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.

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.

Will they come back?

In an earlier post I wondered about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic might have on various industries. One of these was cinemas. This past week WarnerMedia announced that they were going to be releasing their full slate of 2021 films simultaneously in theatres and on HBO Max. Writing in The Atlantic, David Sims was left to only express some hope that “Once a vaccine is widely distributed, a pent-up desire to return to normalcy could be unleashed. I, certainly, crave the collective experience of movie-watching; I’m sure I’m not the only one sick of seeing things from my couch. If other studios go the way of WarnerMedia, theaters will be hanging their hopes on that nostalgia.”

I don’t share any of his wistful optimism, or his nostalgia for movie theatres. And while I think he’s right that some people would love to return to the way we were, I also think that cinemas will find they’ve lost a lot of their market permanently. What’s more, I don’t know how well they’ll be able to do going forward given this new reality.

Another question I’ve been wondering about with regard to returning to normal has to do with higher education. A lot of universities are offering their courses online during the pandemic, turning many campuses into ghost towns. When I asked one academic what he thought about students coming back after the “all clear” is been given (which may not be until September 2021) he thought they would rush to return, not wanting to miss out on the “university experience.”

I’m not so sure. That university experience is something enjoyed most by the most popular students, who are not always the best, or a majority. Meanwhile, university has become very expensive, to the point that living at home (however depressing this may be) can be a real relief to one’s finances. Why relocate to another city, pay rent, and put up with all the other hassles, when you can just do your courses from your bedroom?

One should rarely bet against comfort and convenience. I’ve been indirectly related to an adult learning program for a few years and in 2020 they moved to a system where they presented all of their live lecture series online. Recently there was a straw vote among the various regional boards about what to do when things went back to normal. The vote was overwhelming (over 90%) for staying online. This saves money on renting locations to hold lectures, as well as the inconvenience experienced by people having to drive somewhere and pay for parking, etc. Plus, people were finding the lectures online superior in many ways to those attended in person. For myself, I’ve found I enjoy the ability to nod off and have a nap during the dull ones. Then there is the fact that people can register from all over the country, and lecturers can broadcast from all over the world. So you can even listen to the courses you want while on vacation (listening to an instructor who may be on vacation too).

In other words, I wouldn’t be so quick to think that university is ever going to return to normal and that students will all want to come back. Or that, if many do come back, universities will be able to continue business as (pre-COVID) usual. No doubt some, perhaps many, moviegoers will return to cinemas, and students will return to classrooms. But how will the system accommodate the no-doubt significant number who don’t? Will some sort of hybrid system work? I think it will be impossible to go back to the way things were.

Canceled?

Though votes are still being counted, and will likely be disputed whenever that process is completed, it appears as though the four-year run of the Trump Show in America has come to an end. But the results of the 2020 presidential election, whatever they may be, have made few people happy, aside perhaps from some Republican senators. Polling, again, appears to have been misleading. And while Trump may be removed from the White House, his party (that is to say, what he fashioned out of the Republican rump) is still a large and vital force in America’s politics.

This has led to much soul-searching among liberals, but most of the analyses I’ve read miss an important point. That point relates to what Trump represented, and in turn what Republicans now stand for. I’ve spoken before about the bankruptcy of traditional conservatism, and I think that is now pretty firmly established. The idea that this is a party of fiscal responsibility, family values, law and order, or even deference to the Constitution (a “phony” document in Trump’s phrase) is only a joke now. Even such basic principles that one would have formerly thought of as core to being an American – like a belief in democracy and the rule of law – have been extensively repudiated. But at the same time I don’t think it’s correct to say that it’s only a party now of indurated racists and toxic masculinity. Yes, Trump is a shameless racist and a pig, but not everyone who voted for him shares those qualities. He had surprising support among Latinos, for example, and women clung to him in this election as well. Nor do I think his base can solely be identified with out-of-work white men without a college education, those left behind by the new economy. Anger is more general in society than that, and is far from the special preserve of its so-called losers.

I also find it unhelpful to say, as many do, that the right only cares about power. Everyone wants power, and power is rarely an end in itself. I don’t think there is a widespread longing for authoritarian government (though I’ll hold out for that being a possibility). It seems unlikely to me that rural voters in poor districts care all that much about maintaining, or reverting to, an archaic and mostly legendary status quo just for the sake of holding on to some kind of vestigial cultural (if no longer economic) privilege. Instead, I think there is a clear objective in view.

What the right (I can’t bring myself to call it conservatism anymore) stands for, its sole mission now, is, to use the preferred euphemism, “limited government.” A little more strongly put, but still not strong enough for many, this means the “dismantling of the administrative state.” This is something I’ve gone on about before (most recently here) and it doesn’t seem worth going over again. The bottom line, literally, was that once they had passed the tax reform that would starve the government of over a trillion dollars of revenue, Republicans had done all that their donors had paid them to do (they were candid about this) and could effectively sit on their hands.

Aside from such negative acts as cutting taxes and deregulation, Republicans don’t see government as having any function. Climate change is only a hoax and so nothing need, or should, be done about it. “Infrastructure week” became a running joke right out of the gate and the wall was never built, as everyone knew it wouldn’t be. The big, beautiful health plan Trump promised turned out, four years later, to only be binders full of blank paper. One can’t emphasize this enough: there was never even any intention of the government actually doing anything in any of these cases, because government itself was seen to be the only problem that needed fixing. And the only way it can be fixed is by getting rid of it. When the COVID-19 crisis struck, to say the administration was wrong-footed would be to mistake what happened entirely. Trump, and his task force, didn’t want to do anything. They figured government shouldn’t get involved. Right-wing apologists, even of the Never Trump variety, argued for government getting out of the way so that the saintly private sector and free markets could do their work. The MAGA crowd took their lead from this and railed against anyone in government telling them to wear a mask or cut down on social gatherings.

So aside from the Republican negative agenda of government self-euthanasia (tax cuts, deregulation, downsizing or shuttering government departments) there was nothing else but the rallies, led by the orange-faced Hate-Monger. At the Republican convention in 2020 they didn’t even bother with a platform. Now that the tax cuts had been passed there was nothing left to do but to go on looting the till, stripping the copper wiring from the wall, and, as Sarah Kendzior likes to put it, selling off the country to the oligarchs for scraps. This serves the interests of the 1% very well, and for a large segment of the population, educated by Fox News and suffering the daily frustrations, aggravations, and humiliations of having to deal with all levels of government authorities, hatred of the government and the public sector is an easy sell. Most of us, even on the left, can relate. Indeed for some on the left the government is an even bigger bogeyman.

This anger is a force underlying much of what Democrats have, apparently, failed to understand. In a piece on Latino support for Trump that ran in The Atlantic just before the election it was said that Democrats didn’t get the strong strain of “self-reliance” within these communities, with that quality just being another way of referring to their distrust or dislike of government (self-reliance being something totally other than, or at least not including, personal responsibility, something that Trump rejects categorically). In a post-election essay in the same magazine George Packer wondered about the two Americas but failed to draw a conclusion that I found obvious in his earlier book The Unwinding. As I said in my review of The Unwinding:

Government of either party and at any level is now despised as being not just useless but parasitical and downright destructive. Elected representatives couldn’t get anything done if they tried, and it’s clear they have no intention of trying to do anything but continue to service the very rich. As the chapters on Jeff Connaughton show (he’s an idealistic young man who goes to Washington and is disillusioned), even those in government hate government.

When one party in a two-party system is a wrecking crew committed to dismantling the state I’m not sure the country can still be considered governable. Moving forward, the Republicans have no interest or incentive to be anything but Mitch McConnell’s “party of no.” Meanwhile, the support for this radical anti-governmentalism is unshakeable. This is now a platform Republicans will be held to, while at the same time never being held accountable for any failure to provide good governance. Even in power they can always blame the evils of their own government, which have been so evident over the course of the last four years, on a shadowy Deep State residing somewhere in the bowels of D.C., perhaps a basement where children are kidnapped and sold as sex slaves.

If you believe stories like that – and I’m afraid a great many people do – then we are quite beyond hope of finding common ground. Just as the Republicans have no reason to work with Democrats, Democrats have no reason to compromise or try to appeal to anyone who voted for Trump in 2020 after just witnessing a record of crime, corruption, and incompetence, unparalleled in American history. Joe Biden’s finest moment on the campaign trail came in the early going when an older man (older even than Biden) said he was struggling with the stories about Biden’s son in Ukraine. An exasperated Biden turned away, saying simply that if he was concerned about that, in the face of Trump’s various enormities, then he was never going to vote for Biden anyway. I’m sure he was right.

The name that’s usually given to this tribal bifurcation is polarization, a word that’s been kicked around a lot for a while but that has now truly entered into a terminal phase, abetted not just by different media bubbles but the work of algorithms that control our consumption of news. The left and the right speak different languages, and are pursuing ends that are not just opposed but wholly incompatible.

Trump was the culmination of various trends in American politics that are still operative, and which one should expect to get worse. As Ronald Brownstein writes of the now “impermeability of the nation’s divisions”: “The clearest message of this week’s complicated election results is that the trench is deepening between red and blue America.” The anger that characterizes the political zeitgeist will only deepen, fueled by growing inequality, economic crisis, and self-reinforcing media silos that profit out of manufactured outrage. Who can believe this will end well?

Burning it down to keep warm

A mixed message? (Kerem Yucel)

In an earlier post I talked about the remarkable production of the “Read the transcript!” meme among Trump supporters, to the point where it became a popular slogan to print on baseball caps and t-shirts. This despite the fact that nobody had read the transcript (of Trump’s telephone call to the Ukrainian president) because Trump had locked said transcript down on a secure server and wasn’t letting anyone near it.

One thing Team Trump does well is self-unaware merchandise. This was brought home to me this week on seeing a picture of a Trump supporter, complete with Trump 2020 ballcap, wearing a face mask saying “THIS MASK IS AS USELESS AS OUR GOVERNMENT.” Apparently such a message does not conflict with the fact that Trump is the president. That is, Trump is the government, along with the Republican Senate, and Republican Supreme Court.

I suppose the belief is that none of this matters because somehow the (liberal?) Deep State or shadow government is really calling the shots. In any event, it’s hard to find a better image for how fundamental the hatred of government is among today’s political right. Even when in control of the government they still want to tear it down (or “dismantle it,” as the language goes). This degree of political nihilism is insanity, but it’s the guiding ideology of the right.

Rage on

rageI recently reviewed Bob Woodward’s Rage, his second book on the Trump presidency (the first was Fear). It’s not a flattering portrait, though I thought he did his best to cast his subject in the best possible light, including excerpts from over a dozen lengthy interviews. What it made me think about though was what an official biography of Trump, when we get it, will look like. You’d have to think it will be flattering, but since no amount of flattery can satisfy a narcissist Trump will still object to it. Putting lipstick on the pig of this presidency, however, will be no easy task. Who will say anything good about Trump’s handling of the job? Not people like Rex Tillerson or John Kelly or James Mattis, who all held high positions in his administration but were cashiered or resigned in (quiet) protest, only to be insulted by their boss on the way out. I anticipate a truly Herculean feat of apologetics.

What worries me

In an earlier post I mentioned how I thought the long-term consequences of the current pandemic were going to be staggering. I didn’t mean that in a medical sense. Bodies aren’t piling up in the streets. It doesn’t seem as though COVID-19 is going to have any significant impact on the world’s population, which is probably still going to peak somewhere around mid-century. But the economic and political fallout from the pandemic will be huge.

What I was thinking of is the comparison between what happened in the 2008 financial crisis and what’s happening now. Specifically, what’s happening now is that the pandemic is deepening economic inequality, which is already at a dangerous level after a decades-long widening of the gap between rich and poor. The subprime crisis was just another big step in this process, but the pandemic is proving to be even worse, exacerbating the so-called Matthew effect (“to every one who has will more be given; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away”).

As Don Pitts writes in a recent piece for the CBC: “There was speculation early in the pandemic that the crisis might be the catalyst for a move away from wealth polarization. But just as they did after the 2008 crisis, lower-for-longer interest rates have once again flowed straight into the pockets of the wealthiest.” Funny how that always seems to happen.

On the individual level it’s well documented now that densely populated and poor areas (both within states and globally) have become virus hotspots, while minorities and workers in low-wage jobs are most at risk both of catching the disease and finding themselves unemployed. On the other side of the great divide, big businesses are able to ride out this crisis. For Amazon it’s even been a boon. And so corporate and capital concentration continues apace while, once again, the little guy goes to the wall.

There will be a political reckoning for all this and I think it would be foolish to think that it is bound to take a progressive turn. Of course that could be the case. As Rebecca Greenfield reports for Bloomberg, “Catastrophic events such as the pandemic have historically been a catalyst for reshuffling the economic order. During the Great Depression, with the New Deal, American workers gained a safety net. After World War II they won leverage with employers and higher pay.” So you can say it’s happened before. But I don’t see a lot of grounds for optimism. Instead we’re likely to see more divisive politics leading to even more regressive outcomes.

The committee for justice

For some reason an open letter “On Justice and Open Debate” appearing in Harper’s Magazine has been getting a lot of attention.

I say “for some reason” because the letter is short and doesn’t say much of anything. It’s been praised for being signed by names from across the political spectrum, but that spectrum is actually quite limited. Insofar as the letter has a political point of view it is anti-Trump, who is said to be a “powerful ally” of the “forces of illiberalism.” Given Trump as the bogeyman, it’s not too surprising that Noam Chomsky and Francis Fukuyama would find themselves on the same side.

As far as the rest of the letter goes, the message is (as some signers were quick to admit) anodyne. This is often what you get when you write by committee. The letter inveighs against “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments,” which is presumably referring to today’s “cancel culture.” Apparently such censoriousness has long been a staple of “the radical right” but has since spread. In any event, and in conclusion, “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other.”

No, it’s not quite J’accuse.

I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who wouldn’t sign on to such a banal pseudo-declaration. Still, some people did take exception. Richard Kim, a director at HuffPost, said he didn’t sign “because I could see in 90 seconds that it was fatuous, self-important drivel that would only troll the people it allegedly was trying to reach — and I said as much.”

More criticism has been leveled at J. K. Rowling’s name appearing. This is because Rowling herself has recently been the target of the “new set of moral attitudes and political commitments.” Oh well.

(An aside: I don’t know why people like Rowling are on Twitter. Just keeping her name out there? I really don’t understand. She has nothing to gain, and no good can come of it.)

Of course when I said that “for some reason” the letter was getting attention I was being deliberately obtuse. The reason the letter is getting attention isn’t for its statement of principles, whatever they are. It’s getting attention because of the roll call of prominent people who signed on to it. The vacuous letter wasn’t nearly as important as the function served by presenting us with a who’s who of media people whose opinions matter. It’s not even virtue signaling so much as celeb signaling: politics as a form of bird-watching.

I only wish some of the people whose opinions I am being told matter had opinions worth paying attention to.

Instead, one gets the sense that the letter was motivated less by an urge to declare some vague political position rather than as an exercise in celebrity brand management and collective self-preservation. As Billy Bragg put it, it’s “a howl of anguish from a group that has suddenly found its views no longer treated with reverence.”

Many of those who attached their names to the letter are longstanding cultural arbiters, who, in the past, would only have had to fear the disapproval of their peers. Social media has burst their bubble and they now find that anyone with a Twitter account can challenge their opinions. The letter was their demand for a safe space.

The mob has claimed many heads already and there probably isn’t a name on the list who isn’t worried that it might be coming for them. Indeed, with even Rowling being pilloried who could consider themselves safe from being canceled? Time to nip this #Movement in the bud.

I’m no fan of cancel culture, and I think its excesses will likely result in some nasty political backfire to go along the already considerable collateral damage it’s caused. That said, I can’t abide this self-interested moral posturing against it.

The anti-government mind

One of the things I enjoy the most about true crime books is the incidental insights they give into other people’s lives: the kinds of everyday details that never get mentioned in biographies or most other forms of general social reportage. These rarely have anything to do with the crimes that are the book’s main subject, but they’re the parts that stick in my head.

I registered one such moment while reading Monte Francis’s By Their Father’s Hand, an account of Marcus Wesson’s murder of nine of his own children in 2004. These were actually his children and grandchildren, as his incestuous relations require four pages of family trees at the front of the book to map only two or three generations of Wessons. If you want a true horror story, this is it.

But what jumped out at me the most in the book, probably because it’s a preoccupation of mine, was a moment during a conversation between Wesson and his wife that took place just after he had been arrested. The subject of politics comes up and things take an interesting turn. Of course the hatred the American Right has for government is well known, especially in its more contradictory expressions. Like the classic Tea Party slogan “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” (Medicare being a government program). Or, more recently, the opinion offered up by David Brooks on the PBS NewsHour that the best thing the federal government could do to respond to the COVID-19 crisis would be to get out of peoples’ way. Wesson, however, takes this anti-government attitude a step further.

To give just a bit of necessary background, Wesson, who at the time he was arrested was in his mid-fifties, had only worked for a few years over the course of his entire life. And that had been a brief stint in the army (that is to say, he’d been employed by the government). The rest of his life he’d lived off of welfare (he had an earlier conviction for welfare fraud), and been supported by his daughters. Now here are his political thoughts:

Republicans are mean-spirited, they don’t care about welfare and all that,” Marcus said. “But Democrats want to make government bigger. That’s why I’m not a Democrat . . . I don’t want the government in my life.”

The cognitive dissonance here, of someone living off of welfare not wanting the government in his life, is extreme, but not atypical of what we hear so often from anti-government platforms. What Wesson seems to have wanted was a life of absolute freedom, including freedom from responsibility. That this could only be achieved by becoming totally dependent on the government doesn’t seem to have registered with him. Now clearly Wesson was insane, but on this point he doesn’t seem far from a lot of mainstream thinking on the Right. And such attitudes are poison to any democracy.