Category Archives: politics

Some Post-Inaugural Thoughts

Yesterday was a salve to the soul—seeing the footage of Donald Trump leaving the White House for the last time, watching Joe Biden take the oath of office, and finally turning the page on four years of cruelty and spite—all while, thanks to Twitter’s belated enforcing of their terms of service, we heard nothing from the outgoing President. Good riddance to bad rubbish, as my grandmother would say. But of the many questions worrying those of us who loathe Donald Trump and everything his presidency represented, possibly the most concerning is: will there be another Trump? Who is waiting in the wings to don his mantle and lead the MAGA hordes next? And is it even possible for someone to be the next Trump, or was he sui generis this entire time?

I have spent way too much brain power running counter-factuals these past four years, especially as we approached what mercifully proved to be the end of Trump’s tenure. Adam Serwer, who has been one of my lodestones in this era, posted a characteristically astute essay in The Atlantic yesterday, whose title was, helpfully, the thesis of the piece: “An Incompetent Authoritarian is Still a Catastrophe.” In it, he details the number of times pundits and political commenters have waved away Trump’s threat, under the aegis of “Oh, he’s too incompetent to really do any damage.” And then Serwer proceeds to detail all the ways in which Trump, incompetent boob that he is, managed to do grievous damage to the nation that had elected him president.

And yet. I have had many occasions to marvel at Trump’s ability to miss the most obvious opportunities. In hindsight, the nightmare scenario was a Trump who actually carried out some of his promises. Imagine a Trump who didn’t just gesture at “infrastructure week,” but actually devoted serious money to it? Or who followed through on his pledge to tax the rich? Or got real on health care? The X factor here, of course, is whether the GOP would have had his back—there’s a real possibility that this counter-factual would have entailed the invocation of the twenty-fifth amendment before the end of 2017; but would also have entailed a Trump Administration that hamstrung the Democrats by, on one hand, putting forward a critical mass of policies with which they could not argue, while simultaneous enacting the cruelest and most divisive immigration policies in American history. And four years on, instead of conspiracist fantasies, his fan base could point to genuine accomplishments, while all those ambivalent suburban voters who defected to Biden could reassure themselves that Trump wasn’t just a nativist reactionary.

But now, in the hours and days after Trump’s sad and pathetic skulk out of the White House in the early hours of January 20th, we know better. We know that such strategic thinking was never in Trump’s wheelhouse. That he was and is a man of sheer compulsion without the capacity for a sober second thought—or for that matter, sober thought to start with. That even those people around him who might have thought themselves clever manipulators who could use this blunt instrument to their own ends—Steve Bannon leaps to mind—found themselves ousted the moment Trump perceived them as less than absolutely subservient. That even those staffers with altruistic intentions were tainted by their connection to him. And that, in the end, it was only the most lunatic and fanatical of his true believers whom he tolerated to have in his presence.

At the risk of people calling down Godwin’s Law on my head, I would point out that Trump desperately wants to be a fascist, but never learned the first lesson laid down by Mussolini and Hitler: get shit done. Make the trains run on time, as the saying goes. Contra Adam Serwer’s otherwise spot-on article, a halfway competent Trump would have been a catastrophe and a half.

And yet. Would even a moderately competent Trump have commanded the same authority over his base? This is the problem with counter-factual musings—they tend to assume a parallel set of circumstances with a few changed variables, but there’s no way to predict how those changes would affect the base circumstances. Trump was always something of a black swan event, even though the cultural forces he unleashed—white grievance, anti-feminist backlash, the reignition of Confederate sympathies, among others—were always present and predictable. As I said in my previous post, that a preening, vain, pompadoured New York billionaire would become the object of adulation of a segment of America wedded to guns, pickup trucks, and a nativist conception of Jesus, remains a matter of some bewilderment.

At this point, I am several years past any desire to seek empathy with the MAGA crowd. I see no reason to ameliorate my evaluation of their intellects, or, more specifically, the lack thereof. They are idiots. Deluded, pernicious idiots. And in a delicious irony—considering their sub-literate tendency to throw the label “communist” around—they are useful idiots. Useful to Trump in particular, though they may well prove too unruly for Trump’s would-be successors. It is entirely possible that Josh Hawley or Ted Cruz or Mike Pompeo might saddle this particular tiger for their ever-so-obvious presidential 2024 ambitions … but do any of them seem like a likely successor to Trump? Perhaps I’m missing something important, but I cannot see it—it seems highly improbable that any of them, or any other would-be MAGA leader, would be able to capture lightning in a bottle in the mode of Trump. The irony, in my reading, is that Hawley, Cruz et al are too nakedly ambitious; as David Von Drehle observed in the Washington Post, Trump’s adherents aren’t impressed by Joh Hawley:

Hawley believes that there exists in America a “Trump vote” somehow distinct from President Trump himself. But Trumpism is not a philosophical torch that can be passed from one runner to the next; Trumpism is nothing more or less than the star power of Trump. The senator compounds that mistake by failing to see that Trump’s star draws much of its power from the humiliation of people exactly like Josh Hawley.

Let us not forget, Drehle points out, that Trump’s rise “was built on the serial destruction of ambitious men and women with distinguished résumés, flattering suits and neat haircuts,” whom he brought low one after the other during the Republican primary—Bush, Rubio, Graham, and the rest of the clown car. Of all his conquests, only John Kasich retained something resembling dignity; Jeb Bush simply disappeared. And while it looked for a brief moment that Ted Cruz would remain a Trump antagonist—earning boos at the convention when he implored Republicans to “vote your conscience”—it wasn’t long after that that Cruz was phonebanking for the man who (fairly) labelled him “Lyin’ Ted,” as well as mocking his wife’s appearance and suggesting that his father had a hand in JFK’s assassination. I have little doubt that the spectacle of ambitious Republicans yoking their tiny wagons to Trump’s nova was a matter of deep satisfaction to Trump’s base. If there is a “new” Trump to step into his role—assuming that he’s too emburdened and embattled by lawsuits and prosecutions in the coming years to run again in 2024, which is by no means a sure thing—it will almost certainly not be somebody who has subjugated themselves to him these past few years.

My hope in the current moment is that Trump’s ignominious departure, acceding meekly in the end to the reality of his loss, his social media voice silenced, will break the spell. I’m cautiously optimistic: the Proud Boys are now disavowing and mocking him, calling him “weak” (an epithet almost as bad as “loser” in the Trump lexicon); the fact that Biden’s inauguration went ahead without a hitch rather than culminating in arrests and executions and the continuation of Trump’s presidency caused consternation among QAnon adherents; and there is a general sense of Trump’s diminishment—without the presidential bully pulpit, and without Twitter, he can no longer be a squatter in our mental real estate to the same extent.

Which is not to say we’re out of the woods: Hawley and Cruz et al will do their misguided best to vie for the love of Trump’s base, and those forces of reaction and hate that Trump cultivated and unleashed aren’t likely to just fade into the woodwork. On the other hand, I was struck by the diversity of the groups storming the Capitol two weeks ago—not diversity of race, creed, or ethnicity, but the coalition of hate and reaction represented by Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, neo-confederates, neo-Nazis, Tea Partiers, and the broad range of paramilitary and MAGA cosplayers. Granted, they all share a set of grievances (some real, mostly imagined), but the one person who served to galvanize them into a bloodthirsty mob proved not to be the god-emperor in whom they had invested their devotion.

Perhaps Trump stages a comeback. Perhaps Don Jr. will step into his father’s shoes, but he lacks the unerring cruelty of his father that so animated the MAGA crowd (he tries, bless his socks, but he’s even dumber than his dad). And perhaps there is someone waiting in the wings we haven’t anticipated.

But yesterday I saw a president speak in complete sentences and speak honest, hard truths to a nation in crisis. And after four years of cruelty, mendacity, and narcissism, that will buoy my spirit for some time to come.

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The (Ironically) Monarchical Presidency

So, five days into 2021, I’m about halfway through Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land; my partner and I just yesterday finished watching season four of The Crown; and we’re all (that is to say, everyone I know) watching with varying degrees of incredulity what we can only hope is the final phase of Donald Trump’s post-election meltdown.

While these three things might seem at best tenuously connected—I suppose they’re all about leadership in troubled times, one way or another—they comprise in my mind an oddly serendipitous trifecta. This feeling of serendipity is a product of my own idiosyncratic thought processes, to be certain, not least because I’ve found myself musing at various points over the past few years about the irony that America’s Founding Fathers, in their antipathy to kings, tyrants, and demagogues, created a system that, 227 years later, facilitated the election of a demagogic king-wannabe with a tyrannical temperament. And in the determination to create a republican rather than a parliamentary democracy, they and those who followed them introduced certain rigidities that circumscribed a presidential term of office in ways that are anathema to a parliamentary system: the absolute scheduling of elections and inaugurations, for one thing, but also, more significantly, the designation of the President as somehow different in kind from other officeholders. While a prime minister is “first among equals,” the U.S. President inhabits a dual identity—the person himself (or hopefully sometime soon, herself), coterminous with the Office of the President. Again, considering the Founders’ aversion to kings, the relationship between the president and the Office is weirdly not unlike the principle of the King’s Two Bodies, a bit of medieval legalese designed to account for how a person supposedly divinely sanctioned to rule could also be lascivious, cruel, or just generally sinful. The principle distinguishes between the corporeal, temporal, and corruptible person of the monarch, and the monarch’s eternal, divine role as God’s Anointed (if you’ve ever wondered why British kings and queens refer to themselves as “we,” this is why—they’re speaking for their two bodies).

Both conceptions entail a logic of succession: upon the death of the monarch, the title then passes to the heir; and as we’ve heard many, many times over the past several weeks, the moment Joe Biden takes the oath of office on January 20 is the very instant in which Donald Trump ceases to be President—and, if he has thus far refused to exit the White House, the same moment he becomes a trespasser to be frog-marched out of the building by the Secret Service (fingers crossed).

When I think of the logic of succession, I can’t help but think of a passage from Terry Pratchett’s novel Mort:

The only thing known to go faster than ordinary light is monarchy, according to the philosopher Ly Tin Wheedle. He reasoned like this: you can’t have more than one king, and tradition demands that there is no gap between kings, so when a king dies the succession must therefore pass to the heir instantaneously. Presumably, he said, there must be some elementary particles—kingons, or possibly queons—that do this job, but of course succession sometimes fails if, in mid-flight, they strike an anti-particle, or republicon. His ambitious plans to use his discovery to send messages, involving the careful torturing of a small king in order to modulate the signal, were never fully expanded because, at that point, the bar closed.

Except that, in the case of the U.S. constitution, the “republicon” particle repurposes the instantaneous transmission of monarchy for its own uses.

For all of the very self-consciously constructed philosophical and political distance between republicanism and monarchy, I find it oddly amusing to find such vestiges of the latter embedded in the former. While we Canadians might still constitutionally have the British Crown as our head of state—and while that might irk and chafe a good number of us—on the whole we don’t tend to think of it as that big of a deal, given the purely ceremonial nature the Queen plays. And there is something comforting in the fact of the “first among equals” principle, that we don’t invest the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) with the same sort of eternal, enduring quality as the office of the President (indeed, references in the media to the PMO figure it for what it is—a political communications shop).

But to be fair to the American system, it has largely functioned well, lo its relatively short life. Watching Trump wreak havoc on norms and behavioural expectations has been a disturbing object lesson in just how many things we assumed were matters of law were in fact just norms and behavioural expectations. In some ways, it’s remarkable that it’s taken this long for a president to test the boundaries of presidential power and privilege in such egregious ways. Even Richard Nixon treated the office with a measure of respect that is simply alien to Trump. But then, Nixon was also a career politician and, for all his faults, an intelligent man who understood the history of the U.S. republic and its laws—which is likely why he went to such length to hide his crimes, whereas Trump consistently says the quiet part out loud. In the end, however “swampy” Trump proved to be, he did ultimately prove, in this respect, his status as an outsider: an inveterate grifter, he is also simply ignorant of history and tradition and, more significantly, has no use for it. (Perhaps at their base, the most elemental characteristics of the loathed “elites” and “establishment” are a grasp of political history and a sense of that knowledge’s worth).

It is then perhaps ironic that, even as we were shocked to discover what we assumed to be laws were just norms, it was constitutionally circumscribed law that made Trump more or less untouchable for these long four years. To be certain, he was enabled by a craven and opportunistic Republican congress; but even if the G.O.P. had been inclined to stifle his more extreme behaviour, what in a parliamentary system could be resolved with a vote of no confidence is subject to a much higher bar: either the invocation of the twenty-fifth amendment, or impeachment and removal. The twenty-fifth, presumably, is still a possibility should Trump truly go off the deep end in the next two weeks, but it was never a viable option with his sycophantic cabinet and VP (two-thirds of the former and consent of the latter are required to invoke the amendment). And of course he was impeached, but a two-thirds vote in the Senate for conviction was never in the cards … as it hasn’t been historically.

All of which conspired to give Trump a level of impunity we associate with monarchs. In the words of John Mulaney, “I don’t remember that from Hamilton!”

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The Mad King in his Labyrinth

For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, I’ve been thinking these past several days about mad kings, both fictional and historical.

It started with a Facebook post, alluding to George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire—which some will know better by the HBO adaptation Game of Thrones—in which I said “We could really use a young Jaime Lannister in the White House right about now.” The allusion, which anyone who has read the novels and/or watched the series, will know, is to a key backstory plot point in which the Mad King, Aerys II, was murdered by Jaime Lannister, a member of his sworn Kingsguard—clearing the way for the usurpation of the Iron Throne by Robert Baratheon.

Martin, a keen student of history, loosely based the conflict animating the first few novels on the Wars of the Roses, the English civil wars that convulsed the nation for the better part of the fifteenth century; indeed, the two principal warring families of his series, the Starks and the Lannisters, bear more than a passing resemblance (phonetically, at any rate) with the Yorks and the Lancasters. But the Mad King himself—glimpsed only secondhand in various characters’ accounts of Robert Baratheon’s rebellion—bears a closer resemblance to the handful of lunatic Roman emperors who populated the empire’s declining years: Caligula with his murderous licentiousness, Nero’s narcissistic self-regard, and so forth. Nero was declared a public enemy by the Senate and killed himself in exile; Caligula was murdered by the Praetorian Guard. Martin borrows from a raft of such histories, which also include the killing of England’s Edward II and Richard II.

The other figure Martin’s Mad King resembles is the more contemporary dictator, reduced to paranoid, delusional ranting, surrounded by toadies and sycophants because he has banished or killed everybody who dares voice the slightest dissent. It was only a matter of time (probably minutes) before somebody did a Trump version of the much-memed bunker scene from Downfall.

The mad king—or tyrant, or dictator—is a compelling character for much the same reason that car crashes are fascinating: whether it’s Hitler in his bunker or Lear on the heath, we’re witness to the unspooling of a formerly powerful, formerly charismatic person’s mind. What has been remarkable about the Trump presidency these past few weeks is how public the unspooling has been. Historically, infirmity in the highest of offices has been hidden, as much as possible, from the public view (the examples of certain Roman emperors notwithstanding). Only a handful of royal handlers were witness to the madness of George III. When Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke late into his second term, his wife and aides kept it quiet; ditto for Ronald Reagan’s latter-day dementia. We only found out about Richard Nixon’s drunken conversations with the portraits of former presidents in the final days before his resignation years after the fact.

But then again, Trump has arguably always been unhinged—that quality of mercurial unpredictability and volcanic temper is central to reality television, after all, and it was through The Apprentice that Trump was able to reforge his public persona in such a way as to delude a critical mass of Americans into believing that he was a brilliant and canny businessman and dealmaker. I’ve lost count of how many op-eds and think pieces have made the observation that his presidency has essentially unfolded like an exhausting four years (five, counting the campaign) of reality television conventions and tropes. He is himself not unaware of this fact; it is an open question of whether his tendency to do or say something outrageous when news unflattering to him breaks is a deliberate distraction strategy, or simply Trump being jealous of the spotlight.

But now we’re in the endgame. True to form, he’s playing a character, however inadvertently: sequestered in the White House, his general avoidance of the public eye speaks about as loudly as his all-caps tweets. Structurally, it is a bizarre situation, by which I mean the mad king in his labyrinth would normally be invisible to all but his closest advisors, some of whom would trot out to podiums every so often to offer anodyne updates. But of course this White House, as my mother would say, leaks like a chimney (as opposed to smoking like a sieve), and so we have frequent reports of Trump brooding, and details of the argument within his inner circle about whether to convince him to concede or keep fighting. But even without such leaks, we still have the logorrhea of Trump’s Twitter feed to keep us abreast of his downward spiral into increasingly deranged conspiracy theories about George Soros and Dominion Software voting machines. And of course we also have his devoted sycophants, like Rudy Giuliani and Lindsey Graham, taking every possible opportunity to go on television and propagate his paranoid maunderings.

The one bright spot in all of this is that at least there’s an expiration date: January 20, 2021, obviates the need for a Jaime Lannister or a Praetorian Guard. Which is fortunate for Trump.

Though that would make for good TV.

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Thoughts on Petards and Hoisting

For an embarrassingly long time, I assumed the expression “hoisted on his own petard” had something to do with someone being strung up on a flagpole, and that “petard” was an archaic term for flag or pennant. As is often the case with colloquialisms, I didn’t examine it too closely—if I had, I might have noticed that the general sense of the expression (i.e. one of poetic justice) did not quite square with a flag-raiser somehow hoisting themself along with the flag. It was only when I took a graduate class on Shakespeare that I learned he coined the expression, that it was from a textual variant of Hamlet, and that the expression is “hoist with his own petard.”

I further learned that a petard was a crude bomb used in late-medieval siege warfare, at a time when gunpowder had been developed, but reliably safe delivery systems had not. A petard was a bell-shaped bomb with a wooden base, which was attached to the gate of a castle or fortified town, or placed underneath the wall. Then the bombardier lit the fuse and ran like hell. Thing was, these bombs weren’t particularly reliable, and often blew up the bombers as well. Shakespeare uses “hoist” to mean “lift,” or as we might express it, blowed up real good.

I’ve seen this expression being used a lot these past few days—both correctly and incorrectly—for reasons that should probably be obvious.

I lost a day of work last Friday. As has so often happened during the Trump presidency, a specific news item effectively blotted out all other thought and left me stewing in anger and worry, trying to put my thoughts into some kind of order. What ultimately resulted was a long Facebook post, which read as follows:

I am so. Fucking. Angry right now.

I hate the fact that my instinctive reaction to the news of Trump’s diagnosis was a kind of schadenfreudistc glee, a smug satisfaction at poetic justice. It angers me that I feel this way, because it means that, in one small sense, he has won—he has infected me, albeit minimally, with the spite and cruelty that is his only mode of being.

And it infuriates me that, no matter what the outcome, he will have again succeeded in making a bad situation worse. If it proves to be a mild case from which he recovers quickly—which is probably the best scenario here—he will use that as vindication for his claim that COVID is no big deal; that his opponents have been making mountains out of molehills all this time; and it will encourage his supporters to flout masks and social distancing even more than they do now. And there will be others whose genuine fears about the disease will be falsely alleviated.

If his case proves more serious and he has to be hospitalized up to or past election day, the kind of violence and unrest we’ve been dreading will likely be worse than anticipated. His most ardent followers will take to the streets demanding that the election be cancelled or postponed, and if he loses they will call it illegitimate. If Trump survives, he will join that chorus and amp it up even more. His Congressional sycophants will do the same. Perhaps this is a situation in which more moderate Republicans will finally grow a spine, but I think that is entirely dependent on whether Mitch McConnell sees himself keeping the Senate majority or not—if he does, he’ll probably be happy to see Trump’s exit, but if not, expect him to want a do-over too. A do-over if we’re lucky, as that scenario assumes that Republicans don’t seize the opportunity to simply annul the election result and call for martial law.

And if Trump dies, he will have won. I don’t want him dead—I want him standing on his own two feet as he’s delivered a humiliating electoral defeat, I want to see him return to a private life with fraud indictments waiting and a massive amount of debt coming due. I want him to be alive for all of the revelations that will come in the aftermath of his tenure as president. If he dies now, he becomes a martyr and a rallying-cry for white supremacists, neo-nazis, and all of the people who found his brand of cruelty inspiring rather than repellent. If he dies now, he never has to face any consequences for the catastrophic mess he’s gleefully caused.

All of this because he’s too narcissistic and self-obsessed to grasp that the office of the president is one of public service, and that him contracting COVID-19 has such dire implications for everyone else. All of this because he’s too narcissistic and self-obsessed to model good behaviour, to wear a mask, to take a once-in-a-century pandemic seriously for reasons beyond his own self-interests. That he has been afflicted with a disease he’s spent eight months dismissing, downplaying, and ignoring isn’t poetic justice, it’s a potential catastrophe for the nation he took an oath to serve.

So, yeah … last Friday was a weird day.

I made the post public, and it was shared over ninety times—which is as close as I’ve ever come to going viral. Apparently I articulated a lot of other people’s inchoate thoughts, or, as some responses indicated, presented possible scenarios that hadn’t occurred to them.

I’m feeling rather a lot better now. I’m even feeling cautiously … what’s the word? Optimistic? Is optimism even a thing anymore? It’s a strange sensation.

I am still dreading what happens November 3rd and afterward. Even if this election turns into a Biden landslide, there is still a lot of potential for Trump, along with his enablers and ardent followers, to make mischief. But my sense at the moment is that the mood has shifted—that Trump, in catching COVID, has been hoist with his own petard. When I posted my thoughts last Friday, an old friend of mine pushed back in the comments, suggesting that I was overestimating the devotion of Trump’s base—that these were people who, having gone all-in on the façade of Trump as strongman, would fall away from him at any perception of weakness … which, in their minds, would entail admitting to an illness their idol had spent eight months dismissing and downplaying. I replied to my friend that I hoped he was right, but that he might be underestimating the conspiracism of his base—that if Trump were to get gravely ill or die, it would all be characterized as a nefarious plot by the Deep State.

It was interesting, then, that the initial conspiratorial thinking came from the anti-Trump side. A not-insignificant number of people were immediately skeptical, seeing the diagnosis as a ploy to (1) elicit sympathy for Trump; (2) distract the news media from his disastrous debate performance, the revelations about his taxes, and the release of recordings of Melania saying vile things; (3) allow Trump mouthpieces to point at the inevitable schadenfreude as proof of the Left’s hatefulness; and (4) most importantly, allow Trump to emerge after a few days looking hale and healthy as proof that the coronavirus was never the big deal Trump’s opponents made it out to be.

Well … Trump et al are certainly trying to make hay out of #4, but they’re not quite sticking the landing, and those voicing skepticism have mostly fallen silent. For one thing, it becomes more difficult to believe it’s all a fake when there is obvious confusion within the White House as to how to communicate a coherent message—something made more difficult by the contradictory reports emerging from Trump’s medical team. One assumes that if this was all  a conspiracy to fake an illness, the messaging would be more consistent (that being said, however, we should never underestimate the incompetence of this White House to do anything). Also, the ever-increasing number of Republican senators, Trump’s inner circle, White House aides, and (most infuriatingly) White House staff, that have been infected, at once makes it less likely that they’re all in on the con, and also makes the virulence of this virus painfully evident.

And finally, there is the fact of Trump’s behaviour itself, which makes it difficult to believe that he would ever agree to a plan that would make him look weak (and as my friend also said, saying “I got sick with the hoax” is just bad branding). His little joyride in a hermetically sealed SUV so he could wave to his supporters was just twenty kinds of pathetic, more so when it was leaked that Trump chose to put the Secret Service agents who had to ride with him, who now have to quarantine, in danger because he was “bored.” And then there was the sight of him, upon returning to the White House, obviously struggling for breath.

I’m cautiously optimistic that this might be the moment when some Trump devotees start seeing through the con. Because I think my friend was right: if your entire brand is bound up in a particular conception of strength and manliness, any chinks in that façade can be deadly. The bluster and bullying that so many of us find repellent, his absolute refusal to ever admit error or give ground even in the face of overwhelming evidence—indeed, his constant doubling-down on his mendacity—has always been integral to the Trumpian projection of strength. Such niceties as facts, science, evidence, and reason don’t matter to his most ardent supporters, because the point has always been the illusion of Trump as vanquisher of the Establishment, the snowflakes and SJWs, the libtards, the Deep State. Anything that might contradict this illusion is obviously a confection of a confederacy of the aforementioned enemies.

But when the Man Himself admits to getting sick with something he has roundly dismissed, that becomes problematic. That Trump knows as much is obvious from his recent posturing, as he claims that catching the virus is a demonstration of his courage; but he is also obviously flailing, tweeting and calling into Fox News to revisit his greatest hits about Hillary’s emails, “Obamagate,” and the FBI spying on his campaign. Desperate to hold rallies again, he has declared himself “cured,” in defiance of everything we know about the coronavirus.

Perhaps this will work for him, but it feels like the golden toilet is starting to shed its gilt.

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Fear Itself

When I was young and first watched The Empire Strikes Back, I was, as you might imagine, enthralled. But there was one part of Yoda’s now-notorious dictum that always unsettled me: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” I got the anger–>hate–>suffering equation; but I was agnostic about fear as the root of it all. I was, I should admit, an easily frightened child; I grew up into an easily frightened adult, especially where scary films are concerned. So the idea that fear could lead me to the dark side was more than just vaguely disturbing. Wait, I thought—I’m afraid of sharks. That could make me a Sith? I spent much of my childhood being afraid of the dark, and slept under my covers for longer than I care to admit. And it seemed to me utterly unreasonable that Luke Skywalker should not be terrified of facing the many threats before him, not least of which was the implacable evil of Darth Vader himself. Given that I had it on good authority (i.e. my parents) that courage and bravery was not about not being afraid, but being afraid and doing the scary thing anyway, I wondered if perhaps Yoda wasn’t asking rather a lot.

I suppose this says something about the difference between children’s and adults’ understanding of fear, and the way they experience it: I would of course later understand that Yoda wasn’t speaking of specific, circumstantial fear, which is the kind of fear we tend to experience as children—the monster under the bed, things that go bump in the night—but rather the more existential fears that have to do with who we are and how we see ourselves, and how we might continue on in the world.

It occurs to me that the bizarre arms race that gender reveal parties have become hews fairly neatly to Yoda’s dictum. The original idea, which involved making cakes with pink or blue interiors, was somewhat twee and painfully white-suburban from the start, but at least it was inoffensive—an excuse for a weekend afternoon of chardonnay and canapes. How that escalated into using alligators, go-karts, and explosives, is perhaps a question best addressed by sociologists, but let me offer a thought: at a moment in which the binarisms of gender are more and more eroded by the visibility of trans and non-binary people, and the language of trans rights becomes more ubiquitous (along with that of such detractors as Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro), the militant assertion of birth-bestowed gender is an unfortunate but not unforeseeable reaction. Were it to remain in the realm of cakes and balloons it would be innocuous, but as wildfires in Arizona and California attest, there is a not-insignificant number of people who want to assert their unborn child’s gender by literally blowing shit up.

The fear here is not difficult to grasp: the apparent upending of what has been for most people the most elemental feature of identity we have known. Gender has long been the easiest binary, and the most disconcerting one to have troubled. The thing is, anger isn’t the next inevitable step; but then, fear is not itself inevitable, unless one finds their sense of identity threatened. Then, anger is more likely, and at a moment when Facebook and YouTube algorithms will likely connect you to other angry people (like the aforementioned transphobic asshats), hatred can be a short trip. All of which might well convince you that making an explosive box filled with Schrödinger’s gender powder and setting it off in a place that hasn’t had rain in half a year is a good idea—because that’ll show those SJW snowflakes.

And suffering? Well …

The fear of which Yoda spoke was the same conception of fear invoked by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 1933 inaugural speech (and yes, I did just mention Yoda and FDR in the same sentence—life goals!). “There is nothing to fear but fear itself” is another dictum my young self found questionable, because sharks. But of course, FDR was talking about the same nebulous societal and cultural fear as Yoda, fear born of ignorance. Fear, after all, can be galvanizing—it can inspire courage and solidarity. But when we are uncertain of what we’re afraid of, and only know that we are in fact afraid, that is when reason gives way to anger and hate. Doris Kearns Goodwin has recently pointed out that the oft-quoted “fear itself” line of FDR’s speech is really only comprehensible in the context of a line immediately preceding it: “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today.” It was in speaking truth about the hardships facing the nation, and the difficult road ahead, Roosevelt asserted, that the blight of fear could be obviated.

And as Jill Lepore observes in These Truths, her magisterial history of the U.S., FDR employed the relatively new medium of radio to unite a nation with his Sunday evening “fireside chats”—in which he would explain what his government was doing; why it was doing it; and how it would affect ordinary Americans. In this way, Roosevelt talked the nation through the worst of the Great Depression, and was its anchor through the Second World War.

Which is why it was acutely galling to read that, in the wake of the revelations made by Bob Woodward this week, Fox News host and Trump’s putative shadow chief of staff, Sean Hannity, compared Trump’s handling of the coronavirus to FDR’s tenure as president:

Did President Roosevelt fan the flames of misery? Did he call for panic and anxiety? No, he actually rallied a nation in a time of need. He focused on making Americans stronger by staying positive, and he got to work and he rolled up his sleeves. During World War II, with the country on the brink, FDR proclaimed, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Well, those were brutally tough times. Did the media attack him? Of course not … The president’s job is to maintain order, and by the way, right the ship during and after a crisis, not spread panic, not spreading fear among the population. Let’s make one thing perfectly clear, President Trump has never misled or distorted the truth about this deadly disease.

This, it should be pointed out, was in defense of Trump’s comments to Bob Woodward that he deliberately downplayed the severity of the coronavirus so as to avoid a panic. Leaving aside the fact that there hasn’t been a panic Trump didn’t gleefully inflame, let’s recall two points I made just a moment ago: first, FDR spoke of “fear itself” in reference to the Great Depression, not WWII (which might seem a persnickety quibble, were it not for the fact that Hannity’s historical error came during a bit titled “Hannity’s History Lesson”); second, FDR espoused radical honesty. His very first fireside chat was about the week-long “bank holiday,” in which banks across the nation were closed so that the government could instantiate federal deposit insurance in the interim. Banks had been closing all across the U.S. since the crash of 1929, with millions of people losing their savings (remember that scene from It’s A Wonderful Life?); having the president talk the sixty million people listening through the rationale for the bank holiday not only soothed their fears, it enlisted them in FDR’s project.

The best responses to any national crisis always proceed from honesty. The greatest insult proceeding from Trump’s ostensible concern about “panic” is how profoundly it condescends to the electorate.

The thing is, aside from getting the timing of FDR’s “fear itself” line wrong, Hannity wasn’t wrong about anything else—until he says, “President Trump has never misled or distorted the truth about this deadly disease.” I don’t know if we can even call this gaslighting, as gaslighting at least entails a measure of subtlety. This is simple, outright lying, mendacity directed at an audience that doesn’t need to be gaslit. Which makes me think that Yoda possibly needed a prefatory condition for fear: ignorance.

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

Screen Shot 2020-05-06 at 11.22.38 AM

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: 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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Revolutionary Thoughts

76 vs. 89

I had an odd thought yesterday morning, apropos of what I’m about to write about in this post, but I thought it was funny enough in the weird connection it makes to lead off with it.

The musicals Hamilton and Rent don’t have very much in common besides being huge Broadway hits and featuring generally attractive, youthful casts. But they do both focus on ensembles of people who fancy themselves revolutionaries: in the first case, the ardent young men who become the United States’ founding fathers; in the second, a ragtag group of bohemian would-be artists who rebel against the suffocating strictures of mainstream culture. The title song of Rent signals their first act of resistance upon receiving an eviction notice. The song agonizes over how they’re “gonna pay last year’s rent,” but by the end resolves:

When they act tough—you call their bluff
We’re not gonna pay
We’re not gonna pay
We’re not gonna pay
Last year’s rent
This year’s rent
Next year’s rent
Rent rent rent rent rent
We’re not gonna pay rent

Whenever I think of Rent or hear its music, it always puts me in mind of the late great David Rakoff’s eviscerating critique of the musical (which you can listen to here), in which he points out that none of the play’s would-be artists seem ever to want to do the work of being artists. But his key bone of contention is: “Well … why won’t you pay your rent?” At the very end of his essay, he recounts, of his agonistic 20s:

There were days when it hardly seemed worth it to live in a horrible part of town just so that I could go daily to a stupid, soul-crushing, low-paying job, especially since, as deeply as I yearned to be creative, for years and years I was too scared to even try. So I did nothing. But here’s something that I did do. I paid my fucking rent.

It occurs to me, perhaps uncharitably, that the Revolutionary War part of Hamilton is basically the founding fathers chanting “We’re not gonna pay rent!—albeit with better songs and a somewhat more nuanced rationale for why they’re not gonna pay rent than their bohemian counterparts.

***

I had this weird thought after reading a column by Bret Stephens, one of the New York Times representative conservatives, titled “Robespierre’s America.” Happily, the TL;DR is in the subtitle: “We need to reclaim the spirit of 1776, not the certitudes of 1789.”

If you’re at all familiar with Stephens’ columns, you probably know what’s coming: an invective against the woke sanctimony of the politically correct left, compared unfavourably with the reason and rationality of the Enlightenment principles on which the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were based. He enumerates a series of excesses—starting with his own victimization at the hands of a Twitter mob for calling Reza Aslan stupid—mostly recounted in the abstract, referring to professors afraid to offend students and publishers dropping books at the first whiff of controversy, comparing the ideological rigidity of the woke left to that of the Jacobins:

“Armed with the ‘truth,’ Jacobins could brand any individuals who dared to disagree with them traitors or fanatics,” historian Susan Dunn wrote of the French Revolution. “Any distinction between their own political adversaries and the people’s ‘enemies’ was obliterated.”

Leaving aside the egregious comparison of Twitter warriors with people who literally decapitated thousands, let’s address the implicit comparison Stephens makes between the American Revolution and the French—implicit, because he never explains what he means by the “spirit of 1776.” One assumes he’s citing the tacit understanding of America’s founding as rooted in and emerging from Enlightenment principles of reason, rationality, and spirited public debate—the very understanding, indeed, that made it possible for Lin-Manuel Miranda to write compelling rap battles about the creation of a national bank and the wisdom of carrying a national debt. Certainly, that’s the implied contrast with the ideological fanaticism of Robespierre and his murderous Jacobin thugs.

Normally, this sort of thing wouldn’t bother me overmuch—I find Bret Stephens’ columns annoying, but predictable and forgettable—but given that yesterday was the Fourth of July, I found myself in a headspace to think about 1776 and the American Revolution, so to me the most glaring aspect of “Robespierre’s America” is the way it so perfectly recapitulates—albeit implicitly—certain fallacies not just about the American Revolution, but revolutions generally.

I tend to be leery of revolutions, given that history teaches us that, the more extreme they are, the more they tend to turn into versions of their own worst selves. Hence, the French Revolution devolves into the Terror; the Russian Revolution turns into Stalinism. The fact that the American Revolution did not transform into something equally pernicious has been cited as evidence of American Exceptionalism, which is at least partially true; but I would argue that the principal reason the American Revolution had a relatively placid aftermath (yes, a lot of Loyalists were persecuted, often egregiously, but that hardly compares to 1790s Paris) is that nothing really changed. The radicalism of 1776 wasn’t that of material effect, but of promise—not what actually changed on the ground, but what could possibly change in the future.

For all intents and purposes, there were no upheavals in American life after the Declaration of Independence (well, aside from the war itself), by which I mean that the people in charge stayed in charge, and the power structures of the new United States were not appreciably different from the power structures of the Colonies. The King was not beheaded; the King was not even dethroned. George III basically had his status as absentee landlord revoked.

Hence my thought about Hamilton and Rent: the Boston Tea Party was basically a defiant gesture saying “We’re not gonna pay rent! Rent rent rent rent rent!”, as was the conflict that followed, and that defiant gesture is celebrated today as it was then. But after turfing the Brits, you bloody well better believe you’re paying your rent to the new owners.

By contrast, the French Revolution was about the radical overthrow of extant power, power so rooted in history, religion, and tradition that it went by the name of the ancien regime. And because of the weight of that history, it took decades to stabilize, something exacerbated by the fact that the rest of Europe was undergoing similar political upheavals. Is it any wonder that, mere years after guillotining the king, France had an Emperor?

(All of this is very broad strokes and probably has my historian friends pulling their hair out.)

As I said above, the true radicalism of 1776 wasn’t about the founding fathers’ present moment, but about the future—about what the principles of the Constitution and Bill of Rights could and can do when they become uncomfortably unavoidable. I’d argue that the true American Revolution—which is to say, the truly revolutionary moment in American history—wasn’t 1776 and the aftermath, but the Civil War. The confederates might have been the rebels, but Lincoln was the revolutionary, insofar as that the abolition of slavery overturned a foundational basis of American society. No such upending occurred in 1776, and the principle of revolutions turning into their worst selves has been painfully present in the U.S. since Andrew Johnson reversed all of the provisions made for newly freed slaves during Reconstruction, and white people in the South embarked on a sustained campaign of terror against them.

(To say nothing of everything that has happened since then, which I can’t do justice to here. If you haven’t already, read Ta-Nehisi Coates landmark essay “The Case for Reparations”).

Stephens’ opposition of “the spirit of 1776” to “the certitudes of 1789” completely glosses the material circumstances of both. The Revolutionary era of America comprises one of the most astounding argumentative ferments of history, with the debates over democracy, individual rights, proper governance, the best ways to defy and prevent tyranny, and myriad other considerations, taking place in taverns, drawing-rooms, the streets, and, most importantly, in print, with pamphlets and newspapers flying back and forth in paper fusillades. It was a period that evinced precisely the kind of civic engagement to which we should aspire, but always with one crucial caveat in mind: it was the provenance of what we today call privilege, and it has largely remained so ever since. The irony of Stephens’ longing for the “spirit of 1776” as inspired by having been savaged on Twitter, is that had the spirit of that era been as inclusive in practice as it was in principle, we might not be experiencing quite the same polarization today. Stephens’ Twitter Jacobins aren’t analogous to Robespierre, but to the citizens who stormed the Bastille: people finding a voice, voice which had previously been denied to them, through newly available means.

Speaking of revolutions that turn into their worst selves: the tech and digital revolution, specifically the rise of the internet, was heralded by many in the early-mid 1990s as a utopian shift in human connection and collective knowledge; quarter of a century later, we can see clearly how, even where some aspects of that dream have been realized, the benefits are ambivalent at best. But one key element of digital culture is that it has eroded the prominence of traditional gatekeepers of public discourse in print and visual media, allowing for a host of other platforms online or in social media. These platforms give voice to people who long went unheard, and it should not come as a huge shock that a lot of these voices are angry. It is difficult to try and make the case for “the spirit of 1776” to groups of people for whom, historically, that place within spirited public debate was never an option.

I have to believe, however, that that particular spirit isn’t dead, and if the Bret Stephens of the world would pay closer attention to the nuanced and thoughtful arguments unfolding both in “legacy” media and the new, insurgent spaces (and less attention to Twitter), they might be less convinced that there’s a tumbrel waiting for them. Of course, that’s likely a futile suggestion: more likely, it is precisely the growing presence of previously marginalized voices that threatens them and gives rise to the spectre of a guillotine with their name on it.

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Ranking the Democratic Candidates. Also, What Job They Should Have.

I cannot watch political debates without playing out in my mind what I would have said. Long before the first debates between the painfully swollen field of Democrats, I’d composed a line in my head that went something like this: “I want to say for the record that everyone here on this stage with me is extraordinary, and it gives me great hope for our future that so many talented, intelligent people are vying for the nomination. And if I may add, I make a promise here: if I am so fortunate as to earn the nomination for the presidency, you can bet that everyone on this stage with me will have a role in my administration.”

Of course, there’s a certain amount of bullshit packed into that platitude: I would be deeply suspicious of anybody, for example, who employed Marianne Williamson. But in broad strokes, I think that sentiment works. What I’ve listed here is my ranking of the Democratic candidates, in order of my preference, but also with the jobs I think they should have going forward.

debate

1. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris: President.

Yup, these two are in a dead heat for me. Prior to the first debates, I was totally Team Warren. I still mostly am, but watching Kamala Harris vivisect Joe Biden was a good reminder of her intellect and, perhaps more importantly, her killer instinct. I’m now of the mindset that, even if Harris doesn’t get the nomination, she should still debate Trump: because that is something we all need to see.

I love Elizabeth Warren and have loved her since the first moment I saw her interviewed. She makes billionaires’ bowels turn to water, and in the present moment, that’s a great thing. She’s fearless, she’s brilliant, and she loves a good fight. I think the most endearing moment for me of Hilary Clinton’s campaign was when Hilary got excited over a question posed during one of the debates, and gave a delighted smile and a little shoulder wiggle. That few seconds is Elizabeth Warren ALL THE TIME. She’s basically Hermione Granger as a presidential candidate.

I do not, however, see them sharing a ticket. I think that if it ends up being President Harris, Elizabeth Warren needs to be either Treasury or Commerce secretary—ideally with the Consumer Protection Bureau once again under her aegis. If it’s President Warren, then Kamala Harris needs to be Attorney General. That’s just science.

2.Pete Buttigieg: Vice President, or, conversely, Governor of Indiana.

Mayor Pete has been a breakout candidate, largely due to the fact that he’s hellishly impressive. He’s also a wee bit callow and unseasoned, and needs time in an office not oval-shaped to grow into his potential. At the age of thirty-seven, he has an awful lot of years to do so. Practically speaking, I’d like to see him parlay his newfound visibility into a gubernatorial run, which would benefit the Democrats more than almost anything else he could do. On the other hand, the prospect of watching him debate Mike Pence almost overrules practical concerns for me.

3. Cory Booker: Attorney General? I guess? Or possibly VP?

Cory Booker’s an odd figure, for me … I always want to be more impressed with him than I am. He’s a compelling person with an inspiring message, but he lapses too often into vague appeals to love. It’s not that I don’t find that inspiring, it just makes me wonder what’s going on behind the curtains. Early on, I thought of him as Barack Obama’s heir apparent—a telegenic African-American man with a general message of positivity, but he lacks Obama’s gravitas, and Obama’s obvious grasp of the more granular aspects of policy and history.

4. Amy Klobuchar: stay in the Senate.

Before his ignominy, I listened to Al Franken’s book Giant of the Senate on audiobook, and one of the key take-aways was just how impressive Klobuchar is. This was well before she was bandied about as a presidential possibility—indeed, at the time Franken was considered a more likely candidate—so when she rose to prominence during the Bret Kavanaugh hearings, I already felt like I had a good sense of who she was. The picture painted in Franken’s book is of a frighteningly competent legislator. I would not object to her nomination as candidate, but my general sense is that she does enormous good where she is (reported temper tantrums with he staff excepted).

5. Julian Castro: Secretary of Homeland Security.

Julian had a good debate night, and I quite like him. I don’t think he has any traction for the big job, but he’s obviously talented, ambitious, and very smart. I’d be happy to see him run for Senate or take on the task of repairing all the damage Ben Carson’s done at his old post as HUD secretary, but his powerful words on immigration during the debate make me think he might be just the right person to fix all the shit perpetrated by the current administration, starting with the radical reformation or outright abolition of ICE.

6. Bernie Sanders: take one for the team and retire.

Left-wing American politics owes a massive debt to Bernie Sanders: his insurgent challenge to Hilary Clinton in 2016 did more to move the center of political gravity leftwards than anything since FDR. Let’s keep in mind that nothing Bernie proposes is genuinely “radical” or even technically socialist, but tends to conform to the status quo of most of the democratic world. He recently outlined the ways in which his self-applied label of “socialist” applies, but ultimately what he described makes it clear he’s really a New Deal liberal. Which is not of course a problem, except that it highlights the degree to which he relishes his outsider status and relies upon a combativeness that he substitutes for policy substance.

He’s a brilliant rabble-rouser, but would make a terrible president.

7. Kirsten Gillibrand: stay in the Senate.

I have always been underwhelmed by Gillibrand, and continue to be. I think her most useful role is to stay right where she is.

8. Joe Biden: respectfully: please just go away. I love you. But seriously.

I was once at the gym, listening to a podcast that replayed, in its entirety, a speech that Biden delivered to an audience of military families who had had relatives killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He went off-script in the first few minutes, sharing with the people there his own story of grief, of how his wife and child were killed in a car crash just after he had been elected to the Senate. Come on, people, he said, his voice getting husky, commiserating with them how useless and impotent others’ expressions of grief—however well-meaning—are in the face of such enormous loss.

As I said, I was at the gym as I listened to this, and had to stop what I was doing and face a wall to hide the fact that tears were streaming down my cheeks. And I thought to myself: this is a politician? I had not understood Obama’s decision to go with Biden until that moment, and I have had an abiding love for the man ever since.

But. He might have been a useful and possibly necessary balance to Obama’s cool, but everything Obama brought to the office (i.e. the main reason Biden is still leading the polls), Biden lacks. Even leaving aside his legislative baggage and lack of message discipline, the very premise of his candidacy—that Trump is an aberration and he can return comity to Congress—is, or should be, disqualifying. For one thing, it suggests he wasn’t paying attention during his eight years as Obama’s VP, when congressional Republicans turned themselves into unrepentant obstructionists. His problematic callbacks to halcyon days of cooperation are bizarrely amnesiac.

His choice to make his campaign all about Trump is similarly obtuse. The biggest threat liberals and leftists face—in terms of their own thinking—is to imagine that any one person is the problem, whether it be Trump in the U.S. or Doug Ford in Ontario. Simply removing Trump from office doesn’t return us to a prelapsarian state of bliss and balance. Anyone who doesn’t grasp the fact that Trump is the symptom and not the disease needs to take a powder.

9. Jay Inslee: Secretary of Climate.

So far there has been distressingly little discussion of the climate crisis among the Democratic candidates. If we’re being charitable, we can chalk that up to the fact that there’s probably a consensus that it is a crisis and requires significant governmental action, and hence the candidates understandably choose to put their focus elsewhere. If we’re being uncharitable—which I think is the wiser choice—they’re avoiding the issue because practical solutions lose traction with voters the moment they understand what the cost will be. People want action on climate in the abstract, but become far more reluctant when it means paying more at the pump.

I like that Jay Inslee is in the race as a single-issue candidate. My sense is that he knows he has no chance, but he’s determined to make everyone pay attention to his issue. Good on him. I hope he sticks it out as long as he can, and forces the front-runners to speak to his issue. Hopefully one upshot is the creation of a new cabinet position: a secretary dedicated to climate solutions.

10. Andrew Yang: Secretary of Tech.

Climate is one issue that deserves its own cabinet enclave; the tech industry is another.

One of the things that has become painfully obvious in the past few years is that the tech industry has completely outstripped government’s capacity to understand it. Some of the most cringe-inducing moments of political theatre in recent memory involved septuagenarian lawmakers asking inane questions of people like Mark Zuckerberg. The key part of the problem is how few people—both within government and without—genuinely understand the nuances of Silicon Valley. Elizabeth Warren’s plan to break up such monoliths as Facebook and Amazon is a pretty good start, but I’d say it’s past time there was a part of government solely dedicated to the tech industry, staffed with people who actually understand its ins and outs, but also—and this is a crucial thing—aren’t acolytes of its utopian promises.

Is Andrew Yang that person? Quite possibly. Whenever I see him interviewed, I find myself nodding along to a lot of what he says, while also thinking to myself that he would be a catastrophic president. Like Jay Inslee, he’s too much of a single-issue guy, but has obviously thought long and in great depth on that issue. He’s a tech dude who’s obviously developed a healthy skepticism about tech, which is the kind of thing the world badly needs.

11. Beto O’Rourke: honestly? I don’t care.

This bit is actually an edit, as I forgot about Beto on my first go-around. I think he’s more impressive than most of the field of bland white guys, but at this point? Not by much. He did a great job campaigning against Ted Cruz, and mobilizing a moribund progressive electorate in Texas, but he hasn’t shown much substance since throwing his hat in the presidential ring.

12. Tulsi Gabbard: Secretary of Defense

Hear me out on this one: she’s a veteran, and made her anti-war sentiments quite plain during the debates. Possibly someone who could shake up the Pentagon in ways it dearly needs. She wouldn’t be my first choice for SecDef, but it would be far preferable to have here there than in the Oval.

13. Miscellaneous white men (Tim Ryan, Bill De Blasio, John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Michael Bennet, Eric Swalwell, Joe Sestak, Steve Bullock, Seth Moulton, Wayne Messam): RUN FOR SOMETHING OTHER THAN PRESIDENT.

I don’t like lumping all of these guys into a single undifferentiated category, as it’s obvious many of them have talents and intelligence not so obviously on display in such a crowded field, but SERIOUSLY. Democrats have been living the nightmare of having focused so specifically on presidential races for too long. Who’s in the Oval Office matters less and less depending on how many senators, House representatives, and governors—to say nothing of the composition of state legislatures—are the opposing party.

 

14. Marianne Williamson: You’re perfect where you are, don’t change.

Honestly, people: can we in all good conscience allow such a sensitive soul to inhabit the punishing office of the presidency?

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The Politics of Meanness

The word “mean” is typical of the glorious clusterfuck that is the English language, insofar as that it wears many hats. Generally speaking, our first encounter with the word was probably to sound a note of wounded complaint: someone was being mean to us. “Stop being mean!” “He’s such a meanie.” And so on. As our vocabularies grew, we developed a more nuanced quiver of words that spelled out the spectrum of what being “mean” might be, distinguishing between thoughtlessness, selfishness, cruelty, spite, or just general assholery.

But “mean” has its own subtleties as well, connoting not just cruelty but a certain kind of small-mindedness. To be a mean person can entail a sense of willful ignorance, especially ignorance of the value of the intangible or ephemeral. It can also connote a lack of generosity or compassion, the short-sightedness of NIMBYism or the inability to see value in anything that does not yield immediate benefit. To be mean is to dislike seeing others benefit. To be mean is to lack empathy.

I’m ruminating on this semantic question because it helps articulate something about our present moment, which is a moment in which the politics of meanness threatens to become the status quo.

doug-ford

I lived in Ontario for the first thirty-three years of my life; I went to university and grad school there, and now work as an educator. Which means that a significant proportion of people with whom I’m friends on social media live in Ontario and work in education at all levels, from grade school through high school, at colleges and universities and in libraries. What this further means is that for the past year my news feed on Facebook has consistently featured friends’ anger, incredulity, and despair at whatever indignities Doug Ford’s government has recently inflicted on Ontario’s education system.

To many who lived through the 1990s, it feels like déjà vu, a terrible throwback to the Mike Harris years and the assault perpetrated on the educational system by his minister of education John Snobelen—a man who had no background in the field, and came into the job determined to “create a crisis in education.” I felt very keenly the effects of Snobelen’s high-handed and contemptuous treatment of teachers and schools, as my father was a grade school principal at the time. What was worst to watch was my father’s mounting bafflement as Harris and Snobelen went through the education budgets like buzzsaws, with little to no concern for the effect their cuts had on students. It was particularly hurtful for my dad because he and my mom had both voted conservative in that election, buying into the rhetoric of Harris’ “Common Sense Revolution” and the promise to right the fiscal ship after what they saw as the New Democrats’ feckless mismanagement. I’m probably cutting myself out of the will by revealing this, as the years of Harris’ regime cured them of their conservative leanings, which had at any rate always been more about financial conservatism. Their conservative party had always been that of Bill Davis and Joe Clark, the sort of avuncular Tories whose politics a left-wing type might disagree with, but whose compassion and public-spiritedness was not in doubt. What my parents didn’t grasp until it was too late—what my father learned particularly acutely—was that Harris and his ilk embodied a politics of meanness. My dad’s bafflement at John Snobelen’s evisceration of the educational system was the confusion of a dedicated educator who could not understand the rationale behind the cruelty of the cuts. It was only after months of the Harris government’s sustained assault that he came to understand that the cruelty was the point. Harris and Snobelen hated teachers, were in fact antagonistic to the very idea of education more broadly, and the “Common Sense Revolution’s” project of budget-slashing austerity was a very blunt tool for carrying out a mean-spirited revenge, and ultimately drove my father into early retirement.

Fast-forward to the present moment. Doug Ford is basically Mike Harris on steroids, but lacks even the patina of ideological veneer that informed Harris. Everything he has done since taking office has had the quality of a bully’s taunt. Like Donald Trump, he revels in being antagonistic, and his most devoted followers love nothing better than enraging liberals, leftists, and “elites”—this last term which has come to connote not social status but a kind of attitude, in which a millennial with an MFA in creative writing earning minimum wage qualifies, but not the premier who was born heir to millions and spent the better part of his professional life in the corridors of political power. Ford and his followers really might as well change his slogan from “For the People” to “NERRRRRRDS!” That would at least be more honest in terms of his policy preoccupations, to say nothing of his general disposition, personality-wise.

Whatever complaints one may have about the Liberals’ long tenure from 2003 to 2018 under Dalton McGuinty and then Kathleen Wynne, the province’s investment in education during this period saw great dividends, with high school graduation rates rising from 68% to 86.5%. That fifteen-year interval tells its own story, namely that these changes take time and diligence, and also that the greater effects are likely always going to be intangible. Speaking as a professor in the humanities, I’m all about the intangibles: getting a degree in English or languages or philosophy or history doesn’t train you for a specific job, necessarily, but there is an innate value to learning to read and write critically. There is an innate value, also, to taking drama in high school, or learning an instrument, exploring your creativity, or just opening your mind up to new ideas and stories.

empty-class

Unfortunately, it is always these programs—music, art, drama—that tend to be the first on the chopping block when budgets are slashed, as they are not seen as “useful” topics. I often ask my students how many of them, when they answer “English” to the question “what are you majoring in?” receive one of two responses: either “what kind of job are you going to get with that?” or “so … you’re going to be a teacher?” The response is pretty much always 100%. Since I first started grad school, there have been more and more articles, columns, and think-pieces by prominent businesspeople, tech moguls, and the like, all pleading with universities to stop cutting humanities programs, as these courses of study produce graduates with precisely the kind of communicative skills and creativity otherwise lacking in industry (most recently it was Mark Cuban, predicting that a degree in philosophy will soon enough be more valuable than one in computer science). And yet the predominant administrative priority, both in secondary and postsecondary education, resides in expanding STEM programs.

Which brings us back to the politics of meanness. Doug Ford and his ilk may be mean in that original sense we all learned as children when someone was cruel to us, but they have also weaponized the sense of the word as “miserly, stingy; not generous” (as denoted in the Oxford English Dictionary), both literally and spiritually. Perhaps the epitome of this sensibility was the absurd claim made by Ford’s education minister Lisa Thompson when she announced that average class sizes in Ontario would increase from 22 to 28. When asked about the deleterious effects of larger classes, Thompson suggested that it would make the students “more resilient,” as if a smaller fraction of the teacher’s attention taught toughness of spirit.

I remember quite vividly a question posed by someone during the worst depredations of Mike Harris’ government: do you remember who your MPP was when you were ten years old? Or do you remember who your teacher was? Our education system isn’t perfect—what would that even look like?—but it has a profound effect on literally everyone. Starving it of resources is, well, mean, both in the sense of being short-sighted, and being and cruel.

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