Fatigue (III)

It was a few months ago that Keegan-Michael Key, appearing on “A Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” said he was exhausted. It was early June, immediately after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, and he was expressing frustration with the racial imbalances — what we have come to understand, since then, as systemic racism — and seemingly never-ending inequality in this, the Land of the Free, where it is self-evident that all men are created equal. Aren’t they?

We are all exhausted: By the unrest and inequality; by the ineptitude and incompetence; by the needlessly high death count; by the lies; by the scandals; by the grift and self-dealing. We are exhausted, simply exhausted, to the point where we are too fatigued to lift a finger let alone raise our voices in anger and cry out together, as one, “Enough!” But the truth is that fatigue is not simply a by-product of the never-ending insults to our national integrity; nor are we exhausted only because we lack the energy, at the end of each long day, to push back against a government and executive appointees who will help themselves but not the people they work for and serve. Corrupt officialdom gives “self service” a whole new meaning.)

As we have seen with the child-separation policy, where the cruelty is the point: The exhaustion and fatigue are the point. Benumb us with your outrages, your corruption, your inhumanity, your incompetence, your sheer stupidity, and we will lack the energy to rise up and strike back. We simply don’t know where to begin: With emoluments? Children deliberately orphaned? Corrupt cabinet secretaries? Incompetent senior advisers? The executive branch of our government has become a criminal enterprise, eagerly aided and abetted by a senate majority that clings to power for its own sake and not for what it can do to improve constituents’ lives. The entire theory and purpose of our representative government has been turned upside down and inside out.

Despite best efforts to convince us otherwise, we are not powerless. We are not voiceless. We are not insignificant. E pluribus unum isn’t just a fancy phrase on our coins. Out of many, one; in unity there is strength. A single vote is an inaudible  whisper, but 250 million together is a category 5 hurricane that cannot be ignored. We don’t have to agree on everything — and we shouldn’t. We won’t always agree on the meaning of the First Amendment, nor of the Second, nor of the Fifth; we won’t always agree about gun policy, welfare policy, education policy, or foreign policy, but we must be able and willing to discuss them, honestly and openly, without resort to name-calling and demonization. We all want a stronger, better, more equal United States. Our ideas about how to achieve those goals differ. We have to re-learn how to talk to each other, and how to compromise.

But despite our differences we should, at a minimum, be able to agree that deliberate cruelty is wrong; that foreign interference in an election is an affront to voters of every political persuasion; that bribery is a crime no matter what the circumstances or who the actors. We should be able to agree that health care and education are rights, not privileges, and that they should be guaranteed by a government for the people. And we should be able to agree that if government of the people ceases to be both by the people and, most of all, for the people, then it is no longer legitimate and must be replaced.

This Tuesday, vote. Vote like your life and your liberty depend on it — because they do. Vote to restore government by and for the people. Vote for humanity and basic decency. Vote to end the madness.

Fatigue (II)

Fatigue comes in many forms, and from multiple causes. The jingoists who have appropriated the flag and other national symbols as their own are fatigued, to be sure; but they misdiagnose the source. The rest of us — by which I mean the great majority of the American people — are also numb. Doubly-numb, in fact: for outrage fatigue settled in many months ago, probably early in 2018. As E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post observes:

Trump has, for the past four years, used the sheer breadth of the scandals that surround him to numb the public. No one focused long enough on any single outrage for it to do the damage even one comparable disgrace would inflict on any other politician.

It’s something we’re all familiar with and yet have been too fatigued to analyze or articulate. With so many outrages weekly, and often daily, we have neither the time nor the patience nor the sheer force of will to do more than commiserate: offenses against custom and institutional practice; offenses against families; offenses against ordinary decency. Offenses, most often, against our laws and the rule of law. We have been watching a slow-motion train wreck and have felt powerless to stop it: the people in power, in coequal branches of government, are content to do nothing so long as they get their judges and their tax cuts.

The price to this nation, Senators, was far too high. And you have sold your souls far too cheaply.

Fatigue (I)

A graph published this week in The New York Times documents the unacceptable reality: in the United States, today, the number of new infections daily is double what it was at the end of March — not long after Trump declared that cases would “soon be down to zero.”

Graph from NY Times 10/19/2020 with link to article.
Click the image to open the article.

We — the public — are seven months into this pandemic. The White House, with its intelligence briefings as far back as late December, has had ten months: more than the full gestation of an infant human or a calf, and nearly enough time to birth a horse, a llama, an elk, a seal. Given where we are today I believe its fair to say we will be lucky to return to something like a pre-pandemic normal some time before an elephant conceived in January 2020 is born, which would be next September or October.

And yet: Movie theaters are reopening, restaurants are back to serving indoors, and there is no shortage of people who still believe that their rights are trampled if they are obliged to wear a mask to protect the health of others. Of course this begs the question: Why is your right to be a jackass superior to everyone else’s right to avoid infection? The selfishness (not to mention the ignorance) is astonishing. Let’s be clear: the fact that our lives are slowly, even cautiously, returning to normal is hardly good news. It is a sign, rather, that after seven or eight months people are becoming desperate for some reassurance that it will all soon be over. It will not — and the fatigue currently driving people into the streets, into stores and restaurants, into the cinemas and health clubs, is almost certain to prolong, not curtail, our national suffering. A second wave is coming.

And yet: The people evidently most chafed by stay-at-home orders and mask protocols (“Don’t tell me what to do!”) evidently take their marching orders from a would-be autocrat. These are the people who plotted to kidnap the governors of at least two states to “protest” public health initiatives. Put another way: the self-styled patriots who object loudly to state authorities protecting the public health (by issuing mask mandates and requiring social-distancing protocols) have no objection to their “strong” leader deciding, on his own, who is worthy of state protection, who can stay, who must go, and who should go to prison. The human capacity for cognitive dissonance is without limit.

Trump himself called out the fatigue problem — as always, without a trace of irony or self-awareness — in a conference call with campaign staff: “People are tired of COVID. Yup, there’s going to be spikes, there’s going to be no spikes, there’s going to be vaccines. With or without vaccines, people are tired of COVID. I have the biggest rallies I have ever had and we have COVID. People are saying whatever, just leave us alone. They’re tired of it.” Of course people are tired of it: not the hearing, but the living. It has gone on for seven unnecessarily long months. Most other countries — including developing and third-world nations — have returned to a semblance of “normal” without the threat of spikes or the cloud of super spreader events. “But it came from China!” Aside from being factually suspect (the virus spread to the US from Europe, not China) it isn’t a reason for inaction. Blame-shifting might be effective to avoid responsibility among the more credulous; it never yet actually solved a problem.

Trust (III)

“Trust is what makes the world work.” Right now, the world is not working for too many people in America. There is widespread distrust of government. Only the ruling class benefits when political gamesmanship takes the place of statesmanship: people busy with their lives, people trying to make ends meet, have neither time nor inclination to analyze the reasons; they know only that their needs are not being met, they tune out the politicians, and they don’t show up at the polls. The ultimate consequence of this systemic voter suppression is to make nearly every seat a safe seat; and so the pols respond not to the real needs of their constituents but to the loudest voices: those who exercise their voting rights. And though it might serve the elected officials well, by keeping them in office — lifetime sinecures, really — it amounts to the death-spiral of democracy by discouraging ever larger numbers from bothering to vote.

Trust makes the world work: in education, in commerce, in finance, in government. If we can’t trust our institutions to do their jobs, they fail us and all future generations. Cronyism and baksheesh are the ways of desert tribes and banana republics, not the beacon of the free world. In the United States today we see that virtually no one trusts government institutions: if it isn’t a deep distrust born of police excesses, systemic injustices, and income disparities that affect every aspect of life; then it is wild conspiracy theories about vaccines, school curricula, voting rights, and climate science. The market for tinfoil hats has never been stronger.

As I write this, reality has finally caught up with the reality-show president. After six months of denying the threat, doubting the science, denigrating public health professionals, Trump has tested positive for Covid-19. It is surprising that it has taken this long given his refusal to take the basic precautions recommended by public health officials around the world, as if an acknowledgement of vulnerability to disease (by wearing a mask, for example) is a sign of personal weakness. “I learned a lot about Covid,” he says glibly. “I learned it by really going to school. This is the real school. This isn’t the let’s-read-the-books school. And I get it. And I understand it. And it’s a very interesting thing and I’m going to be letting you know about it.” So ten months after the first warnings from our national security apparatus we are supposed to believe that he “gets it” because he has the disease. Warnings weren’t enough; briefings weren’t sufficient; 210,000 American deaths (and over 1 million worldwide) made no impact. As he has his entire adult life, Trump sees himself at the center of everything. Unless he is sick, a global pandemic has no real meaning.

We have gone from a government that many simply didn’t trust, to government that no one can trust. The reasons for past mistrust of government are many and varied, and help explain (in part) how we came to our present predicament. The reason nobody can trust today’s government is quite simple: when it is impossible to know whether anyone is speaking the truth it is safest to assume that none of them is. Some of the lies are obvious; some are outed as falsehoods soon after they are uttered; and still others might not be known until days later when they are flatly contradicted by the next statement of alternative fact.

The problem, of course, is that this is real life. We find ourselves now living not in the world where “up” and “down” are clear directions; instead we inhabit the conspiracy-driven dystopia of a Thomas Pynchon novel. It’s good entertainment but an abysmal alternative to science and the rule of law.

A National Strategy Requires a National Government

Like so many Americans, I find myself envying nations that have a national government, and all that implies: A national sense of purpose; a national strategy for testing and tracing; a national plan for a public health crisis. There was a time when the United States had purpose, whether it was defeat of the Axis or putting a man on the moon. “We’re going to win!” is neither a goal, nor a strategy for achieving one. And, “We’re going to win so much, you’ll be tired of all the winning!” What does that actually mean? It is tautological, nonsensical, risible. “Winning” in this telling is undefined and lives (if it lives anywhere) beyond the looking glass, where words are just sounds with no actual meaning:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

 Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

It’s a sure bet that Donald Trump hasn’t read the book, nor would he understand the exchange. Irony, as they say, is not his long suit. At least, not intentionally.

Any dream of a national purpose must wait for another day; the pressing need, today, is for a national strategy: the novel coronavirus is among us and is not leaving any time soon. The national response has been botched — because in truth there was no national response. We had, instead, fifty state responses, some more successful than others but all of them at risk: the weak responses in a very real sense threaten the stronger ones. Our constitution guarantees freedom of movement, and while the governor of (for example) New York can require travelers from Texas and Florida to self-isolate for two weeks after arrival, it is only a matter of time before someone decides to make a literal Federal case out of a very real and very practical exercise of the state’s police power. Health and safety be damned, because this is America!

Meanwhile, in the real world: over 30 million people are unemployed; over 5 million have contracted Covid-19; over 160,000 have died from the disease, and 1,000 more die each day. (Our infection rate has been doubling about every six weeks; at that pace, by May or June the entire nation will be Covid-positive, a stunning achievement. If “winning” means, “create a nation of lepers”: mission accomplished.) And the United States Senate, the self-styled “world’s most deliberative body,” can neither deliberate nor negotiate nor even formulate legislation that might help  American citizens survive — pay the rent, buy groceries — until the pandemic subsides and the jobs actually do come back. Bear in mind that formulating legislation is the actual job of senators: it is their primary responsibility, enshrined right there in the job title: “legislator, upper body.”

For anyone who might be persuaded by the argument that “the House refuses to negotiate,” please bear in mind that the House actually passed legislation in May. The Senate (and the White House) chose to wait until the expiration of the March bill (July 31) before even beginning negotiations, evidently in the hope that Democrats would be persuaded of the urgency of passing anything and would thus accept whatever weak last-minute tea the Republicans brewed. (The Republicans, for their part, can’t even agree among themselves what to ask for or try to pass. So much for their legendary party unity.) It has taken a generation, but the Democrats — and Speaker Pelosi — have gotten wise to this game and aren’t having it.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee — under Lindsay Graham’s “leadership” — grills Sally Yates about the spooks under the bed. (Ms. Yates wasn’t having it, either, and deftly put the majority in its place.) Writing legislation is the Senate’s primary job, but by all means let’s ask more questions about Hilary’s emails, eight years after the fact. Changing the subject is a time-tested method of distracting attention from your failures, collectively as a legislative body as well as individually.

By most accounts the American people aren’t buying, not this time. There is an actual plague in the land, and the federal government isn’t doing anything to control the spread or mitigate the effects. We’re on our own, until we’re able to put people in government who are actually interested in doing the hard work of governing.

Great and Small

Small men hide their mistakes and admit no error. Great men expect and own theirs. Small men require adulation; great men earn respect. The small man will punch down (but never up), trying to improve his own standing by standing on others. Great men reach down and lift up.

The small man believes that marble and bronze likenesses are proof of greatness. The great man’s monument is his achievement, memorialized by the judgment of history. The small man pounds his chest to make a point; the great man pounds the pavement to win the day. Small men remain small despite their puffery; great men know the worth of words and of ideas.

Great men lead the way into battle; small men say, “The fight is over yonder, come back when you’ve killed something.” Great men will explain a higher purpose and persuade to do the hard things; small men don’t look beyond where their followers are going anyway. Great men know that a chain, or an army, or a nation, is only as strong as its weakest component; small men know only the rhetorical intimidation of projected strength.

Great men learn from their mistakes; small men repeat them.

This Independence Day, as we look towards the nominating conventions and a national election, let us all aspire to greatness. Mistakes are the human condition, but a failure to learn — and a compulsion to repeat — looks like willful stupidity.

Respect

Respect is earned: it is not given. Which is to say, an indivdual must work to gain respect beyond whatever is granted by default, by virtue of his office. A group manager is respected insofar as she is the group manager; but she doesn’t get the respect she wants without earning it, without treating her people well, without having their backs.

What to say, then, to the man who demands respect but gives none; who is too lazy to earn it, let alone understand it. How does one respond to the man who demeans himself, his office, his nation. What rational answer is there to the foolish, aimless, and irrational mental wandering of a man so contemptuous of others, so needy of adulation, as to be utterly and completely beyond redemption.

It’s impossible to respect a man who doesn’t respect the office he holds.

The Last Refuge

Patriotism, Samuel Johnson memorably said, is the last refuge of a scoundrel: Those who would defend the indefensible invariably, inevitably wave the flag. Then they wrap themselves in it. The tactic — too often effective against a credulous public — is designed to distract from their own corrupt and corrosive activities that serve not to strengthen the republic so much as permanently ensconce themselves in power.

So it is with Senate Republicans, particularly (these last weeks, at least) those on the Judiciary Committee: while Trump literally tears us apart and tries to burn down the nation, Lindsay Graham wants to hold hearings. Into Trump? AG Bill Barr’s shameless coddling of convicted felons (and Trump cronies) Roger Stone and Michael Flynn? No! The FBI! Investigate the investigators who investigated Trump! While Trump fires all the independent government watchdogs — the Inspectors General of State, Defense, Transportation, HHS, and Intelligence. And how does Charles Grassley, who built a decades-long reputation as a defender of government accountability, react? A meek letter asking the president, please, if you would be so kind as to indulge me sir, to explain, and forgive the temerity of my question.

In the last four months we have all aged four years, if we were paying attention.

The Markets and Obi Wan

The markets are tumbling again this week, apparently on Tuesday’s testimony of Drs. Fauci and Redfield before the Senate Health Committee. They warned that the coronavirus is far from contained and that a too-rapid easing of social distancing and stay-at-home restrictions will likely trigger a second wave that could be even worse than the first.

The New York Times reports:

The comments appeared to rattle the markets, driving the S&P 500 down as investors weighed the potential of a second wave of infections against Mr. Trump’s promises that the economy would bounce back once stay-at-home restrictions were lifted.

Seriously? The financial markets are skittish because someone contradicted Trump’s assurances? Trump is a raging narcissist, a pathetic little man whose bombast and lies do not (as he intends) glorify him but starkly highlight the absence of his soul, the smallness of his mind, and the pettiness of his character. Since assuming office he has lied over 18,000 times. One might reasonably begin the count with his inaugural speech, where his language, tone, and “American carnage” imagery were at odds with every measure of objective reality.

The talking heads on television and cable news outlets, especially those which aspire to be information platforms for business, always come back to one word: predictability. “Markets like stability and predictability,” they say. Meaning, the financial markets don’t much care who is in office as long as policy isn’t changed on a whim and without warning. Meaning, the financial markets might be spooked for a moment when a Democrat is elected — on the presumed fear of regulation — but these brief periods of volatility soon smooth out and the markets go on as before. Because they like predictability.

The truth is, the financial sector really shouldn’t like deregulation: it’s the anything-goes, anything-can-happen, nobody-is-accountable temperament of the Wild West that roils markets; its unpredictable nature is by definition unknowable and its consequences unforeseeable, opaque to even the best crystal ball. If we learned anything from the 2008 financial sector meltdown, it was (or should have been) that deregulation begets instability, and that even the best computer models are as clear as mud when it comes to really predicting the future. It’s looking more and more like we didn’t learn that lesson, or any other; just as the 2008 crisis echoed the 1986-1995 S&L debacle. The echoes of history reach all the way back, and after each recovery we take two steps forward and then, when things stabilize, at least one deregulatory step backwards.

Trump wallows in unpredictability; he boasts about it; he sows chaos wherever he goes. It is his briar patch. Burnout is a well-known consequence of working in the White House pressure cooker but Trump’s administration churns personnel at an alarming rate. (Insert joke here about the ten-day period of employment known as a Scaramucci. Oh, you were there a month? Three whole Scaramuccis?)

Financial markets aren’t the only institutions that appreciate stability. Diplomacy might be an art, but it requires some level of predictable behavior and rationality: it’s difficult to negotiate if you have absolutely no idea how the person across the table will respond. (Trump believes this is his strength, that being unpredictable is the art of the deal. To the rest of us it’s a sign of serious mental illness and instability.)

The markets like stability; they want order; they crave predictability. Trump is a known, compulsive, congenital liar whose only objective is to stroke his self-image. To that end he will say anything. With his reelection prospects (already slim, as I discuss here) in tatters he makes assurances nobody should believe about the pandemic being past while Dr. Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tells the Senate and the nation that the virus will be with us for some time yet. Indeed he has been telling us all along that a resurgence in the fall is likely.

All of which brings me, finally, to Obi Wan Kenobi, whose Jedi wisdom might be the most appropriate answer to anyone taking action of any kind on the strength of Trump’s promises and reassurances. Who is more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him? And if you’re invested in those markets: caveat emptor.

Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics

Though the phrase survival of the fittest is often used to convey the gist of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution, it was Herbert Spencer who first coined the phrase; and by it he intended the kind of winner-take-all mentality that seems embodied in today’s GOP: in a word, social Darwinism.

In the context of civil society the idea that the strong should clamber over the weak is repugnant. It is not even a sound economic and business principle, for if competition ensures innovation and lower prices (both good for society), then in any given market — let us say, for example, for widgets — the logical and eventual outcome of unfettered cutthroat competition will be monopoly or, at best, a duopoly.  Competition of the kind pro-business politicians usually say they mean cannot exist without strong antitrust enforcement; it should be noted, then, that these same politicians usually want to weaken the antitrust laws.

But in a civil — and civilized — society, the notion that the fittest will survive and the weaker elements of society will wither, fall away, and die, is as morally repellent as it is antithetical to the foundational belief that all men are created equal.  “The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics,” wrote Justice Holmes, dissenting in Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), a case decided upon the — ahem — libertarian notion, resurgent in our era, that government has no authority to interfere in any economic aspect of the individual citizen’s life.

It is settled by various decisions of this court that state constitutions and state laws may regulate life in many ways which we, as legislators, might think as injudicious, or, if you like, as tyrannical, as this, and which, equally with this, interfere with the liberty to contract…. The liberty of the citizen to do as he likes so long as he does not interfere with the liberty of others to do the same, which has been a shibboleth for some well known writers, is interfered with by school laws, by the Post Office, by every state or municipal institution which takes his money for purposes thought desirable, whether he likes it or not.

198 U.S. at 75

More recently it was argued that government cannot compel the purchase of health insurance, that individuals should be permitted to decide how to spend each of their hard-earned dollars. Freedom! Freedom of contract, in Lochner; or the “freedom” to self-insure against catastrophic illness.

Very well; we will grant you the right to refuse health insurance if you will permit us to refuse you entrance to the Emergency Room when your appendix bursts, or when you suffer a heart attack, or when your carelessness in the kitchen threatens a digit. After all, you took the risk and assumed that you would not need health insurance; now you want the rest of us to pay for your ER visit, your cardiologist, your orthopedic surgery. In fact you assumed no risk at all, betting that the rest of us would backstop your bad decision. This is freedom defined through a looking-glass and exercised at the expense of others: exactly what laws and government are intended to prevent.

If you find this line of argument — you decided to roll the dice so man up and take your lumps — offensive: you should. But it is not the inverse of the libertarian freedom-of-contract, freedom-to-self-insure argument; it is the identical logic applied and imposed from the other direction.

The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics, and the Constitution and the laws and social structures that rest on it do not constitute a suicide pact. So, please, Michigan militiamen: your desire to “liberate” your state from “tyrannical” social-distancing orders is an unconstitutional affront to your neighbors’ desire, their right, to continue living without the unnecessary threat of disease and death that your liberation would impose on them.