Up for renewal?

As the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown loosens but remains in place, thoughts have begun to turn not so much to when things will return to normal but what the “new normal” is going to look like.

Some things, I think, are going to be lost forever, while others, like the dead animals buried in the Pet Sematary, are going to come back changed. Here’s a partial list.

Handshakes and hugs: I’ve read some commentators already bidding a not-very-fond “good riddance!” to these forms of expression. Given our current state of feeling toward social distancing it’s hard to see them making a comeback. A hand stuck out at us today might as well be holding a gun, and a hug be interpreted as a form of assault. I’m not sure we’ll be seeing them again anytime soon.

Malls: the “retail apocalypse” has been a slow-motion extinction event for the past decade-plus, mainly due to the shift to online shopping. This is a trend that has only been accelerated. These properties are going to have to be repurposed.

Mass travel: I think people will go back to filling up cruise ships and airplanes again if only because for a lot of older, better-off people this is all they have left in life. But I don’t think the industry is ever going to return to pre-pandemic levels. Which is a good thing.

Hotels: connected to the collapse of the travel industry, but high vacancy rates are only part of the story. There are no conventions being held and hence no need for convention centres either, which are a big part of the hotel economy, especially in big cities.

Cash: a lot of stores have stopped taking cash, even for very small purchases. And those that still do have signs up saying they’d prefer you to use a card. This is another change that has been in the offing for a while now and it’s just been hastened along by recent events. We’re moving toward the cashless society. I don’t like this, if only because it means that every transaction will now be recorded somewhere. Which, in turn, means that we will more and more come to be identified and defined by our purchases.

Libraries: I think I read somewhere that 2014 was supposed to be “the end of tactile media.” That hasn’t happened yet, but I guess it’s another change that’s been taking place at its own speed. How eager are people going to be to sign out books that have been touched by other people’s hands, and been in other people’s homes? See above for what’s happening to cash.

Cinemas and theatres: I’ve only been to see a couple of movies in a cinema in the last ten years. It’s just not worth it (for my notes on one of these outings, to see Blade Runner 2049, see here). As for live theater, it’s been at least fifteen years since I’ve gone out to see a play. According to official statistics these are businesses that have recently been experiencing hard times, with higher ticket prices making up for declining sales. So this constitutes another sector of the economy that was already distressed, with this latest downturn likely to push it over the edge. I don’t know how the industry is going to respond. Are digital/streaming platforms going to make up the difference?

Restaurants: I assume restaurants will re-open and people will go back to dining out at some point. But many restaurants, especially those independently owned, are going to go under before then and I think it’s going to be a difficult way back to financial sustainability for those that survive, especially if they can only operate with restrictions on how many people they can seat. It’s a business where profit margins are thin, and who’s going to want to eat meals served by waiters wearing gloves and face masks? The experience of eating out isn’t going to be any fun for a while. As for buffets, they may be well on their way to extinction.

Gyms: Tough one. My routine was always to go to the gym in the wee hours of the morning when the place was almost empty. So I’d go back tomorrow following the same schedule. But most people, by definition, go to the gym during peak hours (just before and after work). And they take classes, which I don’t. Are those people going to come back? Some of them, but probably not enough for many gyms to stay in business. And how many personal trainers are going to be able to make a living out of Zoom fitness sessions?

It all adds up to a different world we’ll be living in. More than that, however, I’m afraid the long-term consequences of this lockdown are going to be staggering. Just recently I’ve been reading some books on the 2008 financial crisis and its fallout (Crashed by Adam Tooze, The Shifts and the Shocks by Martin Wolf) and it’s interesting to see how the repercussions from that were still playing out a decade down the line. Indeed, we’re still living in its shadow, if you count Trump as being one part of the fallout.

Well, the effect of this pandemic, on the economy and people’s lives, is going to be much, much worse. The bill that’s going to come due (and I’m not just speaking literally here) is something I don’t think a lot of people appreciate yet. But some are taking notice. A recent piece by Annie Lowery that ran in The Atlantic, for example, is headlined “This Summer Will Scar Young Americans for Life.” The damage, Lowery writes, “could last forever.” And this is for a cohort that aren’t losing their jobs because most of them haven’t entered into careers yet. Their parents may be in worse shape, and if their grandparents are in long term care . . . well, that’s another horror show. This may never be truly over.

Gaslighting 11.0

None of these fellows has read the transcript. But they bought the t-shirt.

Much has been said about the presidency of Donald Trump and his gaslighting of the American public. Indeed whole books have been written on the subject. The results have been truly incredible, leading me to believe that it’s probably true that Trump could, as he boasted, shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.

Of all the many examples of this that there have been, I think the most dramatic has been his command to “Read the transcipt!” Sometimes in all caps. This has turned out to be such a winner of a line that it’s even been printed on t-shirts for his followers to wear at rallies.

The reason I find this bit of gaslighting so remarkable is that there are no transcripts to be read. What Trump is referring to is the summary report of the phone call he made to the President of Ukraine. This is not a transcript. But apparently that doesn’t matter, any more than the fact that the Mueller Report, which Trump claimed as “total exoneration,” concluded that it could not exonerate Trump from the charge of having committed a crime.

What makes the “Read the transcript!” line even stranger though, and what dials it up to 11 on the gaslighting scale, is the fact that the only person stopping anyone from reading the transcript is . . . Trump himself. He could release a transcript of the call, but apparently it’s been locked down on a secure server somewhere. So the command to read the transcript is impossible, and impossible precisely because Trump has made it impossible.

I’d like to think the line was meant as a joke, but I’m afraid it may be part of a new reality.

No future

Twenty years ago I posted an essay online talking about some of the changes that I saw taking place in the production of culture. One such change was the increasing disposability of art, which went along with something I found even more damaging: the loss of belief in any sort of cultural posterity. Here’s part of what I said:

I think the consciousness of disposability is something new. In my opinion it is the most profound change that has taken place in writing in the past century, and cannot be overestimated.

In Shakespeare’s day, even if you weren’t Shakespeare, you might still think that your sonnets would last forever. For Keats the desire to be counted “among the English poets” may have been a dreamy notion, but it was also a perfectly valid goal. It meant that you were intent upon entering a pantheon of immortals. And even in the first half of the twentieth century there was still a firm belief that art was, in some meaningful way, eternal. Ezra Pound could rail against what “the age demanded,” but only because he had confidence that his work would be among what remained. That was part of what being a classic meant.

That has all been lost. Put simply, and without any qualification, no author writing today has any belief that their work will survive. I’m not saying that no literary work will survive: that is a determination hinging on various factors outside of this survey. I don’t even know if the planet is going to survive. What I am saying is that no writer, however noble their intentions or committed their aims, has any belief that what they are creating is going to last.

That was a grim take, I’ll admit, but I was thinking about that essay again this week when I came across a story in the Huffington Post on Republican responses to how they think their defence of President Trump will be judged by history. The takeaway? They’re not concerned at all.

“I don’t care how I’m remembered,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told HuffPost. “I care that the American people elected this guy president, he’s doing a great job, and [the Democrats] have zero facts on their side to remove this guy from office.”

And if you think Jordan insisting he doesn’t care is just some defense mechanism because he knows it will turn out badly, Jordan will tell you that actually, he hasn’t given any of that “a second’s thought.”

“The first time that even entered my mind was 20 seconds ago when you asked me,” he said.

Jordan’s colleagues expressed much the same indifference (or shamelessness), but at least one went even further:

One of the darkest answers came from Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), a former history teacher himself. Bishop said the idea that history would remember what Republicans do assumes “that we’re going to survive in this country long enough to have a history.”

So much for posterity in politics. It seems the idea of the future has been laid to rest. But Trump’s flunkies are only taking their lead from higher up the food chain. Here, for example, is his Attorney General and Enabler-in-Chief Bill Barr:

Asked by CBS News’ Jan Crawford about concerns over his reputation for defending the president amid ongoing probes into the administration’s alleged ties to the Russian government and claims that Mr. Trump obstructed justice, Barr appeared indifferent.

“I am at the end of my career,” Barr said. “Everyone dies and I am not, you know, I don’t believe in the Homeric idea that you know, immortality comes by, you know, having odes sung about you over the centuries, you know?”

“Everyone dies.” One picks up, again, the odour of a decadent narcissism. Barr isn’t worried about the future because, at the end of his career, he knows he doesn’t have much left. And when he’s dead, why should he care about the judgment of history? In fact, he makes it pretty clear that he doesn’t think there’s going to be any judgment of history. I suspect that, like Rob Bishop, he thinks the whole idea of the U. S. having a history yet to be written a bit of a stretch. And this skepticism goes all the way to the top:

Since the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s aides and advisers have tried to convince him of the importance of tackling the national debt.

Sources close to the president say he has repeatedly shrugged it off, implying that he doesn’t have to worry about the money owed to America’s creditors—currently about $21 trillion—because he won’t be around to shoulder the blame when it becomes even more untenable.

The friction came to a head in early 2017 when senior officials offered Trump charts and graphics laying out the numbers and showing a “hockey stick” spike in the national debt in the not-too-distant future. In response, Trump noted that the data suggested the debt would reach a critical mass only after his possible second term in office.

“Yeah, but I won’t be here,” the president bluntly said, according to a source who was in the room when Trump made this comment during discussions on the debt.

I won’t be here. Everyone dies. I really don’t care, do U?

We should all care. As posterity (the “Homeric idea”) is to culture so progress is to politics. Artists have to believe their work is going to have some kind of afterlife, otherwise they’re just making a cash grab. Politicians have to believe that they are trying to improve things, otherwise they become what Matt Taibbi calls (in reference to the Trump administration) a death cult.

I understand where all this is coming from. Humanity faces a lot of challenges that seem insurmountable. But to give up hope in the future is the short road to doom.

Update, May 9 2020:

When Barr’s Justice Department dropped charges in the case against Michael Flynn CBS News’ Cathrine Herridge engaged Barr as follows:

“When history looks back on this decision, how do you think it will be written?” Barr laughed: “Well, history’s written by the winners. So it largely depends on who’s writing the history.”

That laughter tells you a lot.

Federal election 2019: After

Back again to comment on the 2019 federal election. A week ago I offered up my thoughts on how things were developing, concluding with the following prediction:

What I think will happen is that the Liberals will hold on with a minority government, perhaps due mainly to an anti-Ford vote in Ontario and stronger support in Quebec. The NDP will be nearly wiped out. The Greens will see a significant increase in their vote, though I doubt it will result in many (if any) seats.

I got some of this right. The Liberals did get back in, this time with a minority. And this was mainly due to their strength in Quebec and Ontario (and more specifically the GTA). Much of Quebec, however, went for the BQ. The NDP weren’t wiped out, but lost a lot of seats. They still tried to put a positive spin on things though by claiming that, while diminished, they will hold a balance of power in the new parliament.

One observation I’d make is that we are becoming a more regionally divided nation, which I see as being a sort of work-around of the archaic first-past-the-post electoral system. The Liberals were crushed in the West, all but disappearing from the map, but it made little difference. The Conservatives actually won the popular vote, but still lost handily. The Greens received 6.5% of the popular vote and ended up with 3 seats. The Bloc Québécois got 7.7% of the vote and 32 seats. This is the FPTP system at work.

As I said in my previous post, I didn’t think the party leaders were an inspiring group. Despite this, it looks as though Elizabeth May will be the only leader stepping aside. Inertia is taking over, as it so often does in Canadian politics. Our leaders have a habit of overstaying their welcome.

Perhaps I’m just old and jaded, but I didn’t see a big difference among the various parties. I studied a primer on their various platforms before voting and was surprised at how ill-defined they were. And what was defined struck me as being largely without meaning. Conservatives complained that a carbon tax would be ineffective, which I’m sure it will be. But at least it’s something. The Conservative position on the environment was a joke, saying they would meet greenhouse gas reduction targets but giving no idea how. But then I’m sure the Liberals will fail at meeting these targets as well.

On most other issues it was the same. A national pharmacare program sounds like a good idea, but the Liberals only said they want to work toward it while the Conservatives dismissed it entirely. The Liberals and NDP were OK with letting deficits grow while the Conservatives promised to reduce them. This is something I’m sure they would not be able to do, but I suspect they would have made at least some of the cuts they promised to government programs.

Immigration was supposed to be a hot-button issue but only the People’s Party tried to run with it. And the People’s Party went nowhere. The other parties were all vague on the matter.

I take it election reform is totally dead. Elizabeth May waited until the day before the election to declare that if the Green party were elected then hers would be the last federal government in Canada chosen by the first-past-the-post system. And where had I heard that before?

Like I say, perhaps this is all just me being jaded. Or something. When I filled in a questionnaire that sought to identify my political preference based on my feelings toward a catalogue of issues I wound up in a quarter of the political spectrum that none of the parties identified with (that is, socially conservative and economically left-wing). But then this position, which I would identify with an “old left,” is one that has increasingly come to feel abandoned.

A final note: For what I believe is the fourth election (federal and provincial) in a row the Green Party were the only party in my riding to do any door-to-door canvassing for votes. And they came by my place twice. So basically the other parties have just given up on this. Are they putting all their resources into social media? I wonder how that’s working out for them.

Looking ahead I don’t see anything to feel good about. Essentially we’re in for more of the same. I don’t see anyone being in a rush to trigger another election and I don’t think the Liberals ran on much of a platform to actually do anything. We didn’t vote for change and we’re not going to get any.

Federal election 2019: Before

Four years ago I did a post a week in advance of the 2015 federal election in which I predicted the Conservatives would stay in power with a minority government. Well, I had my reasons. And I’ll be the first to admit that my predictions are almost always wrong.

That confession out of the way, I thought I’d try again with some thoughts on the 2019 contest, a week before the vote.

In that earlier post I took as my theme the question of what had happened to the conservative movement. I think the last four years have answered that question pretty decisively. I thought that in terms of its ideology the right was a spent force, but it certainly came roaring back with Donald Trump in the U.S., the Brexit fiasco in Britain, and Doug Ford in Ontario. Was all this just the twitch of a death nerve, or does it signal something with more staying power? Stay tuned.

As far as my thoughts post-election in 2015 are concerned, I had this to say:

Moving forward, I’m not confident that the Liberals will provide much in the way of new ideas or leadership. One hopes for competence at best. Still, I’m interested in how a couple of issues that came up during the campaign will be handled. First, the Liberals declared that they were against the first-past-the-post election system. Now that they have a majority, will they backtrack on that? Second, the Liberals have also said that they want to “reform” the Senate (I’m all on board). This will be harder to effect, but I think would be a popular move. That said, I don’t expect any meaningful changes to be made to the current system.

Well, an end to the FPTP system and meaningful reform of the Senate didn’t happen. And I think I’m safe in saying that they never will. We’re locked into a nineteenth-century political system, components of which were archaic in the nineteenth century. I don’t like it, but the system is never going to change itself, and indeed will do everything it can to resist any change happening.

A week out from this year’s vote my main takeaway is the dismal quality of the party leaders. This too is part of a problem that is afflicting democracy globally. In the U.S. the best and the brightest the Republican Party had to offer were deemed so worthless they were blown away by a pathetic real-estate con-man who had been refashioned as a tawdry television personality. Currently the Democratic Party is trying to decide which of their candidates is the least unattractive, and it’s quite a contest. Ontario’s premier is Doug Ford. You get the picture.

To go quickly through the list, I think Justin Trudeau has lived up to all the dismissive labels flung at him by his worst critics. He is an airhead with beautiful hair. Not only does he strike me as downright dumb, he’s a lousy politician as well, with none of the instincts, vision, or rhetoric you’d expect in a national leader.

Andrew Scheer has zero charisma, negligible political skills, and is leading a party that seems stuck in reverse. Would it kill the Conservatives to adopt, or at least pay lip service to, some progressive policies? Or show that they’re comfortable living in the twenty-first century? Jagmeet Singh seems like the brightest guy in the race, but is also deficient in political awareness and appears to be an odd fit for the NDP. Indeed, large segments of the party, both on the ground and among the leadership, have rejected him entirely. While good on TV I suspect he is less charming in person.

I think the Green Party should have got rid of Elizabeth May after the last election. Her leadership has never felt sure in its footing and she has difficulty communicating what should be a pretty direct message. On the party’s key issue she was easily upstaged during the campaign by a kid visiting from Sweden.

Maxime Bernier just strikes me as dim, but maybe he comes across better in French.

I don’t like the thought of any of these people becoming prime minister. To be even more blunt, I don’t think any of them are leadership material. I wonder if there’s some connection between the lousy political system I mentioned and having so many lousy politicians. Probably.

As far as predictions go, the polls show a tight race and how it splits up in key ridings will be the deciding factor. None of the parties a week out have any wind in their sails. Nobody I’ve spoken to on either the left or the right seems much interested. What I think will happen is that the Liberals will hold on with a minority government, perhaps due mainly to an anti-Ford vote in Ontario and stronger support in Quebec. The NDP will be nearly wiped out. The Greens will see a significant increase in their vote, though I doubt it will result in many (if any) seats.

Next week I’ll be back and give some post-election thoughts. Until then, don’t forget to vote!

Badface

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has found himself in hot water lately over the discovery of photos where he appears in black- or brownface.

What I find most depressing about all of this is that it looks like it is going to become one of the defining campaign issues — if not the defining campaign issue — of this year’s federal election. Not jobs, health care, the environment, or economic policy, but something this stupid.

I guess you can argue that the photos and the fallout from their release tell us something about Trudeau’s character. Something not very flattering. He is being pilloried, with some justice, for being a hypocrite: his principled stands on issues relating to identity politics being derided as mere virtue signaling.

That expression “virtue signaling” is worth a bit of explanation. Some people object to it, or find nothing wrong with the idea of making public one’s own set of moral values. My own take is that, used pejoratively, the expression should be understood as referring to signaling one’s own virtues in a facile way that costs the signaler nothing. But of course it may involve demanding others make sacrifices.

I think Trudeau has done his share of virtue signaling. What bothers me the most about the current scandal is the general air of dishonesty in Trudeau’s response. In brief: how could he possibly not have known that these photos were out there all this time? They were even published in a school yearbook! Did he think they had just disappeared?

In a later press conference he admitted that he had in fact been aware of them while he was going through the process of being initially vetted by the party, but had found them too “embarrassing” to mention. In other words, he really did think they were dead and buried. Now, being asked if there are any more such photos out there that might surface at some point, he will only reply “I am wary of being definitive.”

Does any of this matter? In a polarized political environment, where people are voting against the other side more than they are supporting their own, maybe not so much. If Donald Trump can shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and get away with it, Justin Trudeau can probably get away with this. Our politics have become a joke.

Gamer grouch

The first Fortnite World Cup has been held, with the winner, a 16-year-old from Pottsgrove, Pennsylvania, taking home the $3 million top prize.

The response to this story has been predicably polarized. Some think it’s great that such a popular form of entertainment is finally getting the recognition it deserves. There were 40 million contestants vying to get into the Fortnite World Cup, a field that must have been strenuously winnowed down to the 100 who made the final cut. Video games are a bigger business than Hollywood, and have been for years. The people who play them can make millions of dollars through their own streaming channels and endorsement deals. Resistance to these developments is clearly futile. And anyway, as Steven Johnson argued in Everything Bad Is Good for You, video games are actually a healthy past-time, involving complex problem-solving skills, among other things.

Critics, and I include myself in this category, have their doubts. I get that video games are popular, and big business. And I have nothing against their professionalization. Elite gamers may as well make money out of this. I also understand the draw for people who just like to watch. Maybe they’re picking up tips to improve their own play, and maybe they just find the players entertaining.

But I don’t think video games are good for you. They are extremely addictive, and very consciously designed to be so. Encouraging any sort of addictive behaviour is bad. I also don’t think people learn anything from video games or pick up any worthwhile skills by playing them. In addition, I think they’re harmful to one’s health. If “sitting is the new smoking” I don’t think the example of teenagers who are spending 8-12 hours a day in front of a screen, as some of the contestants to the Fortnite World Cup said they had to while “in training,” is a good one. Wouldn’t young people be better off swimming or playing soccer? That’s good for the body, and team sports can build social skills as well. It seems to me that sports are also less directly commercial than esports. Sure there are professional sports like hockey and basketball, and kids dream of making it into the big leagues, but these video game tournaments strike me as just being advertisements for a product. Soccer is a sport first and only at a higher level big business. Video games are a business, period.

Is the Fortnite World Cup the end of civilization? No, but I don’t see it as a step in any good direction. That said, I’m comfortable now being on the wrong side of history.