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.

Monster of the week

Don’t know about you, but I know what I’m thinking.

I’ve been spending some time recently watching crime shows and in the last month alone I’ve noticed a recurring theme: that of the pedophile sex ring operated by a bunch of rich, well-connected types.

It first came up in Series 3 of Prime Suspect (1993), which had DCI Tennison investigating the death of a teenage “rent boy.” As the case progresses it turns out that there is a posh sex club that is trafficking in kids but which is protected from investigation because some of the members have powerful connections. Indeed, even high-ranking police seem to be involved.

Next up was “Sidetracked,” the first episode of the first season of the BBC’s Wallander, which aired in 2008 (the novel it was based on came out in 1995). Again there is a sex ring involving the abuse of underage girls, with the police involved in a cover-up.

Finally I watched the first season of True Detective (2014). Once again our heroes are investigating a bunch of murders that seem to point to some kind of ritual sex cult involving wealthy, powerful people (politicians, police, the usual suspects). I’d say more about the exact nature of this cult but very little is explained. It’s an interesting show in some ways, but calling the writing lazy would be to give it too much credit.

Obviously the pedophile sex ring has fully entered the bloodstream of pop culture, becoming a nightmarish part of our collective mythology. As I recall (and my memory here is hazy) such sex rings also pop up in the the Red Riding Quartet (1999-2002) of David Peace and the Lisbeth Salander novels of Stieg Larsson (2005-2007). Both of which were made into series of movies and both of which follow the same script: a club of rich predators who operate above the law, brought down by courageous investigators.

What basis do such stories have in reality? I can only think of the Marc Dutroux case, which was much publicized but only went to trial in 2004. It was also so complex I’m not sure if anyone has figured out what was going on, though the controversy over its handling, which continues to this day, means that it has only grown in the imagination.

It’s hard not to think that the pedophile sex ring involving corrupt police and politicians allied with secretive billionaires is mostly an urban myth and conspiracy theory. One of its more recent manifestations had a child sex-slavery ring being run out of the basement of a Washington pizza parlour (it became known as Pizzagate). Hillary Clinton was said to be involved.

Obviously sex trafficking is real. And it’s also true that such trafficking can involve victims who are under the age of consent. Rich people do pay a lot of money to indulge abusive behaviour. Hence sex tourism, or child prostitution more generally. These are, however, solitary crimes. I find it curious then that pop culture is so obsessed with these rings when it’s not clear to what extent anything like what we see on TV has ever existed. There’s the Jeffrey Epstein story, involving lots of big money and politicians and maybe even corrupt law enforcement agencies, but as far as I know the young women in that case weren’t being kidnapped and murdered.

Why then did the pedophile sex ring become such a popular topos? Is it just a way of feeding a generally held belief that rich and powerful men are almost certainly up to no good? That the 0.1%, with their flunkies and enablers in government, are preying on the poor in the most horrible ways imaginable? The monsters we read about in bestselling novels and hit TV series exist to meet a demand.

Mixed messaging

This Friday my community enters Stage 2 of the loosening of the strictures put in place to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Hair salons and barbershops will be open, as will restaurant patios and churches.

This Friday my community will begin mandatory wearing of masks or face coverings in all commercial establishments. No mask, no service.

If the situation is not improving then should we be opening up at this time? If the situation is improving, why are the safety guidelines becoming stricter? Shouldn’t we all have been forced to wear masks a couple of months ago?

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.