Category Archives: The Nation
A few days ago a friend asked if the ravens in my Facebook banner ( Albrecht Schenk’s painting ‘Anguish’ which now hangs in Melbourne) were “mean”, and generously offered that those black birds might work in solidarity with the lambs. I considered a quick reply, but held back. We know enough about ravens to know they beg no simple answers. And the seemingly simple question about ‘meanness’ is actually not so simple. It smacks a bit of “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” To which Dorothy frantically answers, “Why I’m no witch at all.” She’s just Dorothy and she wants to go back to Kansas.
And then, of course, we are left with the not so small irony that for Dorothy to complete that journey back to the world of black and white, she must in turn become a slayer of very bad witches. Which of course makes her simultaneously both a bad witch as well as one who is good.
In the Middle Ages or perhaps even long before that, the raven was perceived as a portent of death, of imminent and profane destruction. When villagers would see a dark unkindness of ravens approaching on the horizon, they knew that the armies would soon follow. Ravens are omnivores, but most of all they are carrion birds. They dine on the dead. As well, they are sentient. They have sufficient cognition to recognize men bearing arms as armies. And that armies are for one thing: the making of death. The shedding of blood. The leavening of slaughter.
The Raven does not do the killing. But his arrival serves the advance warning. And then he bears witness. And here, at least in Schenk’s image, the unkindness evokes the sadness wedded to communion.
Whenever we eat, especially when we partake of bread and wine, we are taking the flesh and blood of the Host – of the sacrificial lamb – into our own bodies. In this act, we acknowledge our own complicity in his death, and the subsuming of his power, his humility, and his promise into our selves. In the Host’s death we find our own sanctification.
The raven was born to be a sentinel. And when there’s nothing left for which to be warned, the bird must fly so that it may dine on the burnt offerings. That is his task.
When I posted that banner image just after the election I actually wondered where in that picture I figured. And today I realize it is everywhere. I am at once the bleating ewe, the falling snow, the fallen lamb, and the raven in waiting.
Perhaps ask yourself where, if anywhere, do you find yourself in the image?
Germany, February 1945
After my family left Latvija in 1944, they walked across Poland and Germany a day at most ahead of the advancing Russian troops. They were accompanied by family friends who in turn travelled with a wounded Russian soldier. His name is now lost, but the families valued him. Though disabled he had served as a kind of farmhand. He looked after the animals and he scavenged food and he did what he could to care for everyone. One day in Germany, under the Allied bombardment, he gathered potatoes that had fallen from train cars on the side of the tracks. He lost his footing and he fell down and was crushed by an oncoming locomotive. The train would have been bearing German soldiers, or food, or even the final bodies to be executed in Bergen Belsen.
In these days, especially in the smoke and mirrors and confusion of the last few weeks, it bears remembering that there can be a world in such chaos and moral ambiguity that one can be a victim even while dining on the fallen.
The German painter Gerhard Richter, born in 1932 on the eve of the burning of the Reichstag, would grow up in Dresden during the rise of National Socialism. Distrusting the reality of received information, he would later say that “style is violence.”
What did he mean by this? Style is ideology. And ideology, by definition, is visionary. It is declarative and absolute. At an extreme, it depends on discounting or even silencing the opinion or worldview of others.
When we condemn entire classes of people with blanket words – terrorist, bad hombre, enemy of the people – without any consideration for their discrete truths or histories and life stories, we deny the complexities of reality. We deny fundamental humanity.
This is violence.
Authoritarian ideology frames the world in absolutes: A total disaster. A complete mess. Police and society become militarized to ward off an impending and, more often then not, exaggerated or even fabricated danger. The urban bourgeois become enemies. People who are different, perhaps with darker skin or a foreign bearing, are framed as “an infestation.”
Mass spectacle replaces discourse and reasoned argument.
Authoritarian ideology begins by declaring outsiders or others as terrorists, foreigners, or criminal elements. It leads to the infliction of suffering and, if left unchecked, unspeakable acts of violence.
This happens under a veil of social confusion, but also a tragic normalcy. Heinrich Himmler himself, the architect of the Final Solution, actually considered himself to be a good father and a Good German. He felt quite genuinely that he was restoring his culture by ridding it of an infestation, of other strange identities, of a decadent cancerous rot.
After the war, notions even as simple as “family” or “nation” or “good” become strangely indeterminate. A fundamental distrust of the world and even language itself may be the hallmark of those whose understanding of reality has been shaped by authoritarianism.
What can we learn from the people who in other times fell inexorably under the sway of nationalist and exclusionary ideologies? Ideology and emotional or physical violence come at a cost. Who bears it and what does it look like?
We might turn to the enveloping canvasses of the German artist Anselm Kiefer, born a few months before VE Day and the close of the war. While Richter came to us during the convulsive birthing of Nazism, Kiefer’s infant eyes received it’s horrible conclusion.
To sit with Kiefer’s pieces is to be swallowed whole in the terror of the rounding up and of the rousing of the dogs of war.
Kiefer’s mucked and unruly residue is the inevitable outcome of the pattering martial tattoo. It’s the consequence of a seething resentful voice that declares that he will do something to North Korea, to Mosul, to Syria. The world exists as a being that has wronged him. And for this, he will inflict violence and war. He will eradicate his enemies, however he defines them, from the face of this earth.
In the presence of Kiefer’s paintings you immerse yourself in the ashen remains that are left after the blistering attack.
Have no illusions as to what it looks like and what will follow. There is nothing pretty, nothing kind nor valorous, nothing redemptive about it.
It is straw caked in black tar. It is burnt feces. Fields after a dark harvest, barren of life and able to offer no feeding. It is a world set ablaze.
The fields harrowed in the winter by tanks are sown in the spring with blood. Horses we are. Gaunt frames. Ribbed chests exposed. Grown from this ground, we dine on dirt and broken straw.
And here, at last, we return to our raven.
In this case, the carrion bird’s leaden wing falls upon a burnt and destroyed landscape. And yet it offers a bleak shred of hope.
Is the Raven mean?
He offers a bleak promise of regeneration; of the alchemy that comes when he feeds on rotting flesh and transmutes ruined matter into language and dark winged flight.
After the murdering has been had, the very sad truth is that there’s nothing more that can be done. Nothing will bring back the dead.
The Romanian poet, Paul Celan survived the invasion of his country by the Soviets in 1940 and in 1941 the butchering of the Jews of Cernauti by the German Einsatzkommando. In his poem Todefuge, he would later write
Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er pfeift seine Rüden herbei
er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde
er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling, he whistles his hounds to come close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he commands us to play up for the dance.
Yes, we can and should try to stop it. I would really like for the ravens to join with the lambs. And in a sense they do. They fly ahead of the advancing armies and their squawk fills the air as if to say, “Please. Listen. Bad things are afoot. Fight or flee, the days are numbered.”
And if there’s no listening, then the birds are left only to bear witness.
In Keifer’s Sulamith, the artist leads us to the entrance of the Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldiers. But this hall, designed by the Nazi architect Wilhelm Kreis and intended to commemorate the perpetrator, under Kiefer’s hand instead transmutes into the terminus of the iron track and the burning flames of the oven.
We find ourselves descending into hell.
“What would you do in this moment? Would you turn away from something so dark? Or would you intercede? Would you have the strength to gaze deeper and to feel it?”
Kiefer’s expressionism and experimentation of form is neither decadent nor abstract, but rather cemented in an amorality and horror unlike any the world has ever seen. Even more disturbing, it emerged in the very cradle of modernity, in a technologically advanced Western democracy not dissimilar from our own.
A Holocaust is not necessarily savagery in a some other savage place, but quite the opposite: savagery wrought by us. Richter perhaps challenges us to detect the darkness and violence inherent in the seemingly placid sea.
To experience Kiefer and Richter, one can learn from a generation forced to ask where their parents or even they themselves were when these things happened. How could they stand by and tacitly allow others to be hurt? What did they fear? What did they have to gain? How did they not see it coming? How did they come to believe the propaganda?
Where do you find yourself in the picture?
When presented with Gerhard Richter’s Lesende (The Reader), the German writer Luisa Beck asks who is this girl? And what does she have to offer?
Beck’s answer? She is a German. And she is us. And the look on her face betrays something important. That inhumanity can be born from and live commensurate with normalcy. As with our relationship to the raven, if ungood comes to pass and if we survive it, what will be our relationship to this girl? If we ourselves become war borne, how will we reconcile our own inhumanity with this profile and with this face, so lovely and so hardened?
And This is Why
Today I sit in a coffee bar in San Francisco. It’s evening in the Lower Haight.
Today I turn 52.
History’s anodyne gaze renders all things banal. To the future: this is what the face of imminent horror may look like.
Today, on this day, leak sources reveal that the administration was in communication with Russian intelligence for months before the election.
This week, a spokesman for the President stated that the powers of the President are substantial and are not to be questioned.
The President himself accuses those who leak information of being guilty of treason.
In a news conference he refuses to take questions from established media sources. He categorizes Palestinians as hateful violent people. He threatens darkly that we will crack down on criminal elements and make America great again.
He accuses anybody who speaks against him as being a purveyor of fake news.
On this day I turn 52.
I was 17 when my mom turned 52. Alone and long widowed, in that moment she thought that her life was over.
A few years earlier she had told me that she would kill herself on my 18th birthday, because then her filial and parental duties would be over.
As events would have it, she wasn’t too far off her mark.
But she’d crumbled long before that. The mother I’d known since I was six or seven would sleep most of the day. She would not cook or clean house. For many days or weeks growing up, she would simply be gone. My brother and I would fend for ourselves as best we could.
It was the only life I knew. And I never thought to ask why it was or if perhaps it could have been any different.
It took years of maturation before I would have the wherewithal to even seek an explanation. What could have possibly left a once brilliant and vivacious woman, so disabled and so damaged that at such a young age she could imagine no future for herself?
It’s taken a lot of excavation over a lot of years to find the answers.
In 1989 I sat in a nursing home with the shell of that poor woman. Her skull was indented from a frontal lobotomy. She didn’t have many words then. She sat in a breezeway in a nursing home, a Time magazine in her lap, the cover showing bodies in Tainanmen Square. I found her crying and I asked what was the matter. Because this happened in my country, she said.
It took a quarter of a century for me to learn something of what she meant. She was a war child. She was born in 1930 and the only conscious life she knew until she was 20 was under the dark shadow of authoritarianism.
The man in the White House talks about carnage in America. But he does not know carnage. And I fear that the true carnage may be the one which he and his cohort threaten in word and deed to bring upon us.
Carnage is the tactical unleashing of the fear of the other, of declarations that we must be afraid and that we are under threat of terror.
Carnage is the disintegration and dismemberment of civic institutions.
Carnage is the consenting transfer of power from the body politic to a small cadre of individuals.
Carnage is to have your neighbors, and inexorably you yourself, declared an enemy.
Carnage is to declare war in order to consolidate power over a people.
Carnage is having your childhood playmates and their families loaded in trucks and then onto trains and then carried away to points eastward.
Carnage is having 143 men, women, and children – residents of your village – receive dispensation with a bullet to the head.
Carnage is eating bread baked of sawdust and straw.
Carnage is to know insufferable cold and hunger.
Carnage is to smell for months on end the toxic stench of rotting flesh and burning rubber and powder and fire.
Carnage is seeing the bloated bodies of deserters hanging in trees because they were traitors.
Carnage is to have no home to which you may return; having no country for to call your own.
Carnage then, is to experience such loss, that you for the remainder of your life can see no future and you become paralyzed by the very processes of living.
The lived experience of that carnage, if not the memory itself, is passed on to the descendent. You find yourself risk averse. Or perhaps strangely paralyzed when it comes to the most basic decisions – even the most petty can result in life or death. You question the reliability and certitude of all things – relationships or even the persistence of our own democracy.
You grow up hungry, and you learn to double or triple down when food is presented. You look for brake lights, not just in the car in front, but three cars ahead. You bolt at explosions and loud noises. You awaken in the middle of the night with an undefinable dread.
And even when the administration appears to be in chaos and in threat of toppling, you know better. You know that the deranged beast, when wounded, is in fact the most dangerous. And that it will unleash a fury with which there is no reckoning, that we will be at war within months.
I asked folks on Facebook this morning to read and perhaps share the following interview of historian Timothy Snyder. It suggests only obliquely the surreal horrors that my mother and her generation knew. And here, now, 75 years distant from those shadows, I feel we are not safe, that the demons will yet be visited upon us.
Perhaps more than anything else, the circumstances and events described by Timothy Snyder give shape to who I am today.
And this is why, for your pleasure or perhaps only my own, I want people to read what he has to say, today, on the day that I turn 52.
Today, on this day, I don’t want the horror and grave sadness lived by the woman who brought me into this world to have been for naught and vain.
Today I can brook no quarter with this administration and the currents which they are stirring.
Not on my watch.
Walking the Line
In their recent report on global wealth distribution, OXFAM International revealed that in 2016, eight individuals held the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of humanity.
What does that look like on an a properly scaled graph?
It turns out that chart is actually impossible to find. And for good reason.
Not only does it not even fit on a sheet of paper, it doesn’t even fit on the planet Earth.
But lets try and imagine. Grab yourself a pencil and make a pencil point dot. The width of that dot represents one person. The height: one US dollar.
Now imagine a line that basically stretches all the way from San Francisco to Lincoln, Nebraska. That 1500 mile line contains the number of pencil dots that would represent all of the 4.8 billion adults on the planet.
For the first 180 miles of dots – all the way to the Sierra Mountains, the line basically doesn’t exist. These dots have nothing. For the next 600 miles, the line is a couple inches wide and eventually a couple feet thick. Most of those folks in the first half of humanity are worth less than a thousand bucks a piece.
In case you’re wondering, if you’re a newly minted millionaire, you’re way near the end, somewhere in the burbs, about eight miles outside of downtown Lincoln. And your line of dollars? It’s somewhat less then the height of the Worlds Trade Center.
The line continues at about that height essentially until we get to the last 3/8ths of an inch of the 1500 miles. That last little itsy bitsy bit is the width of pencil. These folks, keep in mind are eight miles away from the new millionaire, and (keep in mind, he’s just a dot) way out of sight. That 3/8ths of an inch consists of just 8 people.
Now. As for the very last two pencil points, how high are their lines?
This is where it gets really crazy.
Mount Everest? 5 1/2 miles high. The highest jump from space? Twenty-six miles by Google VP, Dr. Alan Eustace. The orbit of the space station? 248 miles above the surface of the earth.
But the wealth of the two richest men on earth? Get this. Those pencil dots representing each of their dollars side by side would extend 22,059 miles into space.
As for the eight guys? Their amount of pencil lead in the last 3/8ths of an inch would equal all the pencil lead representing all the wealth owned by all the dots in the line stretching from San Francisco to the border of Wyoming.
And now, whoever’s reading, pretty much all of you, you can basically stop. Because at this point it might make sense to narrow this audience to just the last eight guys (and they are all guys). They’re all pretty smart and, as far as I know, pretty good folks.
Bill, Amancio, Warren, Carlos, Jeff, Mark, Larry, and Michael, here are four questions:
1. Is this necessary?
2. Is it moral and just?
3. Is it effective and efficient?
4. Is it stable and safe?
And now a fifth question. Based on your answers to the first four, does the disparity matter, and what would you each propose we do about it?
The New Colossus
As broadcast on KQED.
On Saturday, Market Street overflowed with more than a hundred thousand undaunted people. That night, one thing above all became abundantly clear.
Both civil and profane, the sound encompassed both the lady’s diction and the withering honesty of the nasty woman. Yet it was far more than that. Around the country the air carried the voice of a manifold population gathered from all manner of lived experience.
This was not the voice of me above you. Nor was it the voice of “I”. Nor “Them” against “Those”. It was the voice of “Us” demarcated neither by gender, nor age, nor geography. It spoke to what America truly is. We are strong not because we are this thing or that thing. We are strong because we are Every Thing.
In 1883 the poet Emma Lazarus wrote the words now inscribed in New York Harbor, describing that New Colossus. She towers not like a brazen giant, but “a mighty woman whose flame is imprisoned lightening, and her name, the Mother of Exiles.”
We also know her as Liberty.
She shrinks neither from fear nor the immensity of her challenge.
Send these, the tempest-tost to me, she asks. And she embraces them with a mother’s arm. This act that might speak of weakness becomes our greatest strength and reveals a moral wealth that casts shame on any gilded tower.
It rests in the belief that there can exist a nation able to accommodate all manner of creed and idea. In this way, the many, so different, can become a resolute and indivisible One.
On the Twelfth Day of Christmas
On a recent rainy morning, I was decorating a particular tree — the one that represents that great Tree of Life — and I paused to consider how many presents my true love gave to me.
It’s a simple problem, really. One partridge, plus two turtle doves, plus three French hens: It’s basically the summation of an arithmetic series and there’s a simple formula for it.
That formula is sometimes tied to the great 19th century mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. One day when he was a young boy, his school master was feeling particularly cruel and he asked the class to total all the numbers from 1 to 100. So the class set to scribbling, 1+2+3 etc.
But Gauss noticed something. He saw that you can break the one hundred numbers into fifty pairs: 1+100, 2+99 and so on. Basically you have fifty 101s. Fifty times 101 is 5050.
Gauss walked up to the teacher and lay down the sum.
“There it lies,” he said.
So what’s this story really about? It’s not so much about math but about tyranny, about an insecure schoolmaster working in a subject that may have far exceeded his reach. In reaction, he bullied those around him.
But by using his powers of thought, Gauss was able to resist.
There are perhaps two ways to vanquish tyranny or the threat there of. The first may be the generosity of Christ, that very thing that we celebrate in the Christmastide; the power to give and love in the face of selfishness and greed.
And if that fails? Well, on the 12th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me 78 presents, the last of which was a Partridge in a Pear Tree.
The Lord on High, in concert with one of his lesser Angels, gave us life and within that life the power to reason. With that gift may joy prevail, and may all manner of ignorance be defeated.
These are the things for which I am grateful today.
I am grateful that I have a home and that I am warm.
I am grateful that I have Facebook friends who could laugh at me and cheer me on yesterday as I crawled home with an injured back.
I am grateful for a long suffering partner who brought me a cup of hot chocolate this afternoon.
I am separately grateful for the milk and for the chocolate.
I am grateful for my daughter who hung a Santa Rosa marathon medallion around my neck as I lay immobile on the floor.
I am grateful to have two pillows to tuck between my knees and one behind my head.
I am grateful to have windows that allow me to see the fog and the sunlight and tonight’s epic moon.
I am grateful to Kaiser Permanente for their excellent back care videos.
I am grateful to have hot water and to have a shower with walls so that I can stand and brace myself.
I am grateful to have high speed internet so that while I’ve lay prone, I’ve been able watch no small number of documentaries about the European theatre in World War II.
I am grateful to the persons who perhaps without any foresight of the future shot film and took pictures and wrote words so that three quarters of a century later we have evidence of all the things great and terrible that occurred.
I am grateful to have guidance for what may come.
I am grateful to the mathematicians of Bletchley Park who broke and broke again the Enigma code so that we could keep open the American maritime supply lines to Britain.
I’m grateful to Alan Turing for imagining the impossible.
I am grateful to the ruthless Germans who invaded my mother’s country. If it were not for them, I would not be here today.
I am grateful to the ruthless Soviet troops who brought an end to the Third Reich and in the process chased my family all the way to the Elbe. If it were not for them I would not be here today.
I am grateful to each and every one of the boys who fell from the sky on the dawn of June 6th, 1944 across the hedgerows of the Cotentin Penninsula. If it were not for them, I would not be here today.
I am grateful for my thrown out back that gives me cause to be. And the aching back that affords a moment to be grateful.
Why I Should Be President
I would like to ask for your vote as I run for President of this Fair Land.
I believe in our most core values.
And I too have been known for making unwanted advances on beautiful women.
I also have been victimized by the rigged and corrupt legal system.
In the past I have associated with cruel and malicious despots.
And yet I get along famously with the common man.
I am firmly grounded in reality.
And I am well read.
I have a sound platform founded in consistent and thoughtful policy.
I am not opposed to the right kind of Muslims.
And most importantly, I have always stood by Native Americans.
May we all join hands together in our journey to make this Land great again.
I’m kind of the Duke of Snark.
But I have to hold off on this one.
And I wish deeply that Herb Caen was still alive so he could have shared in today. I have no doubt that it would have made him proud of the city that he so loved.
What is it about Batkid (or #SFBatKid to be more accurate) that’s so captivating?
Like many others, I tuned it by chance late Friday morning. My wife said there was a picture of Batkid on the internet and when she saw him she began to cry. As did millions of others. Within hours the Twitter and Facebook and international news feeds were lit up with coverage of Batkid as he raced about the streets of San Francisco foiling one caper after another. Workplaces ground to a halt as folks tuned in to the boy’s activities.
The chance to dress up in a bat cape and bound through San Francisco in a Lamborghini cum Batmobile dealing with the likes of The Riddler and the Penguin? I’d do it in a heartbeat. The reality is that little Batkid’s day is the day we all wish for. We all want to be battling the bad guys and saving Gotham, but typically it takes the form of correcting an expense report, or dealing with a call from the school, or recovering from a fight with a parent or child or sibling. Wasn’t there once a simpler time?
In this world, we got enough bad guys. Or maybe just sad guys. The ones who shoot up schools, or overcome by their own prejudices light other teenagers on fire. Or terrorize the city of Boston with mayhem and murder. Or engineer government shutdowns and hold our debt ceiling hostage.
It’s such a relief to have bad guys of the old fashioned stripe. The ones who tie up a Damsel on the Trolley Tracks or try to Rob a Bank or Kidnap Lou Seal the SF Giant mascot. The old timey kind of stuff. The kind of stuff that can be taken out by a 5 year old kid in a bat suit who believes.
Some may ask what 12,000 people could do if they applied themselves to other perhaps greater causes. But it’s not an either/or proposition. As my friend Al Azhderian once said, It’s a Big Tent. One good deed does not preclude another. Our world and our selves can accommodate as many good deeds as we can dream up. In fact, each act creates the space or possibility for even more.
And the thousands who turned out today didn’t do it for the kid. In the end, it’s not so much about Batkid, but about that thing people have been hungering for. It’s about what Batkid gave us. In this sour season, he and Make a Wish reminded us, if only for a moment, of our ability to believe. To believe in the power of caring and love. And in the power of a body of people who for many competing reasons all felt it important to come together. And in our ability to transform reality simply by choosing to make it so.
Is San Francisco really Gotham? Did Police Chief Greg Suhr really go on TV and plea for Batkid to save the city? Did the Giants and the Raiders cheer Batkid on? Did the District Attorney really indict the evil doers? Does Batkid actually have his own parking space? Is it truly Batkid Day for now and forever? And did the President of the most powerful nation on earth (along with competing members of Congress) really give Batkid shouts of encouragement?
Of course not. We all know such things could never really happen. It’s impossible. Isn’t it?
The Last Undecided Voter in Ohio
It’s election eve and I’m working an Obama phone bank in California. Forty five minutes before the polls close in the midwest, the autodialer beeps and on my screen appears the name of a woman in Ohio. Continue reading
A Yip. Or a Yop.
Dr. Seuss on centrist Republicans (Horton was an elephant, after all), the Tea Party, and contemporary politics.
Notes From the Ground Game
Yesterday my family drove to Reno to assist with the get out the vote effort.
We all had fantasies, I think, of what it would be like, that we would be happily going door to door, sharing information with willing, perhaps marginalized voters who just needed a little reminder and they’d soon be hobbling off to the polls.
If only that were so. In the end it was a mostly sad and dispiriting day, yet one that revealed the strange power of the process.
We arrived early at the campaign headquarters and were efficiently dispatched to a neighborhood in North Reno. And it was no marginalized neighborhood. Think witness protection program. Or ground zero of the housing bubble: cul de sac after winding cul de sac of good-sized trophy homes, largely identical except for flipped floor plans. Each collection of houses was surrounded by that legacy of the Bush era – those carpets of housing pads for developments started, but never finished. In other areas, the shells of half-built homes stood like bombed out structures. Beyond that, barren desert. I imagine that many of the people in their fancy homes were most likely under water.
It was Romney country and we were assigned to walk to select Blue houses that were few and far between. The goal was to have a face to face contact and get a commitment from the voter in that household that they would go to the polls on Tuesday.
It became clear that this was an angry neighborhood. And a beleaguered and fearful one as well. The streets were mostly empty. Blinds were drawn. People refused to come to the door. The few people on the street who spoke to my wife yelled at her, telling her to get out, to go back to California where she came from.
Another man berated my daughter asking if she knew how many people Obama had killed in Libya. Another angry father yelled because his daughter who wasn’t home had registered as a Democrat.
This wasn’t a spirited electorate gleefully stepping forward to exercise the most sacrosanct right granted to them in this country. Instead here the ground game felt more like a ground war, an election that was pitting family member against family member. And so we trudged through enemy territory, looking for allies, but even they were too tired or frustrated to engage. We are so tired of you people ringing our doorbell, one woman complained.
My wife eventually gave up. We’re not helping anybody here, she said. We’re just pissing people off.
And it would seem that way. That is until you consider why we were in that particular neighborhood on that particular day in the first place.
These were the last holdouts: the ones left after the early voting, the ones who were least committed even to the process, the ones who had steadfastly refused to come to the door, and who by elimination were the only ones left who could still make a difference. This was the reluctant and recalcitrant grit at the bottom of the barrel. And it wasn’t going to get dislodged easily. They hadn’t voted in the last three elections. A simple phone call wasn’t going to do it. It was going to take phone call after phone call, door hanger after door hanger.
And hence the power and the pain of it all.
We were going only to the doors of registered voters who because of their demographic and voting record statistically had the greatest chance of swinging the election in Nevada and possibly the entire country.
And because of that, their names had landed on our list. And because they’re on that list, people are coming in from surrounding states, they’re knocking on their doors repeatedly, they’re deluging them with phone calls. Nameless donors are spending boatloads of money to get them to the polls. Unbeknownst to them, and without their conscious doing, a handful of people, those holdouts in that cul de sac in North Reno have become the most powerful in the country. It’s not me. It’s them. They are the ones who will decide who becomes the next President of the United States.
In part our future is up to a few lone citizens hunkered down in a half-finished housing development in Nevada. One woman lamented that she put up an Obama sign in her front yard four years ago. Her neighbor hadn’t spoken to her since. In such an environment it’s hard to stand by your convictions. You wonder if perhaps you might be doing the wrong thing by engaging in the electoral process at all.
And so there my family found itself on a warm November day. We stood at the doorstep of potential voters who were literally besieged by the electoral process. We stood there, ringing doorbells of folks who refused to answer because they didn’t want to hear one more thing about the election.
If you’re one of those people who didn’t answer the door or who hung up on the caller, I have one thing to say.
If you’re one of those people, it’s not happening to everybody. Trust me. It’s happening to you in particular because your voice, the one that belongs specifically to you, matters a whole hell of a lot more than those in the rest of the country. Without your asking or your doing, you have become the arbiter of the direction of this country.
How very strange.
And all you need to do is vote.
The Outer Darkness
Without a TV in the house, we’re been woefully behind in keeping up with our TV diet. It took us five years to plow through the complete set of Sopranos DVDs. By the time we reached the last bit of New Jersey turnpike diner pageantry and the final nihilistic scene when Tony Soprano’s consciousness, vision, pathos, tragedy – the sum total of his entire being – suddenly eclipses forever into a blank and silent screen, the series had already been over for three years. [Disclaimer here: I’m a sucker for the Sopranos and consider it one of the great works of American theatre, TV be damned.] Continue reading
Mitt Romney on the Middle East
I’m not sure this is the most nuanced way to discuss one of the most volatile conflicts in the world today.
I was just personally insulted by a candidate for the presidency of the United States.
I’m planning on voting for Obama which ranks me as part of the so-called “47 percent” that Mitt Romney labeled as “people who don’t pay income tax,” takers “dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them” and who feel entitled to free food, housing, and healthcare.
He said further that it was not his job “to worry about those people, that you’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
On behalf of the 47%, I’d like to clear my name, Mr. Romney.
For the last ten years my effective tax rate has been been between 21 and 25%. For the one year of tax returns that you’ve shared with us, you paid 13.9%. My tax burden is at least 50% higher than yours. And you refuse to let us know how little you’ve paid in previous years.
For the last eight years my wife and I worked on an Indian reservation in a place where residents in some cases live without running water or electricity or basic social services. My wife served as a doctor. I started and worked for a variety of non-profits supporting local community development.
And you call me a taker?
I am a tax paying, law abiding citizen who believes in the values of this country.
Yet you basically said that because I presently support Obama you’re not going to try and speak to me or my interests.
So whom do you represent?
Your 2010 income of 20 million dollars puts you in the top 1/10th of 1 percent of American households. In that year you earned 400 times more than the median American income.
Bain Capital shuttered at least some American companies and sent jobs overseas. Americans lost jobs and you as the sole shareholder of Bain Capital at the time, profited.
And when the financial industry, of which you were a part, deep sixed this country through what have been recognized as deliberate, criminal activities, your colleagues were bailed out and got a free pass. To date no one has been convicted for the crimes that contributed to the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Tax-shirkers? Takers? People who want free everything?
Okay. So you were trying to speak about voter segmentation. You say you spoke loosely and off the cuff. But your job, as President, would be to speak and act with care and nuance.
When you travelled to London this summer, you insulted the Brits by saying they were not adequately prepared for the Olympic Games. You then travelled to the Middle East and insulted the Arab world by saying Palestinians had not built an industrialized economy for cultural reasons and that Israel had done so because of their “providence at having selected this place.”
Now you’ve written off half the people in this country, including myself, as deadbeats. Last night in Costa Mesa you said that you would still stand by your words.
Tell me about it, Mr. Romney.
Who are you? Really? And are you really ready to be President?
At a recent gathering I stepped into a dispute about the efficacy of vaccinations for children. I haven’t been paying too close attention, but I guess there’s been a growing backlash against vaccinations. Anti-vaccine adherents have cited studies showing a causal tie between vaccines and autism (the data which was later shown to have been falsified), or are driven by a general distrust of Big Pharma. Some believe that vaccines may actually compromise our immune systems, by making them “more dependent on outside drugs” and less robust.
Well, here’s one. In a widely cited study of measles and pertussis vaccinations and outbreaks in Colorado, CDC researcher Daniel Feikin discovered that children who went unvaccinated were 22 times more likely to contract measles than vaccinated children. That’s perhaps to be expected.
The interesting kicker is that the unvaccinated children were actually vectors for measles outbreaks among children who had been vaccinated. Schools with pertussis outbreaks had three times as many exemptors. The chances of there being an outbreak in a county basically increased with the number of vaccine exemptors. Believing that they had the right to tend to their own bodies how they saw fit, anti-vaccination proponents put the larger community at risk.
As Dr. Feikin noted, “A single unvaccinated child in a community of vaccinated children holds a strategically opportunistic high ground, protected from risk of disease by herd immunity while avoiding risk of exceedingly rare adverse events associated with vaccination. Yet, when too many parents want their child to be that child, the entire community is affected.”
The final grace note? My wife is a doctor within Kaiser. Where do the greatest number of unvaccinated children in the Kaiser California system reside?
One of the most affluent community in California chooses not to vaccinate their children. They’ve never seen the effects of measles or polio. What risks can those diseases possibly pose? So they opt out, thinking it won’t affect the larger community.
A national study shows that unvaccinated children come from well-educated, upper income, predominantly white families. And in Colorado? It’s San Miguel County, home to the wealthy and largely liberal San Juan ski towns.
Take that cake and eat it.
Truth & Amanda Knox
I’m not an Amanda Knox watcher. Although I did read the first lurid account of the murder (sex orgies, drugs, good girl gone bad while abroad in Italy, etc.), I haven’t followed it since.
But yesterday I happened across the Rolling Stone article on her appeal. Juicy, juicy, juicy. And alluring and sad. We don’t know what the hell went on in that flat that night in 2007, but by any measure there’s more wrong with the prosecution’s case than is right. What’s more cogent a story: naive well-mannered girl from Seattle wrongly implicated in her roommate’s murder, or that once out from under her parent’s wing she fell under satanic influence and partook in drug fueled orgies?
All other friends of the murdered girl lawyered up and left the country. Knox blithely stayed to answer questions. She became the object of a muddled interrogation. She signed a typed confession in Italian (which she could barely understand). No evidence linked her to the scene of the crime. A convicted perpetrator has confessed to the murder and stated that she wasn’t present. Accusations of satanic ritual have come from a prosecutor who has charged defendants in three other cases with having performed satanic acts.
And then you have the tabloid industry that has fed tirelessly on the girl (and sold tons of pulp as a result). And the British sport of maligning Knox speaks more of a general anti-americanism and displaced anger at our role at sinking the global economy. Woe to Knox for deciding to go abroad just when the market began to crash. We in the world want blood and, in the last few years it seems, we’ve been dining on hers.
If only Arthur Miller were alive today.
As I read the article though, I thought too of my own daughter, and even myself at 19- at my proclivity to sing out loud or at times be inappropriate – and how easy it is for someone young to the world to wander into a situation that is far out of their league.
And this thing we call justice is less about truth, and more about martial campaigns to twist the sentiments and perceptions of a jury or judge and spin a narrative that will inflame the imagination.
Knox’s family is on appeal. They’ve hired a new legal team. And also a media manager. Coverage in support of her is ramping up. God help them.
I’m sorry. I just have to say it.
The taking of any life should not be cause to gloat.
The headline of the Chron yesterday read: “The Butcher of 9/11 Dead.” But what made him a butcher and us any less so?
Was it that he launched an attack against the US? He essentially was a military commander using the means available to him to achieve his military and political ends. By that measure, we are butchers.
Was it that the attack was launched at a civilian target? In our retaliations in the Middle East, since 9/11 we have taken far more civilian lives. We call this “collateral damage.” But by the same measure, we are butchers.
Perhaps the taking of human life amounts to butchery only when it happens to us. That makes us narcissists.
This may be a defining moment in Obama’s presidency. But I would hope not. There are better things to be remembered for. It was a necessary moment. But not a proud one.
bin Laden’s death may diminish the chance of future attacks. But probably not. It certainly won’t bring back all those we’ve already lost.
Lets model good behavior and not the behavior of those we vilify.
Let it rest.
The Windmill and the Whale
I wish we’d bought a map, Anna says.
Don’t worry, I mutter. Look on the phone. We have Google maps.
Dawn. Driving through west Texas. Somewhere southeast of Lubbock. This entire corridor is given over to energy production.
It once was energy for people, energy in the form of cattle. Solar energy harvested by grasses, concentrated into bovine fat and flesh by the gut of a steer, then rendered for our consumption.
Then the land was given over to extracting energy for things: factories, cars, lightbulbs, plastic juice bottles. And the energy came mainly in the form of oil. Ancient solar energy harvested by cycads, velociraptors, all manner of antediluvian life, then rendered by heat and pressure and time into thick black goo.
Biological life condensed into energy to give life to mechanical things.
West Texas wafts with the acrid smell of crude. this morning we drive for miles and can’t escape it.
Until we hit the turbines.
Sixty. One hundred. One hundred and twenty miles of horizon to horizon wind turbines. Solar energy heating the air that then moves in currents and drafts around the planet, to be harvested by windmills to once again feed…things.
There ain’t no farms here. And not much in the way of people. Farmsteads or ranches that once held purchase on thousand acre spreads are now abandoned, crumbling at the ankles of these Cervantian giants.
Those homes that still remain resemble more minuscule bacteria cultures lodged in the creases of the flesh of some great beast.
Any advocate for (or future victim of) wind energy should check this place out.
But it’s clean energy, Anna counters. I think it’s beautiful.
But I think of an unadulterated horizon. Of ranch hands dead and buried. Of migratory birds and raptors, of insects. Of virgin life. Of consequences of which we have no foreknowledge.
And clean energy for what? For things. For this rough beast. For Google server farms. And Google maps.
What, I wonder, would happen if we chose to have no energy? Those turbines power some Leviathan that evades our comprehension, though it is in part of our own making. What if we chose to abandon our devices and starve this thing?
Abilene. Where do we turn next? Anna asks.
Look on the phone, I say. But too late, we’ve missed our exit. I wish we had a map, she says.
It’s going to be a bit longer to Austin today.
Posted from my iPhone