On Saturdays when I was a boy, I used to sit around all day reading while my mother did the housework. Now on Saturdays I sit around all day reading while no one does the housework.
Sent to me by my good friend, le sage du Mans, Christian Lebas:
de Théophile Gautier
Tandis qu’à leurs oeuvres perverses
Les hommes courent haletants,
Mars qui rit, malgré les averses,
Prépare en secret le printemps.
Pour les petites pâquerettes,
Sournoisement lorsque tout dort,
Il repasse des collerettes
Et cisèle des boutons d’or.
Dans le verger et dans la vigne,
Il s’en va, furtif perruquier,
Avec une houppe de cygne,
Poudrer à frimas l’amandier.
La nature au lit se repose ;
Lui descend au jardin désert,
Et lace les boutons de rose
Dans leur corset de velours vert.
Tout en composant des solfèges,
Qu’aux merles il siffle à mi-voix,
Il sème aux prés les perce-neiges
Et les violettes aux bois.
Sur le cresson de la fontaine
Où le cerf boit, l’oreille au guet,
De sa main cachée il égrène
Les grelots d’argent du muguet.
Sous l’herbe, pour que tu la cueilles,
Il met la fraise au teint vermeil,
Et te tresse un chapeau de feuilles
Pour te garantir du soleil.
Puis, lorsque sa besogne est faite,
Et que son règne va finir,
Au seuil d’avril tournant la tête,
Il dit : Printemps, tu peux venir !
I’ve been working for weeks on what will probably be an 800-word article. Well, I’ve just been writing and writing and writing… searching for the right small focused part of the big [picture]. . . .
I’ve gotten more patient with the writing process, and with that period when you want to have all the thoughts in a row but they’re running around like kids at a playground.
Time is a good editor.
—Farai Chideya, @farai on Twitter
Farai Chideya is a journalist, author, radio host, and podcaster. Among other achievements, she was a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute from 2012-2016.
Along the same lines, Natalia Cecire (Senior Lecturer in English and American literature at the University of Sussex, @ncecire on Twitter) recalls the advice she was given about learning math:
Some things are just so hard you have to see them ten times to get it. So if you don’t get it right now, that’s because this is only time one.
The example of patient suffering is in itself the most precious of all lessons to an impatient world.
—Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger,” in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes
[Tune: “It Don’t Mean a Thing, If It Ain’t Got That Swing”]
It don’t mean a thing, if your nose can be seen
Pull up pull up pull up pull up
pull up pull up pull up your mask!
It’s no good if it’s only on your mouth
It’s still not safe, if your nose is out!
So get with the scene, keep your nose behind the screen
Pull up pull up pull up pull up
pull up pull up pull up your mask!
It ain’t no good to cover just your mouth
So pull that mask up, cover up your snout!
We are convinced that freedom without Socialism is privilege and injustice, and that Socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.
—Mikhail Bakunin (1814 – 1876)
From “Federalism, Socialism, Anti-Theologism”, presented by Bakunin as a Reasoned Proposal to the Central Committee of the League for Peace and Freedom, at the League’s first congress held in Geneva (September 1867). Source: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Mikhail_Bakunin
On January 6th, 2021, Donald Trump led a conspiracy to assassinate Congressional leaders and the Vice President.
The aim was to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, either directly or by creating a crisis that would serve as an excuse for Trump to declare an emergency and seize power.
Like everything else Trump has done his entire life, this was a criminal enterprise from the beginning, it was inept, and it failed.
Trump and his co-conspirators in the Congress, in the media, in his family, and in the corporate world must be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
Because if they aren’t, they will try again.
We hate uncertainty.
We want clear, definite answers.
We want simple stories that explain everything.
We become Fascists so easily.
If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854), “Conclusion”
I was reminded today of one of my more brilliant ideas to improve the world by these two paragraphs about Britain’s exit from the European Union:
Every five years, the UK and EU will review the agreement, supplementary agreements and any matters related to it. That corresponds to the standard five-year political timetable in Brussels and Westminster. In other words, each new Westminster parliament, or Council president, or European parliament, is going to have their own Brexit, their own appraisal of the relationship.
This is a pulsating, living deal. The metaphor of a divorce no longer really holds. It’s like a couple splitting up but then buying a new much smaller home where they’ll meet up at weekends. Maybe they’ll be sickened by each other whenever they arrive. Maybe they’ll start to remember what they saw in each other in the first place. Divergence or integration.
—Ian Dunt, “Never-ending story: Deal unveils next Brexit arguments”
This “five-year divorce,” with both parties obliged to reconsider the terms of their separation twice a decade, parallels my own idea, the “five-year marriage.”
The five-year marriage is a simple plan. Every marriage would have a five-year term that must be re-negotiated by the two parties, and then either renewed for another five years or ended, in which case they shake hands and go their separate ways.
It’s an idea bound to be ignored, of course, because when two people are on the verge of marriage they are definitely not inclined to be considering seriously the terms on which their marriage might end. Only the super-rich have lawyers and pre-nuptial agreements. Moreover, the five-year marriage would have to be adopted by an entire society, or at least by a large group of people, to make it work. Nevertheless, let us consider the possible advantages.
First, marriage “until death do us part” immediately encourages bad behaviour. Why not leave your dirty socks on the floor, or leave the cap off the toothpaste tube? You have a lifetime deal that can be broken only by extreme measures: a messy, complicated, and expensive divorce. In a five-year marriage, you would think at least twice before leaving those dirty socks to annoy or even anger your partner: do you want to risk a good marriage over dirty socks?
Similarly, if a marriage “until death do us part” is going badly, one or both parties may be tempted to cheat on their partner, leading to all the drearily familiar and ugly consequences of infidelity. On the other hand, imagine being three-and-a-half years into a five-year marriage that is not working out. In that case, why risk all the lies and hurt and anger of infidelity, when you can just wait eighteen months for your freedom?
Second, the five-year marriage plan recognizes a simple truth: we change. Naturally, the chances of two people changing over several decades and yet remaining ideal partners for each other are . . . remote. Most marriages that last, let’s face it, last for other reasons: the kids, the cost of divorce, the fear of change, simple laziness, etc. The five-year marriage, at least, takes the fear and shame and surprise out of separation. (And, if you decide to stay together, you get a new wedding every five years! Florists, caterers, wedding reception musicians, are you listening?)
I offer the world this brilliant idea satirically because I know that almost no one will take it seriously. And yet, I am serious. I am convinced that the five-year marriage would do wonders to improve the quality of our relationships and our lives, not to mention our emotional well-being. When I ascend to a position of sufficient authority, the five-year marriage will be one of my first decrees.
“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854), “Conclusion”
Hammers think everything they see is a nail.
Capitalism thinks everything it sees is a commodity.
“Bribery, the corruption of government agents, the debauch of red Americans, murder, theft, piracy, hijacking, the liquor traffic, private war, the employment of public force in private war, and other criminal practices characterized the Western fur trade. (As they had characterized the French, Canadian, and British fur trade.) They were deplorable. But they must be seen in relation to such facts as the West itself. . . .
“Before legal responsibility could be possible in the West, it was necessary to settle the West.
“The West being settled . . . a rudimentary legal justice, and a rudimentary social justice could not be established till the settlers of the West so changed the sentiments they brought along as to desire them.
“The development of the American social pattern had given the East a powerful money interest in preventing rudimentary legal and social decency from being established in the West. . . .
“The West . . . has always been exploited by absentee owners and managers under the sanction of imported law. . . . The Indians . . . were the first victims of a developing system whose later and successive victims have been white. As such they must be seen in relation to . . . a system of financial control which converted property, manipulated credit, and stripped the resources . . . to the sole end of canalizing eastward whatever wealth the West might produce.”
This report to the government of The Netherlands, published in September 2020, reaches conclusions that contradict common anti-nuclear talking points heard in the media.
Nuclear is a safe, secure and emission free energy with a low carbon footprint, which is able to supply a continuous and secure flow of electricity for generations to come. The main hurdle nowadays remains the economics of new nuclear power. . . .
Nuclear should not be viewed as being in competition with “renewable” sources of energy, such as wind or solar. Nevertheless, as the reduction of carbon emissions becoming a top political and public opinion priority, both nuclear and renewable sources could have much larger roles to play. The problem is that no “renewable” source has been demonstrated to have the capacity to provide the “baseload” electricity at all times of power needed to replace large fossil fuel plants. . . .
Nuclear is a high investment/low fuel costs generation technology. . . .
Another advantage is that the land‐use for nuclear power plants is negligible. Nuclear is by far the most concentrated way of generating electricity. . . .
On the question, asked by the Ministry of Economy of The Netherlands, as to whether nuclear could play an important role in the future energy mix of the Netherlands, the answer is affirmative. Nuclear energy, both large units and SMRs, when compared to VRE [Variable Renewable Energy, i.e., wind and solar] by using the same metrics, are cheaper, able to deliver dispatchable electricity to the grid (and stabilise the grid when needed) in a reliable fashion independent of weather conditions, while having the orders of magnitude smaller land‐ footprint than any other source of electricity, in particular, VREs. . . .
Read the full 88-page report. Thanks to John Quakes (Twitter: @quakes99) for pointing me to this important study.
From the Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman (1885), Chapter IX:
[After the First Battle of Bull Run, which ended in a headlong retreat by the undisciplined Union army of volunteers, Sherman tries to restore order among the soldiers of his brigade.]
The Sixty-ninth still occupied Fort Corcoran, and one morning, after reveille, when I had just received the report, had dismissed the regiment, and was leaving, I found myself in a crowd of men crossing the drawbridge on their way to a barn close by, where they had their sinks; among them was an officer, who said: “Colonel, I am going to New York today. What can I do for you?” I answered: “How can you go to New York? I do not remember to have signed a leave for you.” He said, “No; he did not want a leave. He had engaged to serve three months, and had already served more than that time. If the Government did not intend to pay him, he could afford to lose the money; that he was a lawyer, and had neglected his business long enough, and was then going home.” I noticed that a good many of the soldiers had paused about us to listen, and knew that, if this officer could defy me, they also would. So I turned on him sharp, and said: “Captain, this question of your term of service has been submitted to the rightful authority, and the decision has been published in orders. You are a soldier, and must submit to orders till you are properly discharged. If you attempt to leave without orders, it will be mutiny, and I will shoot you like a dog! Go back into the fort now, instantly, and don’t dare to leave without my consent.” I had on an overcoat, and may have had my hand about the breast, for he looked at me hard, paused a moment, and then turned back into the fort. The men scattered, and I returned to the house where I was quartered, close by.
That same day, which must have been about July 26th, I was near the river-bank, looking at a block-house which had been built for the defense of the aqueduct, when I saw a carriage coming by the road that crossed the Potomac River at Georgetown by a ferry. I thought I recognized in the carriage the person of President Lincoln. I hurried across a bend, so as to stand by the road-side as the carriage passed. I was in uniform, with a sword on, and was recognized by Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Seward, who rode side by side in an open hack. I inquired if they were going to my camps, and Mr. Lincoln said: “Yes; we heard that you had got over the big scare, and we thought we would come over and see the ‘boys.'” The roads had been much changed and were rough. I asked if I might give directions to his coachman, he promptly invited me to jump in and to tell the coachman which way to drive. Intending to begin on the right and follow round to the left, I turned the driver into a side-road which led up a very steep hill, and, seeing a soldier, called to him and sent him up hurriedly to announce to the colonel (Bennett, I think) that the President was coming . . . .
Lincoln visits the various groups under Sherman’s command, one by one, and gives a brief, well-received speech to each group.
At last we reached Fort Corcoran. The carriage could not enter, so I ordered the regiment, without arms, to come outside, and gather about Mr. Lincoln, who would speak to them. He made to them the same feeling address, with more personal allusions, because of their special gallantry in the battle under Corcoran, who was still a prisoner in the hands of the enemy; and he concluded with the same general offer of redress in case of grievances. In the crowd I saw the officer with whom I had had the passage at reveille that morning. His face was pale, and lips compressed. I foresaw a scene, but sat on the front seat of the carriage as quiet as a lamb. This officer forced his way through the crowd to the carriage, and said: “Mr. President, I have a cause of grievance. This morning I went to speak to Colonel Sherman, and he threatened to shoot me.” Mr. Lincoln, who was still standing, said, “Threatened to shoot you?” “Yes, sir, he threatened to shoot me.” Mr. Lincoln looked at him, then at me, and stooping his tall, spare form toward the officer, said to him in a loud stage-whisper, easily heard for some yards around: “Well, if I were you, and he threatened to shoot, I would not trust him, for I believe he would do it.” The officer turned about and disappeared, and the men laughed at him. Soon the carriage drove on, and, as we descended the hill, I explained the facts to the President, who answered, “Of course I didn’t know any thing about it, but I thought you knew your own business best.” I thanked him for his confidence, and assured him that what he had done would go far to enable me to maintain good discipline, and it did.
B.P. (Before the Pandemic), almost all the bus drivers were friendly and chatty.
“Good morning!” I would say as I swiped my pass.
“How you doing?” the driver would ask, smiling.
No more. They don’t even acknowledge the greeting.
I think I know how they feel: like me, only worse.
I ride the city bus to and from work each day, and the low-level anxiety never disappears. Why is that guy letting his mask droop down below his nose? Why are those teenagers not even wearing masks? Will this be the day some idiot gives me COVID-19, despite all my precautions?
Imagine spending your whole workday on that bus, worrying about the risk you’re taking. Not an easy time to be a bus driver.
I get off the bus, stop at the friendly coffee shop to fill my travel mug, then walk to school where I spend my day teaching, trying to feel normal.
But I don’t.
I’m lucky to live in a country with a better COVID record than most, and in a province doing better than the national average, and in a part of the province doing better than the rest. My school follows all the protocols. My students wear their masks more often than not, and quickly put them on when reminded, if they forget. But they are teenagers, and they do forget sometimes, and who knows what happens outside of school hours? So I feel that same low-level anxiety, all day, every day.
The best protection against the virus, they say, is ventilation. I’m in my late sixties, and I have asthma, and I work with teenagers all day. I need whatever protection I can get, so I keep the door and windows open in my classroom. Lately the temperature has been dropping. It’s uncomfortably cold. When I come back to my room after someone else has taught in it, the door and windows are closed. I open them again. The choice: cold and anxious, or warm and really worried.
I live alone, in a small apartment. No pets. I haven’t visited with friends or been out to a restaurant or gone out to hear live music for . . . well, eight or nine months, but it feels much longer than that. The isolation, and the constant low-level anxiety, weighs on you. It probably helps to have a pet. It might help to have a spouse or a partner or kids, but then again that could turn into a No Exit kind of situation. Have domestic-abuse rates risen, D.P. (During the Pandemic)?
I keep telling myself that if millions of Europeans could survive five years of the Second World War, surely we can survive a few more months until the scientists rescue us with a vaccine. After all, no one is shooting at us, or dropping bombs on us. Right? I try to imagine that future, A.P. (After the Pandemic), when everyone is out together, eating, drinking, listening to music, packed into movie theatres. Will we, even then, feel comfortable without masks? Will we be able to stop imagining the aerosolized clouds surrounding us and happily, obliviously inhale the exhalations of all those strangers? Will we ever live again as we used to?
A small percentage
of a small number is . . .
But a small percentage
of a large number is . . .
The percentage of infected people who die
is interesting, but
it’s the *number* of people killed & disabled that really . . .
Democratic policy wonks had better be drafting legislation to reverse the damage done by Trump and McConnell:
1. Obamacare+, after the Supreme Court’s imminent overturning of Obamacare.
2. Federal abortion rights legislation after Roe v. Wade is overturned.
3. Anti-gerrymandering legislation.
4. Genuine campaign-finance legislation to take the money out of politics, to the greatest degree possible.
5. Re-enactment of the Fairness Doctrine to mandate equal time for opposing views on TV and radio.
6. Legislation to replace all the “norms” ignored by the Republicans in the Trump era, e.g.,
•Appointment of Supreme Court judges
•Separation of Attorney General and Dept of Justice from politics
•Beefed up Hatch Act
•Laws to put teeth into the Emoluments Clause
•Laws to require government officials to testify when called by Congress
•A law specifying the conditions under which a sitting President may be prosecuted
. . . and so on!
[A variation on the late, great John Prine’s “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven,” with apologies.]
While digesting Reader’s Digest
In the back of a dirty book shop,
I stumbled on a box of MAGA hats,
Twenty-five cents a pop.
Well, I picked one out and paid two bits,
Pulled it down it over my eyes,
And if I could meet that Melania Trump
She’d get an awful big surprise.
But your MAGA hat won’t get you into heaven, not today,
The pandemic’s dead are sharing harps and taking turns to play,
And Jesus don’t like hatred, no matter what those liars say,
So your MAGA hat won’t get you into heaven anyway.
Well I went to the grocery store today
And the doorman said to me,
“I’m sorry, sir, you need to wear a mask
Here, we’ll give you one for free.”
“I don’t need no freakin’ mask,
I got a MAGA hat!” I said,
I went on in and bought a dozen eggs,
And a loaf of that whole-wheat bread.
Well, my MAGA hat kept slippin’ over my
Eyes so I couldn’t see.
I ran the car upside a curb
And right into a tree.
By the time they got a doctor down
I was already dead.
And I’ll never understand why the man
Standing in the Pearly Gates said…
There is only one race, the human race.
—Pearl Bailey, in The Raw Pearl (1968)
Pearl Bailey and drumming legend Louie Bellson married in 1952 and stayed that way until Bailey’s death 38 years later.
To Seamus O’Regan
Natural Resources Minister
House of Commons
Dear Mr. O’Regan,
I was very happy to hear you say on CBC’s “The House” that there is no path to net-zero without nuclear power.
I was opposed to the expansion of nuclear power for years, mostly out of concerns about safety and the problems surrounding disposal of nuclear waste. In the past few months, however, I have been giving nuclear power a hard second look, and my conclusion is exactly yours: there is no path to net-zero without nuclear power.
Furthermore, the concerns about nuclear safety and waste disposal have been exaggerated: these are manageable problems. They have been managed using first-generation technologies for half a century; they can be even better managed using third- and fourth-generation technologies going forward.
In addition, a significant nuclear industry in Alberta could re-employ oil-patch workers who have been laid off in recent years. And in developing countries around the world, rising energy demands for modernizing economies can only be met by nuclear power if we hope to address the slow catastrophe of climate change.
I hope you will continue to spread the word that expansion of a well-regulated nuclear power industry can safely address climate change, protect our environment, and re-energize our economy.
With my best wishes,
The rise of Trump and the modern Republican Party—soul-less and unprincipled—was made possible by institutional and structural flaws in American politics that have remained unchanged since 2016:
- A news media establishment that depends on advertising revenue and therefore seeks, above all else, attention—and is thus easily exploited by a master of distraction and sensation like Trump.
- A comfortable and smug Democratic Party establishment that has ignored systemic injustices, both racial and economic.
- The Electoral College, a remnant of the undemocratic features of the U.S. Constitution designed to protect established interests, including the slaveholding states of the South.
- The filibuster rule of the U.S. Senate, another anti-democratic tool used by those seeking to thwart reforms.
- A plethora of political and governmental “guard rails” that are simply norms, accepted practices with no basis in law, and which are therefore easily ignored without consequences for the offenders.
- A system of public education funded by local property taxes and therefore designed to maintain existing inequalities of wealth and class.
- A federal election system that is privately funded and wide-open to the most egregious abuses, effectively making all federal office-holders more or less beholden to their campaign donors.
Until these institutional features of U.S. government and politics change, American democracy will continue to produce chaos instead of good governance.
In Grade Nine, as the youngest member of the high school concert band’s percussion section, I was assigned the cymbal part for a long symphonic piece whose name I have forgotten.
On the night of the concert, the auditorium was filled with parents and students. I stood in the back row on the highest riser, a tall, skinny kid feeling uncomfortable. Partly my discomfort was due to the tie that was strangling me, but mostly it was because I had had very little rehearsal time for this number. There were, it seemed to me, about 5,000 measures of rest, including several repeated sections and other confusions along the way, before my single cymbal crash. The cymbals were heavy, 16 or 18 inches in diameter, and I stood for a long time, hands gripping the leather straps, a cymbal at each side resting lightly against my thighs. In vain I searched the music with one eye and kept the other on the band director as he conducted, hoping fervently that he would give me a sign when my moment was near.
To crash the cymbals properly, however, required some preparation. I had to raise them up in front of me, about six inches apart, one about twelve inches higher than the other. I worried that the band director, having more important matters at hand, would not alert me long enough before the crash to give me time to prepare. Finally it seemed to me that I had better get ready, so I raised the cymbals up to their proper positions and waited. Just as my arms were starting to quiver under the weight of the cymbals, the director looked at me and discreetly shook his head.
As inconspicuously as possible, I slowly lowered the cymbals and stood again with my hands at my sides. Only later did I realize that a tall, skinny boy raising a large pair of shiny cymbals in the back row provided, for most of the audience, the only real interest of the performance.
The piece continued, and I waited, hoping desperately for either a section of music that I recognized, or a sign from the conductor.
Once again, fearing I would miss my cue, I raised the cymbals, and waited. Again my arms began to tremble. Again the conductor shook his head, and again I lowered the cymbals slowly to my sides.
I can’t remember now whether this sequence repeated three times, or four, but finally, my arms now visibly shaking, the conductor nodded. With immense relief I recognized the crucial passage of the music, and I successfully crashed the cymbals, right on time.
My relief turned to shock, however, when—right in the middle of the piece—the entire audience erupted in applause! They had been waiting through almost the entire, dreary number for that cymbal crash. The tension caused by my repeated false starts must have been excruciating.
A week or so later, my French teacher kicked me out of class and sent me to the vice-principal’s office. She was angry with me because I refused to carry the heavy textbook home each night to complete her five-point homework assignments. “If you did your homework, you could have an A!” she shouted in exasperation. When I told her that I was quite happy with my B+, she kicked me out.
The vice-principal, hardened by constant experience with rather more serious discipline problems, listened to my story, looked at me without expression, blinked once, and invited me to sit down. “I really enjoyed that band concert,” he said. “You did a great job with those cymbals.”
Taken aback momentarily, I recovered my footing and we talked for several minutes about the weight of crash cymbals. We discussed the care one must take not to catch one’s tie in between the cymbals and thus spoil the crash. And so on. We pretty much exhausted the topic. Then he looked at me and asked, “Do you think she’ll let you back into class now?” He wrote a note for me and sent me back.
Premise 1: Climate change is real.
Premise 2: To avert catastrophe we must either drastically reduce our use of fossil fuel energy or replace it with carbon-free energy, or both.
Premise 3: The worldwide demand for energy is going to grow, not shrink.
Premise 4: Solar, wind, thermal, etc., will never meet that demand.
Premise 5: Even if “green” technologies could meet the demand, their manufacture requires more fossil fuel energy than they produce.
Conclusion: Therefore the only possible way to avert catastrophic climate change is to employ nuclear power on a large scale.
To do this will require . . .
1. Fail-safe reactor designs.
2. Safe management of nuclear waste.
3. Development of advanced reactors that can use the waste from older reactors as fuel.
George Monbiot is the well-regarded author of several books focusing on environmental issues. “In 1995, Nelson Mandela presented him with a United Nations Global 500 Award for outstanding environmental achievement” (Wikipedia).
Understanding who we are and where we stand in the world is not something that happens at birth, or at any one point in our lives. It arises from questioning, challenging and reassessing ourselves every day. There is no one answer, and it does not stay still.
We acquire no useful knowledge of our world without determined study. We acquire no useful understanding of our world without constant investigation. We all have a duty, to ourselves and others, to see beyond the culture and beliefs into which we were born.
This might sound like a grind. But in truth, this quest will lead you to unimagined wonders and delights.—George Monbiot on Twitter@GeorgeMonbiot11 June 2020
Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
Prologue: What Are You Angry About?
One fall when I was living in China, years ago, I had an upper respiratory infection that never quite cleared up. My asthma inhalers stopped working, even after I tried doubling my usual dose. The Singaporean doctor at the Western medical clinic finally threw his hands up. “I don’t have anything else I can do for you.” So with little to lose I went to the Traditional Chinese Medicine hospital, and after less than a week of drinking the herbal medicine prescribed by Dr. Zhou, I stopped using my inhalers altogether.
Needless to say, I became a regular patient. One day, as he felt my pulse, Dr. Zhou turned to me and said, “You’re angry.”
“Yes,” he said. “What are you angry about?”
I thought for a moment. “Injustice.”
Dr. Zhou laughed. “There’s a lot of that,” he said.
* * *
My political education began when Jack Kennedy was assassinated. I was eleven years old. Up until that point my understanding of American history came from the textbooks we read in the public schools. The Pilgrims sitting down for a convivial Thanksgiving feast with local Indians. The brave settlers clearing forests and creating rich farmland out of the wilderness. Brilliant self-taught inventors producing the machines that powered the Industrial Revolution and the growing wealth of the nation. Wise and noble leaders like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. Of course there were villains and evil deeds in the story, but they were invariably defeated by the forces of justice. Slavery, that terrible mistake, was overturned in the Civil War. Corrupt politicians and businessmen were inevitably found out and punished. Abraham Lincoln followed in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers, and was followed in turn by FDR, who not only saved the nation from the Great Depression but led the fight in World War II that defeated Hitler and turned the United States into the world’s superpower. Think of it: the first modern democracy leading the world toward a future of progress, education, justice, and prosperity for all.
Then Kennedy was killed. The accused shooter was murdered while in police custody, and the official explanations made no sense. The government was almost certainly lying to us. Soon after, the Vietnam War expanded, and the lies accumulated. The U.S., it turned out, had been involved in assassinating the president of South Vietnam. Other assassinations or attempted assassinations of foreign leaders came to light, along with the complicity between the CIA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in manipulating small nations all over Latin America, Asia, and Africa for the profit of American corporations. At the same time the Civil Rights movement revealed to clueless whites like me the sordid facts about racial segregation in the South and the long history of discrimination, injustice, lynchings, and mob violence suffered by African-Americans since the end of Reconstruction in 1876 and, especially in the 20th century, in urban centers from New York to Los Angeles. As racial tensions increased and the antiwar movement grew, I was in high school and college, discovering the dark side of American history and culture. Discovering that I had been lied to, repeatedly. I felt betrayed. I was angry about the crimes committed by slaveowners, by exploitative capitalists, by the racist white majority, by the politicians and police departments and banks that perpetrated injustice at home and abroad. Langston Hughes’s searing description of the feelings of African-Americans toward the Southern homeland that so many of them had left in search of a better life resonated with my own bitter feelings of betrayal:
The lazy, laughing South
With blood on its mouth.
The sunny-faced South,
The child-minded South
Scratching in the dead fire’s ashes
For a Negro’s bones.
Cotton and the moon,
Warmth, earth, warmth,
The sky, the sun, the stars,
The magnolia-scented South.
Beautiful, like a woman,
Seductive as a dark-eyed whore,
That is the South.
And I, who am black, would love her
But she spits in my face.
And I, who am black,
Would give her many rare gifts
But she turns her back upon me.
So now I seek the North–
The cold-faced North,
For she, they say,
Is a kinder mistress,
And in her house my children
May escape the spell of the South.
—“The South,” by Langston Hughes
I had not suffered personally. I had not been an indigenous American, an African-American, an immigrant, a sharecropper. I had not been unemployed, or lived in a tenement house, or been drafted into the military and sent overseas to kill brown-skinned people for the Chamber of Commerce. But I deeply empathized with those who had, and I deeply resented their persecutors.
“You’re angry,” Dr. Zhou said.
“Yes,” he said. “What are you angry about?”
I thought for a moment. “Injustice.”
Dr. Zhou laughed. “There’s a lot of that,” he said.
More than half a century has passed since they murdered Jack Kennedy and got away with it. I am still angry. Sometimes I wonder, “Why in the world am I still angry, half a century later?” Most of the time, though, I wonder why everyone isn’t as angry as I am. Because, of course, the murder of Jack Kennedy was just one spectacular moment in a long, long series of crimes. Do nations have souls? Are they haunted by their sins, especially the ones they try to cover up and deny? It’s dishonesty, above all, that corrupts the soul. Redemption is possible, but not without repentance and confession. Since those first English freebooters arrived in Virginia hoping to find gold, America has been pretending that it has nothing to be ashamed of.
The Elephant in the Room
the elephant in the room: an obvious major problem or issue that people avoid discussing or acknowledging
Donald Trump was elected by a wave of racist reaction against eight years of America’s first African-American president; by racist fears of immigrants; by racist resentment of the decline of the white working class, especially in rural America and the Midwestern rust belt, where globalization left previously prosperous communities devastated; by racist resentment of urban centers that are invariably more multi-cultural and more inclined to vote Democratic; and by racist resentment of poor people of color, who are simultaneously blamed for taking jobs from whites and for running up the costs of social welfare programs because they are unemployed—not to mention their supposed propensities for crime and drug-taking.
Trump’s election was assisted by Russia’s stealth disinformation campaign, exploiting social media and turning the internet into history’s greatest propaganda tool. But it was made possible only by the anti-democratic Electoral College, an invention of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. My high school history books described the Electoral College as part of a compromise between “small states” and “large states” that was designed to ensure a balance of power between rural and urban communities. But it was also a compromise between the slave-holding southern states and the non-slave northern states, pushed by southerners’ fears that they would soon be outvoted by the more populous North. (The infamous Second Amendment, the sacred text underlying the nation’s unrelenting gun violence, was similarly pushed by slaveowners like Patrick Henry, who were terrified that the federal government would not come to their aid if the slaves rebelled.)
Since being elected, Trump and the Republicans have controlled the government thanks to the U.S. Senate, another anti-democratic creation of the Constitutional Convention that has kept power in the hands of—or at least within reach of—the (formerly) slaveholding states. Trump continues to play the race card whenever it suits his purposes, against immigrants from Latin America, against dark-skinned people from “shithole countries,” against brown-skinned Muslims invariably smeared as religious fanatics and terrorists, and most recently against the Chinese, convenient whipping-boys for Trump’s colossal mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis.
White resentment of the brown-skinned urban poor has been reinforced throughout America’s history by its success mythology, which holds that in America, anyone who is honest and hardworking can succeed. The obvious corollary of this deeply-engrained national myth is that poor people are poor because they are lazy and worthless. Racists have always viewed higher poverty rates among people of color as confirmation of the “white race’s” superiority. Racism has also conveniently divided poor whites from poor blacks, preventing them from uniting against the moneyed interests who have always taken a disproportionate share of the nation’s wealth and income. Trump has masterfully exploited these racist fears, resentments, and prejudices with the help of Fox News and right-wing talk-radio provocateurs whose toxic propaganda pervades rural America. As a result, Trump can lie repeatedly without losing support among his base, that 40-45% of mostly white, mostly rural, mostly working class voters who believe fervently that he is standing up for them against brown-skinned people, foreign and domestic, who are trying to take America away from the brave, honest, hardworking white people who made it “the greatest nation on earth.”
And so now, Donald Trump—the most corrupt and incompetent President in history—is in charge while the nation faces its greatest public health crisis in at least a century. The ringing, idealistic phrases of the Declaration of Independence and the speeches of Abraham Lincoln seem little more than a thin coat of paint on a house that has been rotting from within for centuries. Slavery and the century-and-a-half of racism that has followed its abolition are not an aberration or anomaly. They are not an unfortunate and somewhat embarrassing side-note to an otherwise proud story of liberty and democracy in the New World. Rather, slavery and the decades of racism that have followed its abolition are at the core of America’s story. The same Thomas Jefferson who wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” was a slaveowner who, after his wife died, slept with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, and fathered several children by her—children he never acknowledged as his. Racism remains at the core of America’s politics. It explains why, at a moment of crisis, the nation is being led by an ignorant con-man.
In 1675 the Wampanoags rose up against the Puritan colonizers who had first arrived in “New England” a generation earlier. The settlers called the three-year conflict that followed “King Philip’s War” because they could not pronounce the name of the Wampanoag chief, Metacom, and called him King Philip instead. Rather than recognize that indigenous Americans were justly outraged at being colonized by foreigners from across the sea, the settlers concluded that God was using the Indians to punish them for their private sins. Before organizing themselves to exterminate the Indians, the settlers went to church to pray, fast, and beg God to forgive them. They interpreted their eventual victory as a sign that their prayers had been heard. In my darkest moments, that story represents American history in miniature: ignorant, self-righteous white people committing crime after crime while believing all the while that God is on their side.
It is hard to imagine how anything less than a second American Revolution could put an end to the Electoral College, the anti-democratic Senate, the racist gerrymandering of congressional districts, the de facto segregation baked into American communities, and all the other consequences of racism that are dragging the nation toward a dismal demise. It is even harder to imagine a second American Revolution.
* * *
Of course the full story is more complicated and more nuanced. The concerns of small states were real in 1787, and those small states included non-slave states like Rhode Island. The United States has never been a nation in the French sense of the word; it is rather a federation of states, and each of those states, north and south, has always had a strong sense of independence from, and presumptive opposition to, anything coming from the central government in Washington. As for the nation’s gun-mania, the western frontier was a dominant feature of American life from the earliest settlements of the 1600s right up until almost the end of the 1800s, and remained central to the American imagination far beyond that time. The country’s continued obsession with individual gun rights certainly has a lot to do with that history. And so on. The story can be told that way.
So much depends on how the story is told.
For most of my life, the story has been told in a way that has minimized and marginalized slavery and, to an even greater extent, racism. Incidents of white violence against blacks were often simply omitted from the narrative. The story of the economic impact of slavery and the 19th-century cotton trade was minimized. The nationwide institutionalized racism of police departments and banking policies like red-lining were not included. Incidents of racial discrimination or violence were always presented as deplorable but exceptional cases. Even the story of the Civil War itself was told in such a way that black people were almost totally absent. The truth is, white supremacists of the northern states—including Abraham Lincoln—did not fight to free the slaves, but to preserve the Union. (Yes, Lincoln was a white supremacist. As kind and considerate as he was, personally, he believed the only permanent solution to America’s race problem was to send the slaves and their descendants back to Africa.) Meanwhile the white supremacists of the South lost the war, but after a decade of Reconstruction they regained their footing and won the peace. And their version of events has dominated the national narrative ever since, despite the hagiography of Abe Lincoln. Northern whites turned a blind eye to Jim Crow segregation and lynchings in the South for most of a century after the Civil War because what they cared about was preserving the Union, and one way to do that was to construct a narrative of national unity that minimized racial divisions.
If, however, one looks at American history with slavery and racism in the foreground instead of putting them in the background and off to the side, the continuities become obvious and the short version of the story becomes something like what I have written above. Has there been progress when it comes to “race relations” in the United States? Of course. But the racist sentiments among white Americans, and the racist institutions of American politics like the Electoral College, the Senate, and gerrymandered Congressional districts continue. Put together, they have led to the election of Donald Trump and the dominance of a Republican Party stripped of any principle beyond holding onto power by whatever despicable means are available. Can the minority of Americans who embrace a progressive vision of social and economic justice in a multicultural nation prevail against the stubborn legacy of racism in America’s culture and political institutions? I very much doubt it.
* * *
Despite this sordid history of slavery and racism, of lynchings and riots and mob violence, of chronic discrimination against minorities by police, by employers, by landlords, by nobodies for no particular reason—despite this, most Americans of all races and incomes and social classes remain optimistic and patriotic to a degree that is almost childlike. A friend once asked me, “Considering all the people you have met from different cultures and nations all over the world, who do African-Americans most resemble?” I thought for a few moments, then gave up. My friend smiled. “White Americans!” And I realized immediately how right he was. Presidential candidates as different as Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama find ways to appeal to the deep vein of optimism that runs through the entire nation. It’s “Morning in America!” “Hope and change!” “Yes, we can!” Optimism and sentimentality make the sale in America, every time. Critics are a downer. They’re so negative. They turn people off. Most Americans don’t want to hear about all the defects and problems and injustices. So when someone even says the word racism, the negative response follows immediately. Talking to many white Americans about racism is like talking to men in a gentleman’s club about feminism. No one wants to hear it. “If you don’t like this country, go find a better one, if you can. But you can’t, and you know it, so just shut up.” That’s basically the response.
It is dishonesty, above all, that corrupts the soul.
If the optimism were honest and clear-sighted, I could accept it, even embrace it. But because it is blind and dishonest, it provokes me. If someone mentions the Pilgrims and their “city on a hill,” I remind them of the genocide of indigenous Americans that rendered the hill largely depopulated and open for English colonizers. If they mention the can-do American spirit that created the richest nation on earth, I begin dourly to point out that millions of African slaves created most of the nation’s wealth. I make myself disagreeable. I want to push their noses in it, to wake them up.
They don’t want to wake up because they are in love with the idea of America, the Platonic ideal of America, the dream of America. The American dream. Winners and losers, rich and poor, white black brown yellow green and purple, they all dream America. Americans are dreamers.
* * *
And there is something so powerful about that dream. Martin Luther King, Jr., could see clearly, but still preached about the dream. Ray Charles sang “America the Beautiful.” And the taxi driver I once met, who was interested in history, exemplified American optimism. I spoke about the sins of Thomas Jefferson, but he was unpersuaded. “Maybe none of that is really important,” the taxi driver said. “Maybe all that matters is those beautiful words, that beautiful idea.”
I agree with Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative when he says that “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Thomas Jefferson was much more than a slave-owning hypocrite. But he was, also, a slave-owning hypocrite, and the nation he helped to found has never resolved the contradictions that he embodied. America has never resolved the contradiction of being a nation whose pre-eminent value is freedom, and whose wealth was founded on slavery. History, as they say, is long, while life is short, and perhaps it is only my deficient perspective, limited by a mere human lifetime, that makes me pessimistic about America.
As one of America’s great authors once wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
I don’t know how I have overlooked Thoreau during the first two months of the pandemic’s enforced “social isolation” regime. This is from the fifth chapter of Walden (1854), entitled “Solitude”:
I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert. The farmer can work alone in the field or the woods all day, hoeing or chopping, and not feel lonesome, because he is employed; but when he comes home at night he cannot sit down in a room alone, at the mercy of his thoughts, but must be where he can “see the folks,” and recreate, and as he thinks remunerate himself for his day’s solitude; and hence he wonders how the student can sit alone in the house all night and most of the day without ennui and “the blues;” but he does not realize that the student, though in the house, is still at work in his field, and chopping in his woods, as the farmer in his, and in turn seeks the same recreation and society that the latter does, though it may be a more condensed form of it.
There was an old man of Victoria
Who suffered from chronic euphoria.
The doc shook his head,
And sadly he said,
“There’s no more that I can do for ya.”
I ask you, what am I? I’m one of the undeserving poor: thats what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that hes up agen middle class morality all the time. If theres anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it’s always the same story: “Youre undeserving; so you cant have it.” But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow’s that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I dont need less than a deserving man: I need more. I dont eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I’m a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything.
—G. B. Shaw, “Pygmalion” (1914)
Why is writing so difficult?
For many reasons. For example, writing is not natural, like talking or walking, so it requires a special effort. It also requires careful attention to lots of annoying details like punctuation, grammar, and spelling. Many of the ‘rules’ for English punctuation, grammar, and spelling don’t make much sense. Moreover, writing requires you to do two conflicting things at the same time: think about what you are saying, and also think about how you are saying it. And so on. To put it briefly, writing well is one of the most difficult human skills.
Why is it so frustrating?
Because usually, improvement takes a long time. Even worse, improvement is not gradual. That is, if we made a graph of writing improvement it would NOT look like this:
Instead, a graph of writing improvement would look something like this:
The second graph helps to explain an almost universal experience: you work, and work, and work, but your results don’t improve. Why? Because you are on one of those long, flat portions of the line. If you let the frustration defeat you, then you give up trying and you never reach the next level. But if you remain patient and determined and keep working, you will eventually reach that point where everything you have been working on suddenly ‘clicks’ and you jump up to the next level.
So now you want to know . . .
How does one become a good writer?
It’s not so complicated, but it’s not so easy, either.
- Read! When you read, you learn what words and sentences look like when they are written. If you read very little, your understanding of what written words and sentences look like remains weak and uncertain. How is that word spelled? Should I put a comma here? What’s the right way to use a dash, or a semi-colon? Hundreds of such questions confront a writer, and it’s impossible to learn the answers to them by memorizing a grammar book. However, someone who reads a great deal learns to answer most of those questions correctly simply by seeing so many words spelled and so many sentences and paragraphs written correctly. So there’s the first key to success as a writer: good writers are voracious readers!
- Pay attention. Once you become an enthusiastic reader—when reading is a pleasure, not a chore—you can begin noticing how writers write. After all, if you enjoy reading, then you enjoy the results of someone else’s writing. At first, and for a long time perhaps, you may be content just to benefit from other people’s hard work. But if you’re lucky you will develop an interest in the craft of writing—how do they do that?—and want to try it yourself. You may discover that, although writing well is very difficult, the satisfaction of succeeding at it is very great.
- Write! You learn to walk by walking, and not giving up even though at first you fall down a lot. You learn to play the piano by playing the piano. You learn carpentry by doing carpentry. You learn to play football by playing football. You learn to write by writing. Find good writers, and copy what they do. Then find others who write very differently, and copy what they do. Practice, practice, practice. Seek out good coaches, and take their advice.
And as Winston Churchill almost said, never, never, never, never give up.
The embrace of Donald Trump’s shameless serial lying by the Republican Party did not fall suddenly out of the sky. It began in the first term of George W. Bush’s presidency, and first surfaced in an article published in the New York Times Magazine. Wikipedia:
The phrase was attributed by journalist Ron Suskind to an unnamed official in the George W. Bush administration who used it to denigrate a critic of the administration’s policies as someone who based their judgements on facts. In a 2004 article appearing in the New York Times Magazine, Suskind wrote:
The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.
International relations scholar Fred Halliday writes that the phrase reality-based community (in contrast to faith-based community) was used “for those who did not share [the Bush administration’s] international goals and aspirations”. . . .
The term was used to mock the Bush administration’s funding of faith-based social programmes, as well as a perceived hostility to professional and scientific expertise among American conservatives.
This attack on reality by the political Right developed further as “post-truth politics,” a
term . . . used by Paul Krugman in The New York Times to describe Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign in which certain claims—such as that Barack Obama had cut defense spending and that he had embarked on an “apology tour”—continued to be repeated long after they had been debunked. Other forms of scientific denialism in modern US politics include the anti-vaxxer movement, and the belief that existing genetically modified foods are harmful despite a strong scientific consensus that no currently marketed GMO foods have any negative health effects. The health freedom movement in the US resulted in the passage of the bipartisan Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which allows the sale of dietary supplements without any evidence that they are safe or effective . . . .
So after Trump is gone and Republicans want to blame him for everything, don’t let them off the hook. And don’t let the Democratic establishment off the hook, either, for their support of elitist policies that enriched Wall Street, drained the middle class dry, and turned vast swaths of rural America into a desperate, meth-lab-strewn wasteland.
Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
During this COVID-19 pandemic it may be useful to try visualization to speed healing, not as a substitute for medical care but to supplement it. At any rate, the calming effects of such exercises can’t do any harm. There are a lot of somewhat goofy sites on the internet on this topic, and many trying to sell a product of some kind, but the Meditation Society of America has a pretty good take on it. Here are the first four of eight approaches to visualization for healing that they suggest:
1. In your minds eye, see aberrant or inflamed cells changing into healthy cells. If there is a damaged or corrupted area within the cells, visualize them changing and becoming free from injury. See your whole body becoming pure. Visualize yourself as perfectly healthy.
2. There are cells within your body that act as protectors and actually attack and kill damaging invader cells. See these warrior cells destroy those cells that could cause you injury. See your whole body becoming pure. Visualize yourself as perfectly healthy.
3. There are cells within your body that eat threatening cells. See them devour the harm causing structures. See your whole body becoming pure. Visualize yourself as perfectly healthy.
4. Visualize groups of healthy cells combining to replace any damaged areas of your body. For instance, if you have suffered a broken bone, see the cells come together in healing, bonding together to reform a complete structure. Visualize the bone as perfectly healthy.
The article quotes Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute of Harvard Medical School in 1988 and of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital in 2006:
We know that belief can lead to healing or at least improvement in 50 percent to 90 percent of diseases, including asthma, angina pectoris, and skin rashes, many forms of pain, rheumatoid arthritis, congestive heart failure. They’re all influenced by belief. We in medicine have made fun of belief by calling it the “placebo effect,” or insisting that “It’s all in your head.” Yet, belief is one of the most powerful healing tools we have in our therapeutic arsenal.
It might be worth a try. Click on this link for the full article from the Meditation Society of America.
Fado is Portuguese folk music that is found almost exclusively in Lisbon.
I went there for a teachers’ conference in 1989 when I was working in Morocco. The guy that was supposed to pick us up at the airport was late, so I and a couple of buddies bought a map and jumped on a city bus. We talked up a friendly girl, who told us the name of a restaurant in the Bairro Alto (an old neighbourhood of the city) where we could hear good fado. That’s the first time I heard the word.
The restaurant was a family-owned greasy-fish place filled with locals drinking cheap red wine and eating greasy fish. We sat down and ordered food (and cheap red wine) with the help of Cristina, daughter of the owner, who spoke enough French for us to communicate. There was a guitar leaning against the wall, but nothing else. After a while a nondescript fellow wandered in, shook a few hands, then picked up the guitar and started singing this amazing music, with the locals singing along on the choruses. After about 15 minutes he put the guitar down, joined a table, and had his meal.
As the evening progressed this happened repeatedly, with different singers coming in, doing a set, and then either sitting down for a glass of wine or wandering off, presumably, to the next place. How or if they got paid was unclear.
Finally, about midnight, there was this scruffy looking guy with the guitar. Our waitress, Cristina, took off her apron, walked up to join him, and began singing like Maria Callas. She and the guy began doing a kind of duet, but clearly it was improvised, with lots of snarky back-and-forth between them and the crowd roaring with laughter.
We stayed as long as we could, and went back repeatedly during our three-day conference. Cristina, it turns out, had recorded an album, and she sold me a tape cassette of it. The tape was good, but in person she was magnificent.
Of course we didn’t understand a single word of the lyrics, but it didn’t matter. The music was so beautiful, and powerful, and sad. One guy told me, “Fado is the Portuguese blues.”
Here is the great Amália Rodrigues:
And here, more recently, is Carlos Manuel Moutinho Paiva dos Santos Duarte, whose stage name is Camané:
You’ve heard about the “Greatest Generation” and how Americans all pulled together in the 1940s to win the war against fascism, right? Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her book No Ordinary Time (1994) tells a different story.
As Hitler occupied most of France and began attacking England, FDR appealed to business leaders to shift their production to defense materials. They refused unless they would be given preferential status in bidding for defense contracts. In the end, FDR gave in.
When the revenue bill [giving favorable terms to corporations taking on defense contracts] finally passed later that fall, the capital strike [by big business] came to an end and war contracts began to clear with speed.. . . In the months ahead . . . new legislation would be enacted to try to increase the relative share of small business in total army procurement. But by then, the basic pattern—the link between big business and the military establishment, a link that would last long into the postwar era and lead a future president to warn against the “military-industrial complex”—was already set.[pp. 158-59]
In 1940, . . . approximately 175,000 companies provided 70 percent of the manufacturing output of the U.S., while one hundred companies produced the remaining 30 percent. By the beginning of 1943, the ratio had been reversed. The hundred large companies formerly holding only 30 percent now held 70 percent of all government contracts.[p. 399]
To this day, Franklin Roosevelt remains the symbol of big government and the controlled economy. Yet, under Roosevelt’s wartime leadership, the government entered into a close partnership with private enterprise . . . . Business was exempted from antitrust laws, allowed to write off the full cost of investments, given the financial and material resources to fulfill contracts, and guaranteed a substantial profit. The leader who had once proclaimed his intention to master the forces of organized money had become their greatest benefactor.[pp. 607-08]
So angry was the outpouring of public sentiment that a resolution was introduced in the Senate requiring members to renounce their claim of special privilege. When the defiant Senators defeated the resolution by a vote of sixty-six to two, the public mood darkened.[p. 357]
Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) begins his masterwork, The Decameron, with a vivid first-hand description of the bubonic plague’s arrival in Florence, Italy, in 1348. By the time it was all over, historians estimate that roughly one third of the population of Europe was dead. Boccaccio describes the disease itself—
. . . it began with swellings in the groin and armpit, in both men and women, some of which were as big as apples and some of which were shaped like eggs, some were small and others were large; the common people called these swellings gavoccioli. From these two parts of the body, the fatal gavaccioli would begin to spread and within a short while would appear over the entire body in various spots; the disease at this point began to take on the qualities of a deadly sickness, and the body would be covered with dark and livid spots, which would appear in great numbers on the arms, the thighs, and other parts of the body; some were large and widely spaced while some were small and bunched together. And just like the gavaciolli earlier, these were certain indications of coming death. . . .
. . . the rags of a poor man who had just died from the disease were thrown into the public street and were noticed by two pigs, who, following their custom, pressed their snouts into the rags, and afterwards picked them up with their teeth, and shook them against their cheeks: and within a short time, they both began to convulse, and they both, the two of them, fell dead on the ground next to the evil rags.
—and the human responses to incomprehensible suffering:
Because of all these things, and many others that were similar or even worse, diverse fears and imaginings were born in those left alive, and all of them took recourse to the most cruel precaution: to avoid and run away from the sick and their things; by doing this, each person believed they could preserve their health. Others were of the opinion that they should live moderately and guard against all excess; by this means they would avoid infection. Having withdrawn, living separate from everybody else, they settled down and locked themselves in, where no sick person or any other living person could come, they ate small amounts of food and drank the most delicate wines and avoided all luxury, refraining from speech with outsiders, refusing news of the dead or the sick or anything else, and diverting themselves with music or whatever else was pleasant. Others, who disagreed with this, affirmed that drinking beer, enjoying oneself, and going around singing and ruckus-raising and satisfying all one’s appetites whenever possible and laughing at the whole bloody thing was the best medicine; and these people put into practice what they heartily advised to others: day and night, going from tavern to tavern, drinking without moderation or measure, and many times going from house to house drinking up a storm and only listening to and talking about pleasing things. These parties were easy to find because everyone behaved as if they were going to die soon, so they cared nothing about themselves nor their belongings; as a result, most houses became common property, and any stranger passing by could enter and use the house as if he were its master. But for all their bestial living, these people always ran away from the sick. With so much affliction and misery, all reverence for the laws, both of God and of man, fell apart and dissolved, because the ministers and executors of the laws were either dead or ill like everyone else, or were left with so few officials that they were unable to do their duties; as a result, everyone was free to do whatever they pleased. Many other people steered a middle course between these two extremes, neither restricting their diet like the first group, nor indulging so liberally in drinking and other forms of dissolution like the second group, but simply not going beyond their needs or satisfying their appetite beyond the necessary, and, instead of locking themselves away, these people walked about freely, holding in their hands a posy of flowers, or fragrant herbs, or diverse exotic spices, which sometimes they pressed to their nostrils, believing it would comfort the brain with smells of that sort because the stink of corpses, sick bodies, and medicines polluted the air all about the city.
—Translated from the Italian by Richard Hooker (1993)
The entire text, in an older translation, can be found online here: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/boccacio2.asp. If your eyes are like mine, you will want to enlarge your screen’s display resolution to read it.
A granfalloon is a proud and meaningless association of human beings.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (1974)
As COVID-19 wends its way through North America, I have been noticing recurrent news items regarding the behaviour of young people in the early stages of this massive public health crisis: continuing to go out to bars, movies, and restaurants; thronging beaches in Florida; and so on. Most young people, it appears, don’t vote, even when inspired by old socialists like Bernie Sanders. They like the rallies, but they don’t vote. And they don’t follow the news, which seems to account for some of their recent clueless activities.
Most of them haven’t stopped eating meat or driving cars, either, or done much of anything else to reduce their “carbon footprint,” as far as I can tell.
All of which reminds me of that internet meme, “Okay, Boomer,” mocking my generation, telling us to get out of the way since we’ve made such a mess of things. Let the younger generations take over and try to repair the damage before it’s too late.
But it’s not about generations. It has never been about generations. When my friends and I were protesting the Vietnam War and marching for civil rights and advocating for gender equality, we were always a minority among our generational peers. When we were educating ourselves about the imperialist crimes committed by the U.S. government, and becoming conscious of the racist and sexist ideas we had grown up with, and learning to prepare vegetarian meals and grow our own food, we were always a minority. Most of our fellow “Boomers” were always unenlightened, materialistic, and conventional.
In every generation, the enlightened minority sees most clearly, pays attention, raises the alarm, protests against injustice, agitates for necessary change. The majority, as Thoreau wrote in his great essay, “On Civil Disobedience,” lags always at least a step behind.
To those “woke” young people tempted to mock the Boomers: have a look first at the majority of your peers, who are just as unenlightened and clueless in the face of climate change or COVID-19 as most of my peers were in the face of Vietnam, segregation, and CIA coups all across Latin America and beyond.
Boomers are not the problem. The problem is the clueless majority—of all ages.