups, each comprising a different element of British society: the nobility, the rank and file, the future (represented by the character of “Boy,” played here by a young Christian Bale), and of course the four nations that will come to comprise “Great” Britain. All are brought together at the speech’s crescendo:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

The soldiers burst into a huge cheer, and Branagh cuts very quickly between the different elements of Britain in a unifying montage.

All of which is by way of observing that the St. Crispin’s moment in TWD, whether deliberately or not, comprises as a comparably symbolic gesture of nascent nationhood as defined in battle against great odds. And for a time, the defeat of Negan and the Saviours fundamentally changes the dynamic of the show—and though, not unpredictably, it takes them an entire season to get there, the protracted war itself shifts the show’s preoccupation to the necessity of alliances and collective action. Prior to the arrival of the next Big Bad—i.e. the Whisperers—the character of Michonne drafts a constitution of sorts for the coalition of communities.

twd-charter-911-1160102

It was of course not unpredictable that the promising signs of unity and the hope of a new society would not last long, as resentment and grudges directed at the assimilated, ostensibly contrite Saviours created fissures, and Rick’s decision to leave Negan alive festered with those who wanted him dead (i.e. everybody by Rick). After all, a utopian vision of people working happily together in the postapocalyptic world wouldn’t exactly make for gripping television.

Still. Now that TWD has legitimately become a franchise, with its spin-off Fear The Walking Dead going into its sixth season, at least one feature film in the offing, to say nothing of myriad film shorts and smart phone games, it is venturing into the kind of world-building to which the normally myopic genre, being as preoccupied as it tends to be with the narrow horizon of a handful of desperate survivors, doesn’t tend to lend itself. A second spin-off series, The Walking Dead: World Beyond, will deal with the next generation of humanity after the apocalypse, and what the world will look like in the decades after TWD.

Which, if nothing else in our present moment, reminds us that there’s always a beyond.

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Isolated Thoughts: Pandemic Reading– World War Z

As I work through my reading for my pandemic fiction class, I’ll share my thoughts here as I go. I’m starting with World War Z because I recently heard its author Max Brooks interviewed on Fresh Air by Terry Gross, so it’s in the forefront of my mind. And because of the way my mind works, these thoughts led to another post on The Walking Dead, which I’ll put up tomorrow. So it’s going to be zombietown here for a few days.

Max Brooks, incidentally, is the son of Mel Brooks, with whom he made a PSA about self-isolation and social distancing.

World_War_Z_book_coverWorld War Z came out in 2006; I picked it up on a whim when I was at a Chapters in Toronto a little over ten years ago, and I was quite pleasantly surprised to find that the novel was not just a gripping read, but quite well written, and exhaustively researched. It is unusual compared with more typical exemplars of the zombie genre for being global in its scope. Its subtitle is “An Oral History of the Zombie War,” and comprises a series of testimonials from people interviewed ten years after the end of “hostilities.” What further sets World War Z apart from the genre is that it is preoccupied far less with the outbreak and subsequent collapse of society, than with the aftermath and the process of rebuilding. More and more, especially in the last ten years, post-apocalyptic narratives have come to focus on life in the aftermath of catastrophe, with the catastrophe itself functioning as a distant, albeit traumatic memory. Novels like World War Z and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) were in the vanguard, and anticipated the likes of Zone One (2011) by Colson Whitehead and Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel (and in my next post I’ll be talking about how The Walking Dead has shifted focus in this regard). But in the early years of the aughts, the shock of 9/11 inspired a host of zombie and zombie-adjacent films like 28 Days Later (2002) and Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), films primarily concerned with the spectacle of outbreak and the abject failure of societal institutions—government, police, military, health care—to deal with the threat and keep people safe.

That is emphatically not Max Brooks’ style.

Before picking up World War Z, I was vaguely familiar with Brooks’ earlier work, The Zombie Survival Guide (2003), which I always saw in humour sections. After reading World War Z, I picked up the Guide, and realized that it had been mis-categorized—it’s not a serious text in the sense of warning of an imminent zombie apocalypse, but it is also obviously not written as either satire or parody. Rather, it is what World War Z would ultimately be, writ small—i.e. a thought experiment in disaster preparedness, or the lack thereof, and a variety of responses.

One topic I’ll be interested to explore in both my pandemic fiction class and the class on utopias and dystopias I’m slated to teach in the winter is the odd and indeed counter-intuitive persistence of nostalgia as a trope in dystopias and post-apocalyptic narrative. I’ll have more to say about that in a future post (especially with regards to Zone One, Station Eleven, and Ling Ma’s novel Severance [2018]); Brooks’ novel, as I stated, is essentially an exhaustive thought experiment working through the linked questions of (a) what a global zombie pandemic might look like and how it might unfold, and (b) how might the nations of the world as constituted in the early 21st century respond? Though the novel is impressively global in scope, it is saturated with nostalgia for a particular idea of America, and that idea is indeed what comprises the novel’s narrative spine. World War Z tracks the global movement through outbreak, panic, consolidation, and response, but the model for America’s ultimate victory over the living dead is that of the Great Depression and World War Two.

In other interviews I’ve seen, Brooks talks at length about how he inherited an ingrained sense of preparedness from his father Mel and mother Anne Bancroft, both of whom lived through the Depression and the war (Mel Brooks served in an engineering division responsible for clearing land mines in the European Theater), and passed onto their son the sensibilities of people who knew privation and danger. It is thus perhaps unsurprising that the nostalgic dimension of World War Z hearkens back to the fortitude and collective sacrifice of the Greatest Generation. This nostalgia is, in the novel, most clearly and specifically communicated by the character of Arthur Sinclair, the Secretary of the Department of Strategic Resources (a cabinet position designed specifically for the zombie war). Sinclair, prior to his appointment to this new cabinet post, was an ardent capitalist and Wall Streeter, largely because he was the child of Roosevelt-era New Dealers:

Those first months, I can’t tell you how much information I had to cram into this withered old cortex … I needed every idea, every word, every ounce of knowledge and wisdom to help me fuse a fractured landscape into the modern American war machine. If my father had been alive, he probably would have laughed at my frustration. He’d been a staunch New Dealer, working closely with FDR as comptroller of New York State. He used methods that were almost Marxist in nature, the kind of collectivism that would make Ayn Rand leap from her grave and join the ranks of the living dead. I’d always rejected the lessons he’d tried to impart, running as far away as Wall Street to shut them out. Now I was wracking my brains to remember them. One thing those New Dealers did better than any generation in American history was find and harvest the right tools and talent.

[Quick aside, for those who haven’t read the novel, and, really, for those who have: you should consider getting the audiobook. The novel is written as a series of interviews; in the audiobook, each character is voiced by someone of note. Carl and Rob Reiner take parts, as do notable SF figures like Mark Hamill, Denise Crosby, Jeri Ryan, Nathan Fillion, and Bruce Boxleitner; also featured are John Turturro, Common, Kal Penn, Jurgen Prochnow, Alfred Molina, and F. Murray Abraham. Among others. And the dude voicing Arthur Sinclair? Alan Alda! To paraphrase Mel Brooks from Robin Hood: Men In Tights, sometimes it’s good to be the son of the king.]

The broader subject of Brooks’ Fresh Air interview, as you might imagine, was the current pandemic, and the variety of responses to it. Since the success of World War Z, Brooks has become something of a professional disaster-response expert, and, in addition to consulting with the U.S. military on a variety of issues, is also a non-resident lecturer at the Modern War Institute at West Point. One of the points he made in the interview is that societies living with a siege mentality tend to be better equipped to respond quickly to a crisis, and he cited the admirable responses of South Korea and Taiwan to the conoravirus. This is a theme running through World War Z, in which Israel and post-apartheid South Africa are depicted as having quicker and more thorough responses. The United States, however, as he observed in the interview, tends to always be caught flat-footed. The Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, Sputnik, September 11th, the meltdown of 2008—and now, the coronavirus. However stunned the U.S. is by a given catastrophe, however—and herein lies the pervasive nostalgia of World War Z—its capacity to gear up and respond is unmatched.

Or, well, it should be. There is a contemptuous distaste for postmodern society of the “get off my lawn!” variety running through the novel, which is reflected in the way suburban and middle-class Americans are depicted as apathetic and preoccupied with trivialities. For example, a stereotypical suburban mom responds to the question of whether she was worried by the first news items about the zombie outbreak:

Oh, yeah. I was worried. I was worried about my car payments and Tim’s business loan. I was worried about that widening crack in the pool and the new nonchlorinated filter that still left an algae film. I was worried about our portfolio, even though my e-broker assured me this was just first-time investment jitters and that it was much more profitable than a standard 401(k). Aiden needed a math tutor, Jenna needed just the right Jamie-Lynn Spears cleats for soccer camp. Tim’s parents were thinking about coming to stay with us for Christmas. My brother was back in rehab. Finley had worms, one of the fish had some kind of fungus growing out of its left eye. These were just some of my worries. I had more than enough to keep my busy.

There is another account, narrated by an ex-military-turned-mercenary private security professional, of an entertainment billionaire who fortifies his Long Island mansion to ride out the apocalypse with several dozen of his best celebrity friends. The house is rigged with cameras in order to broadcast, reality-TV style, so people can watch the rich and famous watch the world burn, an obscene vanity project cut short when the house is attacked and taken over by ordinary people, and the celebrities’ entourages turn on them. Another account is told by a ruthless venture capitalist who made billions peddling false cures for the zombie virus, and in the novel’s present moment evades prosecution by holing up in an Antarctic compound á là Adrian Veidt in Watchmen.

The TL;DR is that pre-catastrophe America is lazy, greedy, and obsessed with trivialities, and thus gets taken completely off-guard by the pandemic; it is through the rediscovery of the values of community, sacrifice, and selflessness, as well as the values of true work that Brooks’ imagined U.S.A. gets over itself, and—as it did in the Second World War—become a world leader again.

The nostalgic quality of World War Z is in this respect specific and tangible, something of a paean to his Brooks’ parents’ generation; but it also shares the more nebulous—and more invidious—form of nostalgia that isn’t focused on a specific time, place, or era, but a vague sensibility that inflects the genre. Fantasy as a genre embodies this kind of nostalgia; zombie apocalypse, with its return to an essentially premodern existence shorn of the trivialities and distractions of the postmodern condition, shares that same desire for a simpler, more authentic, more visceral life, with no shades of grey. In a more typical offering, it is usually as simple as what I like to term the “survivalist fantasy”—the idea that one would, in such circumstances, prove to have the toughness, talent, and capacity for (completely justified) violence needed to survive the undead-infested world.

Brooks provides a somewhat more nuanced consideration of violence and sacrifice, but evinces the same nostalgic gesture for authenticity. His American characters pass through their traumatic trials, as do his international characters, but emerging out the other side with a more plainly expressed appreciation for what truly matters. Arthur Sinclair talks about how, in the early days of consolidation when the U.S. had carved out a safe zone west of the Rockies, one of his biggest trials was retraining a population that had forgotten how to do things for itself, which largely entailed inverting the social pyramid so people with blue-collar skills became the drivers of the American recovery, and the tutors for the ad executives and script consultants who were no obliged to sweep factory floors. In the end, however, Sinclair says, the early resentments gave way to satisfaction in their work:

I met one gentleman on a coastal ferry from Portland to Seattle. He had worked in the licensing department of an advertising agency, specifically in charge of procuring the rights to classic rock songs for television commercials. Now he was a chimney sweep. Given that most homes in Seattle had lost their central heat and the winters were now longer and colder, he was seldom idle. “I keep my neighbours warm,” he said proudly. I know that sounds a little too Normal Rockwell, but I hear stories like that all the time. “You see those shoes, I made them,” “That sweater, that’s my sheep’s wool,” “Like the corn? My garden.” That was the upshot of the more localised system. It gave people the opportunity to see the fruits of their labour. It gave them a sense of individual pride to know they were making a clear, concrete contribution to victory.

Perhaps it’s not so much Rockwell as Marx, as what Sinclair describes is the reversal of workers’ alienation from their labour.

It was striking, though, on re-reading this passage to think of the current moment in which people whose labour has tended to be devalued—store cashiers, shelf-stockers, food delivery people and those who prepare the food for delivery, and of course health care workers—are the ones making it possible for the rest of us to self-isolate. The scale of our current crisis isn’t remotely close to what Brooks imagines—which is good, because I’d almost certainly be shambling and moaning about the streets looking for someone alive to snack on—but I can only hope we take away a comparable lesson.

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Isolated Thoughts: Pandemic Reading

I’d been wracking my brain trying to figure out how to theme the fourth-year contemporary American literature seminar I’m teaching in the Fall, when I realized the obvious topic was right in front of me: Pandemic Fiction! Having taught a course a few years ago on post-apocalyptic narratives, I already had a handful of titles under my belt. A quick internet search yielded an embarrassment of riches, and I put in an online order for some that seemed likely candidates.

pandemic reading

(Possibilities not pictured: Katherine Ann Porter’s 1938 novella about the Spanish Flu, Pale Horse, Pale Rider; Jack London’s weird post-plague dystopia The Scarlet Plague [1912]; and Philip  Roth’s last novel, Nemesis [2010], about a polio outbreak in 1945 New Jersey).

When I mentioned on Facebook that I’d decided on pandemic fiction for my course, the response was pretty uniformly enthusiastic. Some people asked me to post the reading list when I’d finalized it; a few others, some of them former students, wistfully said that would be a course they’d love to take. And more than one person said it would likely be a course that would draw in a lot of students.

I think it will, but I also think there will be a not-insignificant number of students who will, as I commented back, “avoid it like the plague.” (The bad joke was unintentional, but apt). For everyone who might welcome the perspective a course on pandemic fiction might offer on our current moment, I’m sure are those who would much rather not either revisit the coronavirus experience or deal with such fictionalizations during an ongoing crisis (fingers crossed pretty damn hard for the first eventuality).

It’s an odd quirk of human idiosyncrasies that some of us lean into fictional figurations of crisis in response to the experience of a real one, while others most emphatically do not. It makes me think of the way in which, after September 11th, Clear Channel distributed a memo to all its radio stations listing the songs they were to avoid playing because they might evoke thoughts of the attack (including some truly bizarre choices, like “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” or risible ones, like “Walk Like An Egyptian”), and movie studios froze production or postponed release of films depicting terrorism or large-scale destruction; meanwhile, video stores (remember those?) reported that movies like Armageddon and Independence Day were constantly being rented. In the present moment, one of the highest-trending offerings on Netflix has consistently been Contagion, Stephen Soderbergh’s 2010 film about a pandemic. I have seen a significant number of discussions of this sort of thing on social media, i.e. people soliciting pandemic/apocalypse/dystopian themed isolation viewing, as well as people voicing incredulity that anyone would want to watch or read such stuff in the present moment.

I suppose it doesn’t come as a great galloping shock that I fall into the former category, and not just because I need to read a bunch of titles and make final reading list decisions before the call comes from the English Department to submit our book orders for the Fall (usually, that happens early-mid May). Speaking personally, it’s not the fictional representations of pandemic that bother my soul, but the daily news that makes me afraid for my blood pressure. As I mentioned in my initial “isolated thoughts” post, what narrative tends to offer is catharsis; it is, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson (my copy of The Political Unconscious is currently in my campus office and thus inaccessible), the symbolic resolution of irreconcilable real-world contradictions … even when that resolution entails something putatively negative, like a pair of sclerotic old men in a Beckett play, or the wholesale destruction of society in a zombie apocalypse.

In the latter, at least you might get to use a crossbow.

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