No time now for anything but a cursory post, and I’m rattled, a little pressed for time.
Just a few words for today — this too shall pass. That goes for the pandemic, hopefully, if we can reach herd immunity through the vaccine, rather than the “herd mentality” promised by the former president. Though it looks like a toss-up at the moment, with every reasonable health precaution weaponized by murderous imbeciles, we are heading toward immunity, if unthinking “mentality” doesn’t win the race.
I’m thinking of this race against time in the context of my own unsettled mood, as I watch democracy here, there and everywhere teetering on the brink. Democracy is the worst system of government ever tried, except for every other system, as some wit once cracked (Churchill?). Still, there’s a lot of opportunity in this crisis moment for unscrupulous, I’ll be blunt and just say Nazi-types, to advance their authoritarian agendas. Bolsonaro in Brazil, who got elected in Brazil by literally locking up his opponent (who was expected to easily win) during the election, is destroying the Amazon rain forest, the lungs of the planet, at a record clip, and his fascist buddies elsewhere have been tireless in their infernal efforts too.
Every so often the news reports on how widespread our fear, malaise and hopelessness actually are. A few months back there was a big story about the epidemic of despair in the youth worldwide. Today the NY Times runs a story informing us, surprise, that drug overdose deaths have surged in the USA, 87,000 succumbed to deaths of despair during this disorienting pandemic, desperate people trying to numb pain and terror in a way that led to their last breath.
Despair is not the answer. Productive action is the answer, though how to take it at this unsettling moment is often hard to put your finger on. There are more good people than bad people, I’m with Anne Frank on that one. Of course, Anne’s optimism about human nature was not rewarded very well. Ours will hopefully lead us to a better fate.
The biggest, most dangerous lies we have to contend with, the most far-reaching in their effects, are promulgated by experts in spreading information that favors one party to the detriment of all others. This is called Public Relations, PR. PR is the art of telling the public selected things that will make them accept “externalities” like poverty wages, dead babies, toxic drinking water, thousands of bankrupted farmers dead by suicide. Best of all, from a PR perspective, is to make this ugly shit disappear entirely, so we can have harmony, prosperity and a good business climate. Yer proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats (except for the many already submerged and out of sight, which goes without saying).
There is a term in the law that excuses a certain kind of blustering lying, it is called “puffery”. Presumably you puff yourself up to make your threat look bigger and more terrible than it is, to make the other party back down. There’s no crime in puffery, nor has any lawyer been punished in any way for what can be justified as mere puffery. Puffery is your proverbial slippery slope down to a trough of shit, and many an outright public lie has been defended as mere puffery.
Public Relations is closely related to commercial advertising, indistinguishable from it, actually. The techniques of Public Relations, creating a desirable one-sided story to influence the public to accept whatever it is you’re trying to do, are identical to the ones used by propagandists. Propaganda, most people believe, is a bad thing, since it hides the truth and makes a false case for things like war, discrimination, genocide.
But Public Relations, you understand, is a completely different field, and basically morally neutral, clean, even its dirty little sibling political advertising. One key thing about successful public relations messages — they should be as ubiquitous as possible. I offer a couple of examples that spring to mind.
In thanking her sponsors at the end, Krista reads this perfectly articulated 8 second PR message from a billionaire philanthropist named Charles Koch:
Well-born, iron-willed billionaire engineer Charles Koch has done more than perhaps anyone in US history to bring about a violently divided society where the 0.01% percent have as much wealth as the bottom 80%, enshrining his inherited advantages in perpetuity through canny political action, funding dozens of “think tanks” and other politically influential institutions, aided by an army of lawyers and ruthlessly effective PR. Now, as his death approaches, he wants to be remembered as a generous and courageous collaborator dedicated to discovering and elevating tools to cure intolerance and bridge differences.
Sure, after a lifetime dedicated to hobbling democracy, suppressing wages, fighting integration, destroying the environment and all ecological regulation, creating influential far-right organizations, funding the Tea Party “revolution,” sowing the ground for Trump, packing the federal courts with judges of his extreme political stripe — why not take a bow as a man dedicated to curing intolerance?
Depending on your political orientation you may be sad or happy about the recent defeat of the unionizing efforts in an Alabama sweatshop run by the world’s wealthiest man. It was a one-sided loss for the union advocates. Most Amazon workers in the Bessemer, Alabama warehouse voted not to unionize, after Amazon spent millions in what many see as a coordinated effort to intimidate its workers. The anti-union effort worked beautifully. Now is the time for continued PR.
The turnover rate for Jeff Bezos’s wonderful, well-paid warehouse jobs (who doesn’t enjoy pissing in a bottle?) is around 100% a year, we learn. These great, very demanding jobs burn people out pretty quickly, apparently. But pay no attention to that, PR to the rescue. You can watch smiling actors of all colors and genders talk about how great it is to work for the world’s richest man, how it has enriched their lives and given them a brighter future. These ads are ubiquitous, as are Amazon’s messages of support for a $15 minimum wage from a wealthy man who already voluntarily pays that large hourly sum to his well-paid, happy workers.
I love the way the Amazon swoosh, as carelessly artless a swoosh as there is in the world of branding, idiotically, and likely unintentionally, slashes and defaces the word “wages”. It also seems to put a crudely drawn question mark at the end. Talk about Freudian slips. But the point is made. A company that clawed back its generous $2/hr hazard pay increase two months into the pandemic, fired and vilified workers who protested against unhealthy working conditions during the pandemic, and paid dozens of expert consultants $3,200 a day to help crush an attempt to unionize an Amazon warehouse (success!), is very generous and changing lives for the better for more than a million low-skilled, low-paid workers.
To round out this PR piece, let’s go to former Attorney General Bill Barr and his boss, the former president who, very much like George Washington before him, could not tell a lie.
You will recall that in their attempt to hold on to power leading up to the rigged 2020 election they were working on an American Carnage scenario. Their story was that irrationally enraged Blacks and their radical allies were overrunning Anarchist Jurisdictions, where hopelessly liberal mayors and governors were allowing these massive demonstrations, these riots, and showing terrible disloyalty to the President. The spin was that these out of control mobs, rampaging for absolutely no reason and seemingly enraged at overwhelming police force arrayed against them, were threatening life as we know it and it was likely that martial law would have to be invoked to protect democracy, or some cherished right wing version of it.
Barr sent federal troops to protect a federal building in Portland, Oregon, pursuant to an Executive Order about protecting federal property from violence. Violence escalated immediately, once the anti-riot forces arrived on the scene. You recall the unmarked shock troops jumping out of unmarked rented vans to grab protesters, who they drove around, handcuffed and hooded, and released without charges. It was a radical experiment, to see if federal forces could be widely deployed to put down this threatening Black revolution. Black Lives Matter was portrayed as a violent terrorist group, as was antifa. People who claimed that police killings of unarmed Blacks is a serious ongoing problem in America were themselves the serious ongoing problem in America. These lawless rioters would not be tolerated.
Recall how things escalated in Portland. Trump supporters began staging counter protests in Portland. An armed Trump supporter was shot to death one night by a violent “antifa terrorist”. Four days later, the suspected anitfa killer was found 120 miles from Portland and quickly died in a hail of police bullets when federal marshals staged a raid.The story of the original murder of the Trump supporter, was reported, by the Washington Post, at the very end of the article about the police killing of his suspected murderer, this way:.
The incident came after a caravan of Trump supporters, including members of the Patriot Prayer group, made their way through Portland, sparking skirmishes with those who objected to their presence. Portland has seen more than three months of often violent protests after the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, and the shooting seemed to intensify the persistent tension.
As for the police killing of the suspected killer of the Trump supporter?From that same article in the Washington Post:
A vocal proponent of the far-left antifa movement who was suspected of fatally shooting a supporter of a far-right group in Portland, Ore., this weekend was shot and killed in a confrontation with law enforcement Thursday, the U.S. Marshals Service said.
Investigators were seeking to take Michael Forest Reinoehl into custody in connection with the fatal shooting of 39-year-old Aaron J. Danielson on Saturday after confrontations between supporters of President Trump and Black Lives Matter counterprotesters.
The agency said Reinoehl was shot by police near Olympia, Wash., after drawing a weapon as officers tried to arrest him.
“The fugitive task force located Reinoehl in Olympia and attempted to peacefully arrest him,” said Jurgen R. Soekhoe, a U.S. Marshals spokesman, in a statement. “Initial reports indicate the suspect produced a firearm, threatening the lives of law enforcement officers. Task force members responded to the threat and struck the suspect who was pronounced dead at the scene.”
The attempt to peacefully arrest him was accomplished when officers jumped out of two SUVs that had sped to the scene, cut off Reinhoel’s parked car and opened fire on the left-wing suspect, killing him in a barrage of 37 bullets. Here’s Barr, about the “confrontation” between Reinoehl and the officers who attempted to peacefully apprehend him and, in his estimation, justifiably opened fire on the dangerous fugitive:
In a statement Friday, Attorney General William P. Barr called Reinoehl a “a dangerous fugitive, admitted Antifa member, and suspected murderer,” who was shot by law enforcement after he “attempted to escape arrest and produced a firearm.”
“The streets of our cities are safer with this violent agitator removed, and the actions that led to his location are an unmistakable demonstration that the United States will be governed by law, not violent mobs,” Barr said.
A few days later, a more accurate picture of how admitted Antifa member Reinoehl was killed came out. But not before Trump weighed in. The NY Times reported:
The U.S. Marshals Service declined to comment for this article, citing the pending investigation. The agency previously said that it had attempted to “peacefully arrest” Mr. Reinoehl and that he had threatened the lives of law enforcement officers.
President Trump, who has described the racial justice protests that have roiled the nation as the work of lawless criminals, praised the operation.
“This guy was a violent criminal, and the U.S. Marshals killed him,” the president told Fox News. “And I will tell you something, that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution when you have crime like this.”
Kill one of ours, the government will kill one of yours. Hammurabi.
The Times article cited above details what actually happened in the “confrontation” that led to Reinoehl’s killing. Witnesses thought it was a mob hit, or a drug cartel execution. Reinoehl was walking toward his car, holding a cell phone and a bag of candy when the “confrontation” began. Two SUVs sped to the scene, cutting off Reinoehl’s car, four armed men leapt out and immediately opened fire. Nobody heard anyone identify themselves as police or yell anything else at the suspect. An unfired handgun was found in a pocket of Reinhoehl’s bullet riddled corpse, (proof that his killing by government agents was totally justified, as police investigators later found.)
Of course, who are you going to believe, the Lying New York Times, and twenty-two so-called “witnesses” who were interviewed by the paper, or men of unimpeachable integrity like Bill Barr and a president who, try as he might, simply cannot tell a lie?
“Remember,” Bryan Doerries likes to say in both physical and virtual gatherings, “you are not alone in this room — and you are not alone across time.” With his public health project, Theater of War, he is activating an old alchemy for our young century. Ancient stories, and texts that have stood the test of time, can be portals to honest and dignified grappling with present wounds and longings and callings that we aren’t able to muster in our official places now. It’s an embodiment of the good Greek word catharsis — releasing both insight and emotions that have had no place to go, and creating an energizing relief. And it is now unfolding in the “amphitheater” of Zoom that Sophocles could not have imagined.
Thinking more about a good conversation, the kind of talk we remember years later, it is the mutual readiness to listen, to really hear the other person, that makes these exchanges so memorable. In a world that famously doesn’t care about your feelings or ideas, it is a great comfort to experience tender care for those things from the person you are talking to.
“Your business is very important to us, please continue to hold…” the mantra of the modern industrialized world, reinforces our essential aloneness in an often hostile universe. Let’s face it, in a transactional culture based on material gain at any cost, we are just customers, manipulated with ever greater sophistication, who most often take what we can get, are allowed to have, if we can wrest it from others with more power. This eternal vying for advantage is the opposite of a good conversation.
In a good talk there is always mutuality. Something you raise reminds me of something I experienced. We compare and contrast, the things on one level very much the same, on another quite different. There is great nuance in our infinitely gradated world, we feel this when we are in a good conversation with someone we trust.
A bad conversation, on the other hand, is marked by caution, by obscuring certain things that would be necessary for an open exchange, by deliberately avoiding subjects, limiting the topics that can be talked about openly. These talks are exhausting. Because much is hidden, and both parties are trying their best simply to survive an uncomfortable exchange intact, there is little possibility for a beneficial exchange of ideas. At best, we “agree to disagree,” in that most odious phrase, since, in a conversation held in darkness, with light forbidden, that is often the only alternative to open hostility.
A good conversation is the opposite of a zero sum talk. In a zero sum world everything is measured by who wins and who loses, there is no middle ground. Life may not really be this way, but seeing it as zero sum makes it so. A clever construction, the zero sum machine.
If I concede to you that I was in the wrong, that diminishes me and gives you an advantage I can easily deny you by merely conceding nothing. Long friendships can be quickly killed if one friend reduces a conflict to a zero sum game. In the end, “I will prevail and you will lose, loser,” is a recipe for estrangement or consent to continue in a kind of living hell.
My aunt was a difficult woman. What I learned about her life explained a bit of why she was that way. When she became demented, toward the end of her life, she went through a Terrible Two kind of period when she was reflexively contrary. I visited her when my cousin was there, to prevent him from killing her as they organized the house to get it ready to sell.
One morning, entering the kitchen where breakfast was in progress, my cousin and my aunt silently eating, I said “good morning, Aunt Barbara”.
“No,” she said, her jaw set firmly.
My cousin and I later had laughs about this. Not good? Not morning? Not my aunt?
“No,” my aunt insisted.
Fortunately this Terrible Two phase eventually passed. As her dementia progressed my aunt became more and more docile. Sekhnet and I remember the last time we saw my aunt and her son together. He had his arm around her as they waved goodbye and turned to walk back into the nursing home where my aunt was now living. It was a tenderness we could not have imagined while my aunt was in control of her faculties.
It was a tenderness I’d experienced myself with my troubled aunt, decades earlier. Staying over at my parents’ place after some holiday meal, everyone else upstairs in bed, my aunt and I had one remarkably candid conversation in the late night living room of my parents’ house. The tenderness I felt for her during that talk, and for long after that talk, I cannot really describe.
My mother always loved Frank Bruni’s writing. A fan of clear prose, attuned to wry touches, a savorer of wit, my opinionated mother loved the opinionated Bruni’s craft. I don’t know why I remember this so clearly, and my mother died more than ten years ago, but I remember her telling me she’d started reading him when he was a restaurant critic and had always liked his style. Maybe she’d given me an op-ed of his to read, and I’d agreed it was very good. I remember her smile, glad that I appreciated the same kind of writing she did.
In today’s New York Times Frank Bruni puts his finger on the cruelty of current GOP politics. A party increasingly desperate to suppress the vote, and drive maddening wedges between voters, the unprincipled extremists now openly in charge of the party have found a nasty new culture war issue: making laws to prevent parents of transsexual kids from legally consenting to their adolescent children having medical treatments recommended by their doctors.
That no hypocrisy phases the GOP is a reality too obvious to need further demonstration, just think of anything McConnell or Graham have said in the last year or so, but this extreme right version of the party of the wealthy is the party of Individual Liberty and freedom from all government “coercion”, starving government of taxes to shrink it small enough to drown in a bathtub, passing laws that force people who have wrestled with the difficult decision of letting a trans child transition to another gender, to simply give up that liberty and freedom from government coercion. Because, you know, their children, that miniscule fraction of all children, are hateful monsters that our most passionately bigoted voters love to fucking hate.
A few years ago, when Cheney and Dubya won a second term in 2004, the inflammatory wedge issue that drove their victory was homosexual marriage. It was going to destroy the nation, millions of religious people were very worked up about it. The idea of two gay people, people of the same sex (the same sex!), having a sexual and civic union sanctioned by the government drove millions of homophobes to the polls. It was probably the single issue most responsible for bringing a second term to those deserving funsters Cheney and Bush.
Today relatively few people get that worked up about whether gay people can get married or not. Gay marriage has no bad effect on anyone, except perhaps unhappily married gay people and their social circle. The president finally embraced gay marriage as a civil rights issue, the Supreme Court OK’d it. Allowing homosexuals to marry, and have all the rights of other married couples, became the law of the land. People soon forgot their rage against homosexuals being allowed to marry, went on to be mad about other things. The GOP is always looking for the next thing to make millions of people enraged enough to vote for an extremist party that promises to wipe that thing they hate OUT.
Straight people have often asked me what I, a gay man, have in common with someone who’s trans. Gay people have often put that question to themselves. There are many answers. Here’s one: I know what it’s like to have my identity, my dignity — my very hold on happiness — pressed into partisan battle and fashioned into a political weapon.
I know what it’s like to be used.
And right now, trans people are being used, cruelly.
You probably heard about what happened in Arkansas. On Tuesday, state lawmakers there voted overwhelmingly, by a three-to-one ratio, to override a veto from the Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, and effectively ban gender-affirming medical treatments, such as puberty blockers and hormone therapy, for trans youth under the age of 18.
It doesn’t matter if those youth are pleading for this kind of help or have already begun receiving it and found it to be lifesaving. It doesn’t matter if their parents, having wrestled hard with the situation and done extensive research, believe that therapy is crucial. It doesn’t matter if physicians have concluded it’s in the youths’ best interest. Politicians know best.
And they’re expert at identifying vulnerable, marginalized populations and demonizing them in the interest of political gain. That’s what Republicans in Arkansas, in Alabama and in dozens of other states are doing with scores of active bills, many of which focus on denying trans youth gender-affirming treatments and dictating how they may or may not participate in sports.
They’re inventing a problem to whip up a culture war that they’re convinced will redound to their benefit. Worried that their party can’t retain or wrest power with its positions on the economy and prescriptions (or lack thereof) for health care, they’re fighting on other turf, with no pause to contemplate the need for their offensives and no thought for the casualties.
Back in the early aughts, they put gays and lesbians in their sights, railing against nascent progress toward marriage equality and deciding that for the good of the republic — for its very survival! — it was necessary to outright outlaw same-sex marriage via ballot referendums and amendments to state constitutions. This was all the Republican rage in 2004, which just happened to coincide with President George W. Bush’s re-election effort.
The legally recognized weddings of two men or two women had no negative practical effect on the straight people around them, who might be offended by the idea but were hardly so much as inconvenienced by the reality. It wasn’t as if the gay or lesbian couples were going to stop being gay and lesbian couples if they couldn’t put their names on marriage licenses. And their vows were as much an affirmation of traditional values, such as commitment and monogamy, as they were a repudiation of them.
But many Republicans — aided, to be fair, by many Democrats’ support in 1996 for the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which President Bill Clinton signed — cast those vows as cultural death knells. Many Republicans portrayed me and my kind as leches, even child molesters, laundering perversion into propriety. It’s a hell of a thing: to hear words from civic “leaders” that openly or tacitly encourage people to hate you, maybe even to strike out at you. It puts fear in your heart and rage in your brain.
And it’s happening to trans people. Republicans’ response to their party’s political failures at the ballot box in 2018 and 2020 is to find an issue that they believe paints Democrats as convention-smashing libertines and themselves as the defenders of innocent children and a moral order. It’s to name monsters out there and take up torches against them. The issue is trans equality. The monsters are trans people.
Not by accident, they made an uncharacteristically prominent appearance in Donald Trump’s first big speech after his exile from the White House, when he and other disappointed Republicans were regrouping and trying to figure out the path forward.
“Joe Biden and the Democrats are even pushing policies that would destroy women’s sports,” he told an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida in late February. An overnight feminist, he added that young girls and women “are now being forced to compete against those who are biological males.”
Leaving aside his loaded language and reductive description, he was suggesting that a relatively rare scenario was pervasive. That’s a classic wedge-issue strategy. Similarly, Republican lawmakers in the many red states pushing measures like Arkansas’ raise the specter of irreparably damaged, even abused children — the Arkansas law is the Save Adolescents From Experimentation Act — without much if any proof of that.
“There’s no evidence being presented, no evidence being pretended,” Mara Keisling, the founder and executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told me. That’s a big clue that this is about political theater more than public welfare.
Other clues: The rapid metastasizing of often like-worded laws around the country and the sudden urgency of lawmakers intoning the same dark warnings. That smacks of coordination from some misanthropic mother ship.
When Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, grandstands in a Senate hearing by comparing surgery elected by trans people to the “genital mutilation” — a phrase he used repeatedly — of girls in cultures that seek to subjugate women by stamping out their sexual pleasure, that’s not an honest policy debate. That’s just a storm of nasty words distracting voters from the governmental and societal failures really standing between them and the American dream. Trans people aren’t the impediment.
The arrogance of Republican lawmakers at the state level is stunning. They’re overriding parents’ considered decisions regarding their own children, whom they surely care and fret about more than any stranger does. If you read or listen to interviews with them, what’s most striking is how much research and reflection they’ve done, how thoroughly they’ve considered what their children confront and what their children need.
Lawmakers are getting between physicians and patients. They’re staging a medical intervention, on the grounds that one group of people (doctors, parents) must be controlled for the protection of another (children). If that’s OK in this case, why not when Covid-blasé Americans reject masks or refuse vaccines, putting other Americans at risk? Some of the same Republicans who claim that they’re coming to the rescue of children receiving testosterone are just fine letting the rest of us marinate in the coronavirus.
They’re opportunists. They’re extremists. Don’t take my word for it. Take Hutchinson’s. The governor of Arkansas is hardly anyone’s idea of a moderate Republican. He recently signed legislation allowing Arkansas physicians to cite religious objections in refusing to provide treatment. He also signed into law a bill barring trans women and girls from competing against other women and girls in sports.
But he has said repeatedly over the past week that the bill regarding medical care for trans youth was reckless and uncompassionate. In an interview with The Times’s Lisa Lerer, he conceded that as part of “the cultural wars that we’re engaged in,” Republicans were often “acting out of fear of what could happen, or what our imagination says might happen, versus something that’s real and tangible.”
He finally, in this instance, drew a line and took a stand. My own fear is that it will be a lonely one, and that a great many people will suffer because of that.
My aunt, an often contrary woman my mother dreaded having to spend time with, a mother hated by the son she adored (she doted on him when he was a baby, anyway), was, to put it kindly, something of a pain in the ass. Growing up in a very small family, she was my only aunt. Her husband, my father’s brother, (the only sibling of either of my parents) was my one uncle. We saw them at holidays every year, and the gatherings were always electric with uncomfortable, crudely buried emotions.
My uncle, a smallish, slight man who looked like Stephen Colbert, often flinched around his much larger older brother. He’d laugh nervously after each flinch, remembering that they were both adults now, I suppose, but you could see his discomfort whenever my father moved or spoke in a certain way. My uncle had a corny sense of humor, a surprisingly effective disguise for a temper he kept hidden from me, somehow, until I was close to forty.
I’ll never forget his tour-de-force of raving tyranny one year when my sister and I went to visit him and our aunt. It was like watching a cute small dog suddenly lunge, teeth bared, at another dog’s throat, then another, persisting wildly until all the other dogs were bloody heaps. My mother and my first cousin, long wary of my uncle, were shocked that it took me so long to see this angry, dictatorial side of the mild-mannered fellow, but, as I said, he never showed any sign of it to me, until he did.
I am thinking of a good conversation, the remarkable meeting of the minds and hearts we don’t have very often. It is an exchange of honest reactions, where both parties are sometimes vulnerable and both are interested and open to learning something new from the other, if only how they truly feel. We always learn something in these kind of talks, if only that somebody else understands something we have only just started to be able to express. I had a couple of interesting chats with my uncle over the years, mainly about politics (we were pretty much in sync on our political views) but nothing I’d classify as a memorably good conversation. It was partly my uncle’s aversion to the personal, I suppose.
One night, in the living room of my parents house in Queens, everybody else had gone up to bed, and my aunt and I were in the living room. I was probably around thirty at the time. I’ve always been a night owl, my aunt and uncle were generally in their pajamas before ten. In fact, it was my uncle’s demand that we all get ready for bed at 10 pm, when my sister and I visited him years later as adults, that served as his first shot across the bow, the opening salvo of what the next day would erupt into full blown crazy autocratic rage.
In the living room of my parents’ house, on that quiet tree-lined street, my aunt and I had a remarkable conversation. I recall nothing specific about our long ago talk, other than the closeness I felt to my aunt as we revealed ourselves to each other. Knowing that she had the capacity for this kind of openness made me feel differently about her.
My cousin, when I mentioned this chat to him, always scoffed. To him his mother was a devious master-manipulator, certainly she’d picked up on and played off some vulnerability I’d shown her. Seeing the emotional opening, she’d sympathetically slipped in to ingratiate herself, to cunningly arm and situate herself for future harm she was already planning.
People do this kind of thing, pretend to care with their eye on some other prize, though I remain unconvinced that my aunt was doing that the night of that striking conversation we had. What I recall was how personal our talk was. My aunt told me personal details of her life as I shared details of my own inner life. We were on the same page, as they say (and for good reason).
I have an amusing, short anecdote about my demanding aunt, but it will have to wait. I am focusing on those rare, therefore precious, conversations we have with others that actually exert some change on our lives. They can be illusions, as the one with my aunt may have been (being a one-off, for one thing), but these conversations serve as reminders of what we can be, if we are honest, and open, and truly curious about another person’s inner life.
Seeking the essence of this kind of exchange, this emerging shared knowledge of something deeper, beyond the surface, every day world, is one big reason we read. It is also a gigantic reason many of us write.
The obvious problem with an incoherent position — one that relies on nothing but the right to take any position you want– is that, as long as the incoherence persists, there is no hope of solving any disagreement. We can only persuade each other if we reach a basic agreement about the facts in front of us. An incoherent argument doesn’t depend on facts, agreement or anything else– it’s an illogical position that closes the mind to persuasion.
I’ll give you one example, the argument over the filibuster, to stand in for the rest, as we navigate this “alternative fact” world we are living in post-Trump.
A lie, which can be shown to be a lie, can now be openly cited to prove that the policy you favor is necessary. That it is a demonstrable lie is no longer a problem, for purposes of partisan position-taking. You can call the well-publicized lie a “widely believed allegation”, which makes it sound much more reasonable. The same goes for any glittering generality pulled out of one’s nether sphincter — it’s good enough to support an otherwise incoherent argument.
Most Americans get their news from partisan sources. On the right people say that PBS, MSNBC and CNN are just as distorted, prejudiced and untruthful as FOX, Newsmax and OANN. It’s a flimsy claim, unsupported by actual evidence. Media on the right frequently highlights conspiratorial claims as though they are mainstream beliefs — when pressed on airing false claims they call the promotion of fringe ideas “entertainment” rather than factual “news” which has a much higher standard of “truth”.
Even the wildest ideas quickly become mainstream beliefs, like the widespread belief among conservatives that the 2020 presidential election may well have been stolen by massive fraud. A large percentage of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald J. Trump and that the January 6th riot at the Capitol was understandable, peaceful,non-threatening and perfectly legal .
Here’s one example of circular incoherence in public debate about restricting or getting rid of the peculiar institution known as the filibuster.
The problem is that a party with a razor thin Senate majority needs to find ten votes, in a disciplined opposition party that votes as a block, in order to pass almost any law. This is because the burden, in a filibuster, is on the majority party to reach 60 votes to end debate (even if there is no actual debate) and vote on a bill becoming a law.
Why is the burden not on the minority party filibustering to kill a proposed law? Why are 41 filibustering members not required to be present to maintain a filibuster rather than the majority party having to find ten votes among the filibustering party to stop this form of obstruction? There is no coherent explanation offered. It’s just the way it is.
Why is nobody in the minority party now required to stand and talk non-stop to keep a filibuster going? No coherent explanation is offered — outside of the small change in the rules that makes announcing the intent to filibuster good enough to infinitely block debate on any bill.
Those who advocate neither changing filibuster rules nor abolishing the parliamentary practice outright claim this obstruction technique encourages bipartisanship by making people more willing to compromise.
We don’t need to change anything about the filibuster, say conservatives like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, what we need is more bipartisanship, more compromise, more trust between political parties that have become armed camps.We need more faith in the integrity of American elections that tens of millions now have lost faith in. We need this faith because our confidence in the fairness of our own democracy has been, rightly or wrongly. so badly undermined — and it’s a bipartisan problem.
That the argument is incoherent, in a nation where one party is committed to a lie about widespread voting fraud (and cast not a single vote to relieve the suffering of millions of Americans during a pandemic), is not a problem. Listen to Manchin being interviewed, read his op-ed in the Washington Post. Nobody will press him on the essential incoherence of his position, which he states as calmly and reasonably as can be, and which amounts to: the answer to racism is for people to stop being so damnedracist.
The role of incoherence in human, particularly American, life is hard to overstate. Why do racists hate the people they hate? Ask ’em, they’ll tell you. It’s not all of ’em, you see, there are good ones, even among them. It’s really mostly the bad ones we hate, the angry ones, the ones who are violent, the ones who don’t denounce the violent ones, the quiet ones nobody can tell which side they’re actually on. Am I making sense? If not, maybe you need to think harder. We got this sturdy rope here, and the mob is pretty worked up, so think hard before you answer that you understand what I’m saying, since there’s none of them around to string up right this minute and people’s blood is getting hot, been getting hot, I can tell you for sure.
I keep thinking of a very neurotic guy I was friends with since grade school, his eyelid twitching as he nervously accused me of trying to deliberately destroy his troubled marriage. When he was done explaining his insane claim I was able to straighten things out a bit, but, you know, seriously– what the fuck?
Incoherence is particularly attractive when you’re very, very angry. Takes nothing particularly persuasive to convince oneself of the righteousness of one’s own rage. Anger can always justify itself, as long as you stay mad.
There is no PROOF that the people chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” were NOT actually skillfully disguised antifa provocateurs, rather than Trump supporters, nor that the policeman killed, or the one who lost an eye, were not attacked by these same BLM activists, disguised as Confederate flag waving insurrectionists. Listen to this:
Historian Heather Cox Richardson hit one out of the park tonight:
On April 8, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant was having a hard night. His army had been harrying Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s for days, and Grant knew it was only a question of time before Lee had to surrender. The people in the Virginia countryside were starving and Lee’s army was melting away. Just that morning, a Confederate colonel had thrown himself on Grant’s mercy after realizing that he was the only man in his entire regiment who had not already abandoned the cause. But while Grant had twice asked Lee to surrender, Lee still insisted his men could fight on.
So, on the night of April 8, Grant retired to bed in a Virginia farmhouse, dirty, tired, and miserable with a migraine. He spent the night “bathing my feet in hot water and mustard, and putting mustard plasters on my wrists and the back part of my neck, hoping to be cured by morning.” It didn’t work. When morning came, Grant pulled on his clothes from the day before and rode out to the head of his column with his head throbbing.
As he rode, an escort arrived with a note from Lee requesting an interview for the purpose of surrendering his Army of Northern Virginia. “When the officer reached me I was still suffering with the sick headache,” Grant recalled, “but the instant I saw the contents of the note I was cured.”
The two men met in the home of Wilmer McLean in the village of Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Lee had dressed grandly for the occasion in a brand new general’s uniform carrying a dress sword; Grant wore simply the “rough garb” of a private with the shoulder straps of a Lieutenant General.
But the images of the noble South and the humble North hid a very different reality. As soon as the papers were signed, Lee told Grant his men were starving, and asked if the Union general could provide the Confederates with rations. Grant didn’t hesitate. “Certainly,” he responded, before asking how many men needed food. He took Lee’s answer– “about twenty-five thousand”– in stride, telling the general that “he could have… all the provisions wanted.”
By spring 1865, Confederates, who had ridden off to war four years before boasting that they would beat the North’s money-grubbing shopkeepers in a single battle were broken and starving, while, backed by a booming industrial economy, the Union army could provide rations for twenty-five thousand men on a moment’s notice.
The Civil War was won not by the dashing sons of wealthy planters, but by men like Grant, who dragged himself out of his blankets and pulled a dirty soldier’s uniform over his pounding head on an April morning because he knew he had to get up and get to work.
The filibuster is a critical tool to protecting that input [from small, less populous states] and our democratic form of government. That is why I have said it before and will say it again to remove any shred of doubt: There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster. The time has come to end these political games, and to usher a new era of bipartisanship where we find common ground on the major policy debates facing our nation.
Thus writes the highly principled Joe Manchin of West Virginia in an op-ed called I will not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster. He believes the two parties must work together. Many Americans believe this, of course, probably most of us, although the solid 40% who support Trump no matter what are apparently down for any Big Lie that might help their party maintain power. There are principled members of both parties, Manchin insists. Therefore, it stands to reason that:
There is also bipartisan support for voting reform and many of the initiatives outlined in the For the People Act. Our ultimate goal should be to restore bipartisan faith in our voting process by assuring all Americans that their votes will be counted, secured and protected. Efforts to expand voting hours and access, improve our election security and increase transparency in campaign finance and advertisement rules should and do have broad, bipartisan support and would quickly address the needs facing Americans today. Taking bipartisan action on voting reform would go a long way in restoring the American people’s faith in Congress and our ability to deliver results for them.
Manchin writes this after the GOP majority legislature of the great state of Georgia passed a voter suppression law that would have enabled Trump to overturn the 2020 election, had it been in place last November, a law so transparent in its intent to favor one party that even corporations have denounced it as the Jim Crow artifact it is.
Manchin writes this editorial after 0 Republicans (in either House of Congress) voted for the COVID relief bill that Democrats narrowly passed by reconciliation.
Manchin believes in bipartisan cooperation with a party that speechified, paid to advertise doubt about “election integrity” based on a lie and cast 147 votes in Congress against certifying an election that officials of both parties declared free of widespread fraud.
Manchin can work with a party that is blocking a commission to get the facts on the January 6 riot at the Capitol. That’s what politics is all about.
I hate to revert to type, but the truth matters, even in politics, Joe Manchin, you stupid, posturing motherfucker. Same goes for your colleague Ms. Sinema.
Manchin reminds me of the Dubya Bush that Stephen Colbert skewered at the Correspondents’ Dinner a few years back. “You’re steadfast, sir. You believe the same thing on Wednesday that you did on Monday, no matter what happened on Tuesday!”
There is bipartisan support for keeping assault weapons out of the hands of violent maniacs, has been for decades. The GOP won’t vote for it. There was bipartisan support for Obama’s moderate nominee Merrick Garland for Supreme Court. The GOP Senate leader told the president to go fuck himself, no hearing, no debate. After Trump fomented, organized and incited the riot on January 6, #Stop the Steal, based on the Big Lie, the GOP fell into line to make sure he couldn’t be convicted in his impeachment, using a dubious rationale about having delayed the proceeding until it had no constitutional force.
Manchin ends his op-ed with these high-minded phrases:
We will not solve our nation’s problems in one Congress if we seek only partisan solutions. Instead of fixating on eliminating the filibuster or shortcutting the legislative process through budget reconciliation, it is time we do our jobs.
So, of course, that means not changing the filibuster rules back to requiring the party blocking debate to stand in the well of the Senate talking and talking. It means not changing the rule to put the burden on the minority to maintain a 41 vote quorum, but leaving the burden on the majority party to find 60 votes, ten among Trump dead-ender partisans. It means changing nothing, but the hearts of Manchin’s fellow legislators.
The odds are 50-50 that Manchin simply turns Republican if pressed hard enough by Senate colleagues. If the GOP suddenly got a majority in the Senate with “moderate” “centrist” Joe Manchin joining their caucus officially, they’d immediately end the filibuster, you can take that to the bank. Manchin would probably be OK with that.
The conservative Red State Democrat already shares many of their core beliefs. You don’t need to make a living wage if you’re poor, you can make do with a much smaller raise — it’s all you deserve anyway. If it’s not for endless war we can’t spend trillions fixing roads, bridges, transitioning to a more sustainable economy, training Americans for new jobs, etc. HOW WE GONNA PAY FOR IT? YOU SURE AS HELL CAN’T FORCE THE SUPER-WEALTHY AND CORPORATIONS TO PAY MORE TAXES! The man is a Republican asset, enjoying his moment as principled king maker/kingpin of obstruction. Fuck him and the flea-bitten bipartisan donkey he rode in on.