Maigret: Pietr the Latvian

Maigret is introduced as a big guy, though we’re later told he’s under six feet. He’s broad like a bull, not tall. He dominates a room. When he walks down a narrow corridor his shoulders brush either wall.

Tough guy too. He can take a bullet and keep on the case. And when his partner is killed he can’t cry. Literally, he’s “unable to shed tears.”

But he’s sensitive as well. Or at least he’s good at reading people, which is a kind of sensitivity. The book begins with a simple exercise in decoding. Ironically, the anthropometric information he receives will be of no use at all given the nature of the mystery to be solved.

Maigret has a simple theory for solving crime that he refers to as the crack in the wall. “Inside every crook and wrong-doer there lives a human being.” Eventually that human being will reveal itself. I suppose by extension this might mean that inside every human being there’s another human being as well, so that all any of us ever reveal to the world is a façade.

In this case Maigret gets lucky and the crack comes from the wrong-doer’s fondness for alcohol. Not much work involved there.

The plot carries some message about the duality of man, though not so much good and evil as high and low. This is the real conflict in society, more so even than that between villains and do-gooders.

American carnage

The farewell party.

With the inauguration of Joe Biden as president the tumultuous Trump years have come to an end.

As a book reviewer I can testify to the truly awesome amount of ink that has been spilled trying to describe, explain, and understand the last four years. And over the course of the next year I’m sure much more will be added to the pile, including post mortems on the 2020 election, the COVID-19 debacle, and the final, fiery attack on the Capitol by an angry mob. I look forward to what will be said.

What kind of a snap judgment can be made now, however? Many are debating whether Trump will be considered the worst president in U.S. history. The prior point, arrived at more easily, is that he was the worst person to ever be president (including the slaveholders, per David Frum). To this I would agree. There has simply never been someone so mendacious and corrupt, or as lazy, ignorant, and vicious to hold the office. Defenders may point to such generic accomplishments as tax “reform” and flooding the judiciary with “conservative” judges — developments bound to happen under any Republican administration, and with which Trump seems to have been uninvolved. Trump’s own interests in being president were restricted to obsessively following his own media coverage, grift, and using the shield of the office to keep himself out of jail.

In a way, America was lucky he was such an incompetent buffoon. Someone with all of Trump’s bad qualities, matched with intelligence and charm, might have signaled the end of the American experiment in government. One hopes, without much confidence, that something will have been learned, just as lessons will be taken from the COVID disaster, which we were lucky was not even more deadly. How many such bullets can be dodged?

One discouraging conclusion to draw from the Trump years is that institutions will not preserve any part of the existing order. The center did not hold for four years in the U.S., with the Republican party caving completely to Trump and his manifold outrages during that time. Peace, order, and good government (those Canadian virtues) are hanging on everywhere by a slender thread.

Will Trump be back? I doubt it, given his age, health, and the miserable note his presidency ended on. But stranger things have happened. Of greater concern is the fact that Trump was just a symptom, or at most a catalyzing agent, of a deeper rot. And the conditions that gave rise to him are not going away. In fact, they are almost certainly going to get worse. The anger and hate that Trump both stoked and embodied is the product of various trends — political polarization, growing inequality, social media — that I can’t see getting better anytime soon. Trump may be on his way, but someone else is bound to come along who will harness that anger. This is not the end, but the beginning.

Lockdown 2: The sequel

Today, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 outbreak, my hometown and province is entering its second emergency lockdown.

I don’t see how the response to the pandemic in this country can be seen as anything less than a chaotic disaster (to borrow the language former president Obama used to describe the Trump administration’s response in the U.S.). We are in a much worse situation than we were when all this started. A year’s worth of sacrifice has been wasted.

The medical response hasn’t been bad. Vaccines were developed faster than most experts thought likely. The vaccine rollout hasn’t been very impressive thus far, but I’m hoping we can get up to speed soon. Reports that some snowbirds were flying to their winter homes in Florida just to get vaccinated are damning if true.

The political and economic response, however, has been catastrophic, and will only lead to even worse results before things start getting better. The bill to pay from all of this, as I’ve previously warned, is going to be huge.

We need to look ahead. Experts have been warning of pandemics for decades. We should consider ourselves lucky that COVID-19, for all the people it has killed, is not itself a particularly deadly disease. The survival rate is very high. That can’t be counted on next time. And there will be a next time. We need to learn from the mistakes that have been made.

We might begin with studying why some countries have been so successful in dealing with COVID-19 where others have failed so completely. Why were we unable to implement effective measures to test, track, and trace? Is there something about neoliberal attitudes toward government that has frustrated our taking effective action? Lessons must be learned.

Media gardening

Over at the Canadian Notes & Queries website you can read my review of Richard Stursberg’s The Tangled Garden. This is a book about the impact that the new digital giants (or FAANGs, to use the acronym) are having on Canadian news media. In brief, that impact has been catastrophic, leaving nothing but “losses as far as the eye can see.”

I share many of Stursberg’s concerns, as well as his more dismal conclusions. In my review I’m left to wonder how many people even care. It makes me think of the current state of the CBC. I believe in the CBC’s mission, and think they have some good people working there, but whenever I watch their local or national news programs or go to their website I end up feeling that they’re just not doing it right. And given how badly they’re faring in terms of their ratings and market share I’m not alone. I think the CBC does well in Quebec, and CBC Radio still has a lot of listeners, but they just don’t seem to have any clear identity as a broadcaster, sliding from paternalistic to aggrieved and back again.

Still, I want them to succeed. I do think Canada needs them.

Little green men

All he wants is his gold.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve just finished off the unheralded Leprechaun franchise. I’m a little impressed that they made 8 of these, but then there have been 8 Children of the Corn movies too. I guess the brand is worth, or has been worth, something. Warwick Davis was OK in the role in a couple of the early movies. The 2014 reboot, turning the title figure into a growling beast, was a woeful mistake. Linden Porco in 2018 actually showed some promise, but I don’t know if we’re at the end now anyway.

Leprechaun (1993)
Leprechaun 2 (1994)
Leprechaun 3 (1995)
Leprechaun 4: In Space (1996)
Leprechaun in the Hood (2000)
Leprechaun 6: Back 2 Tha Hood (2003)
Leprechaun: Origins (2014)
Leprechaun Returns (2018)

Unaccountable, Part three

From  “Americans’ acceptance of Trump’s behavior will be his vilest legacy” by Robert Reich:

Nearly forty years ago, political scientist James Q Wilson and criminologist George Kelling observed that a broken window left unattended in a community signals that no one cares if windows are broken there. The broken window is thereby an invitation to throw more stones and break more windows.

The message: do whatever you want here because others have done it and got away with it.

The broken window theory has led to picayune and arbitrary law enforcement in poor communities. But America’s most privileged and powerful have been breaking big windows with impunity.

In 2008, Wall Street nearly destroyed the economy. The Street got bailed out while millions of Americans lost their jobs, savings, and homes. Yet not no major Wall Street executive ever went to jail.

In more recent years, top executives of Purdue Pharmaceuticals, along with the Sackler family, knew the dangers of OxyContin but did nothing. Executives at Wells Fargo Bank pushed bank employees to defraud customers. Executives at Boeing hid the results of tests showing its 737 Max Jetliner was unsafe. Police chiefs across America looked the other way as police under their command repeatedly killed innocent Black Americans.

Here, too, they’ve got away with it. These windows remain broken.

Trump has brought impunity to the highest office in the land, wielding a wrecking ball to the most precious windowpane of all – American democracy.

The message? A president can obstruct special counsels’ investigations of his wrongdoing, push foreign officials to dig up dirt on political rivals, fire inspectors general who find corruption, order the entire executive branch to refuse congressional subpoenas, flood the Internet with fake information about his opponents, refuse to release his tax returns, accuse the press of being “fake media” and “enemies of the people”, and make money off his presidency.

And he can get away with it. Almost half of the electorate will even vote for his reelection.

A president can also lie about the results of an election without a shred of evidence – and yet, according to polls, be believed by the vast majority of those who voted for him.

Trump’s recent pardons have broken double-pane windows.

Not only has he shattered the norm for presidential pardons – usually granted because of a petitioner’s good conduct after conviction and service of sentence – but he’s pardoned people who themselves shattered windows. By pardoning them, he has rendered them unaccountable for their acts.

They include aides convicted of lying to the FBI and threatening potential witnesses in order to protect him; his son-in-law’s father, who pleaded guilty to tax evasion, witness tampering, illegal campaign contributions, and lying to the Federal Election Commission; Blackwater security guards convicted of murdering Iraqi civilians, including women and children; Border Patrol agents convicted of assaulting or shooting unarmed suspects; and Republican lawmakers and their aides found guilty of fraud, obstruction of justice and campaign finance violations.

It’s not simply the size of the broken window that undermines standards, according to Wilson and Kelling. It’s the willingness of society to look the other way. If no one is held accountable, norms collapse.

See here for Unaccountable, and here for Unaccountable, Part two.

What happened to Amazon?

I used to buy quite a bit of stuff, mostly books, on Amazon. Mainly for the convenience, but also because they had the cheapest prices and free shipping. In the past year, however, as their stock price has gone through the roof and they’ve solidified their position as king of online retailers during the pandemic shutdown, I think I’ve only ordered a couple of things. And at this point I can’t see myself ever shopping there again.

Two reasons for this stand out. In the first place, their prices for almost everything have gone up, to the point where they are no longer even close to the best deal available. I’ve had conversations with friends who shop in other departments that back this up. They have similar complaints about how there are “no longer any deals on Amazon.”

I don’t know if this is because the pandemic has placed their operations under extra strain or if they are only using that as an excuse. Or perhaps it’s just the natural next step in their dominance of the marketplace. Since they really aren’t in competition with anyone, why not jack prices up? Even this year’s Boxing Day sale prices were double, or in some cases triple, what they were for the same product just five years ago.

The second big thing I’ve noticed is the huge number of sponsored products, or ads, that come back with every search. There are now as many of these as there are regular search results, and none of them have any bearing on what I’m looking for. Shopping on Amazon has become like searching for something on Google: not just a crapshoot, but a very unpleasant experience.

I doubt this matters much to Amazon. Nor am I sure if it even has any bearing on their game plan is now, their next step on the way to establishing a global media and retail monopoly. But they’ve lost me as a customer. Not for any political reasons (of which there are a few that are serious) but because they suck. There are better places to shop.

Books of the Year 2020

I have to begin with a disclaimer. I read a lot of books in 2020, but not very many new books. And in particular not a lot of fiction (outside of SF). This is something that I’ve noticed is only getting worse. I’d like to read more new fiction, but much of it seems to be getting lost in the shuffle of pages.

Best fiction: I don’t think Clifford Jackman’s The Braver Thing is a perfect book, but it is challenging and different, which is saying something. A pirate ship becomes a social-science lab for experiments in different forms of government. As with S. D. Chrostowska’s The Eyelid (see below) it’s a political allegory. Something must have been going on at this time that was turning people’s minds in this direction . . .

 

 

 

Best non-fiction: Trump dominated my non-fiction reading for most of the past year, as he did throughout his whole depressing reign. Is it over now? I suspect that after a wave of books about the 2020 election land it mostly will be. But we’ll have to see. One non-Trump title I really liked was William Deresiewicz’s The Death of the Artist, which takes a look at the collapse of the arts economy and how it’s being felt on the ground. I think I was most impressed though by the final volume in Rick Perlstein’s epic chronicle of the rise of the American political right, Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980. Not a Trump book, though the arrogant New York City real estate maven does have a cameo and you don’t have to look too hard to see where America’s right turn was heading. A fascinating read, despite its heftiness and a ton of typos.

Best SF: I could go with a number of different titles, but S. D. Chrostowska’s The Eyelid sticks out the most. Not so much for the story as for the way it projects politics and even theory into a fantasy realm which is still relevant and interesting. One of few contemporary SF titles I found myself wanting to read again right away.