A quick addition to the last post

I wasn’t going to write anything else about the election. I felt like that last post said all I needed to say. But as I’ve learned, sometimes, circumstances move faster than type; sometimes they’re faster than thought.

As you know, the President has tested positive and is now in the hospital. Given the way he was behaving, this was inevitable. It shouldn’t be surprising that he is neither being treated with hydroxychloroquine nor bleach. Miracle cures always seem terrific when you’re feeling bulletproof, running your mouth about things you don’t understand. Once you get sick, you tend to listen to the doctor.

The President’s infection has prompted many different reactions: sympathy, fear, schadenfreude, outright glee, self-righteousness, a renewed sense of order in the universe. A debate has opened about the ethics of wishing misfortune on people who are engaged in active harm. I am a notorious other-cheek-turner, but I don’t think it’s controversial to say that it is a good thing for the country that a proven superspreader is temporarily sidelined. We’ve seen the President and his circle act with absolute disregard for public health: that’s what made me write that last post in the first place. The White House was planning rallies in Wisconsin and Florida — two places that don’t need any more pathogens than they’ve already got. He was about to accelerate transmission of the virus. With Trump parked at Walter Reed for the time being, those events are now off the calendar, which ought to be a relief for anybody who understands the first thing about communicable disease. We don’t have to pray to speed the recovery. I’m sure he’ll be out of the hospital and back on his irresponsible behavior soon enough.

If we allow him to, I mean. I’d like to see him banned from the state of New Jersey. I really don’t see why we wouldn’t. We don’t allow out of staters to bring in loaded firearms or toxic waste, and we shouldn’t make excuses for Trump’s recklessness and outright contempt for science and probability. To recap: on Wednesday, he knew that Hope Hicks, one of his closest handlers, was positive for the coronavirus. Any moral or rational actor would have gone into quarantine at once. Instead, shedding virus, he headed to Bedminster to meet with donors. That event was, at least partially, held indoors. We don’t know what went on in there, because we don’t hang out with miscreants. But the Amy Coney Barrett disaster in Rose Garden is a good indication of how powerful Republicans behave when they get together: they act like reality doesn’t apply to them. Alas, reality bites. When it does, it’s a problem, and not just for them. It’s a problem for everybody caught in the wake of their terrible, amoral decisions.

For instance, my parents live twelve minutes from Bedminster. I’d like to know, very, very, very much, whether any of the people who’ll cross their path today in Morris County were in contact with the President. Right on brand, the GOP has been reluctant to engage in contact tracing, and since they’ve never believed that they were susceptible to the virus, I’d wager that they wouldn’t know how to do it even if they tried. I also imagine that many of the attendees at that event don’t want to be outed as Trump donors, which complicates things further, especially as the President continues to disgrace himself.

Because every bit of news out of the White House press corps this morning is, indeed, disgraceful; for instance, we now know that Trump and his entourage showed up late (deliberately, I’m sure) to the debate on Tuesday, skipped testing, refused to wear masks, and endangered both Biden and the moderator. They didn’t even have the courtesy or humanity to call Biden and tell him that Trump was positive for the coronavirus — he had to find out from the news. Lest you think these people are any better to their “friends”, it now seems that Chris Christie, who was handling the President’s debate preparations, found out the same way. That’s not to mention all of the journalists, cooks, chauffeurs, stylists, policemen and Secret Service agents, and others who are forced to attend to this callous buffoon for professional reasons, and whose immediate futures have been jeopardized by his monstrous arrogance and aggressive idiocy. So I’ll say it again, a little louder this time: if you support this regime, in any way, you are dumb as a rock and you don’t possess the intelligence or judgment necessary to be a citizen in a republic. That’s brutal, but it’s true. This is no time for tact. I am trying to stay alive. I want you to stay alive, too. Please act wisely, and be careful.

From me to you

Chances are, you’re exhausted, too. You don’t want to talk about the election, or civil society, or anything of the sort. Airtight arguments haven’t gotten you anywhere, and those moral and emotional appeals haven’t done much, either. You know this is the state that powerful people want you in: too wiped out to put up a fight, distrustful of your neighbors, despairing, sure of nothing other than your own feelings of powerlessness. I was going to write a longish piece on accelerationism in which I attempted to clarify the concept a bit, and hazard some guesses about why it has become the default political position for millions of Americans. I made it to the halfway point of that piece. I intended to finish it today. But I keep returning to the image of the President of the United States in Tulsa and Henderson, Nevada, fulminating at the podium, hosting superspreader events in the middle of a pandemic, encouraging people in the crowd to engage in behavior that anyone with a rudimentary understanding of communicable disease would recognize as dangerous, and mocking people who’ve chosen to mask themselves against a respiratory illness. In a sane society, this could never happen, but we all know we passed the border of sanity years ago. If we can’t expect the head of state to engage in intelligent activity, what chance, really, do we have with the guy on the corner?

Maybe we were clueless at the beginning of the year. At the end of September 2020, all excuses are gone. We now know quite a lot about the coronavirus. We know it spreads best inside. We know it’s highly communicable through respiratory droplets, and you’re most likely to get it from somebody shouting or chanting in your vicinity. We further know that crowding people into spaces like arenas encourages transmission. This is why we haven’t been able to have rock shows. The reprobates who run Bowery Presents and South By Southwest got the message. The juggalos got the message. It is apparently too much to ask of the Chief Executive that he be as responsible as Insane Clown Posse.

You’ve spent a lot of time wondering how and why we got here. Me, too, pal.  Today, though, I find myself uninterested in pattern tracing, or diagnosis, or plumbing nefarious motivations. I care only that it’s happening, and that it’s clearly going to continue to happen, no matter what Dr. Fauci says, no matter what the test-positive percentage is, no matter what common decency and morality dictates. Just this morning, the Washington Post reported that the re-election campaign is planning events in places in Wisconsin where cases are on the rise. Maybe it’s deliberate and maybe it isn’t; I’m not going to waste any more time trying to riddle it out. What matters is that a ten-ton truck is coming through a tight tunnel, right at us, and we refuse to swerve. The chief executive is, personally, jeopardizing public health — he’s been brazen about it, and it’s clear that he’s going to continue to do it, and nobody is going to stop him. That this isn’t front page news, every day, lets you know how far gone we are.

Many of you take it as a given that you won’t survive another four years of this. I’m just hoping to make it through this one somehow. Self-preservation instinct kicks in, and when it does, it speaks in simple sentences. The more hosts there are, the more virus there’s going to be, and the better chance we all have of catching it. Global caseloads are increasing again. The rapids are tugging at the life raft. 

I try to be honest with myself, and when I am, I can’t say I’m loving my odds. The Chief Executive spends time at his rallies vilifying journalists and condoning police violence against them. I’m a journalist. In my experience as a journalist, and on the playground, too, I’ve learned that when bullies threaten you and the people closest to you with physical harm, it’s wise to take their word for it. My understanding is that the President shouted out the Proud Boys on national television last night, which doesn’t surprise me at all, and ought to tell you all you need to know about his values and his taste for revanchist violence. I wrote a pessimistic piece two weeks ago (it’s right under this one) explaining why I’m worried about an impending legitimacy crisis. Nothing that’s happened since has settled my nerves. It’s been clear to me for months that the White House has no plan for the pandemic other than intelligence-insulting fights with their own CDC, and no intention to act in any meaningful way to avert or ameliorate the crisis. The federal policy, if you even want to call it that, appears to revolve around herd immunity, faith in expedited vaccines, miracle drugs, various quack medicines and titrations of snake oil.  We’re heading back into the storm with no pilot, no clothes, no class, and no clue.

It’s likely you recognize the White House’s affection for herd immunity as good old American sink-or-swim cruelty. It certainly is that. But it’s also the umpteenth expression of the monumental intellectual laziness and idiot’s arrogance that infests everything this non-administration does. They’re resigned to let the virus burn through the population because they can’t be bothered to come up with a solution, or even a helpful recommendation. I don’t particularly like being roped into a herd. Whenever I am, I usually brace myself for my inevitable relegation to the culling line: I’m nobody’s idea of a prime specimen, and I’ll wager you wouldn’t make the cut, either. It’s worth remembering that no public health fight in the modern history of America has been won via reliance on herd immunity alone, and this coronavirus isn’t going to be the first. Most estimates done by real scientists suggest that even after all we’ve been through, only about 10% of the population has acquired antibodies. We’ve got a long way to go before a meaningful threshold is reached, and if we insist on going that way, I’m not going to make it. Neither are any of the people who matter to me.

So tonight, I’m saying something that’s hard for me to say — something that I don’t want to say, and that I’m only saying because these are desperate hours, and circumstances beyond my control have compelled me to speak. If you are making apologies for these charlatans, if you are, in any way, entrenching their position or furthering the advance of their propaganda, if you are, God forbid, even considering the possibility of returning these people to power, I am forced to view you — yes, you — as an existential threat. And if any of that describes you, I want you to understand that I have given you the benefit of every doubt. I have scoured the recesses of my mind to find ways to defend you, and forgive you, for privileging the well-being of your imaginary friends in the White House over my health and security, and the health and security of the people around me. I don’t want to hate you for what you’re doing. But I’m no longer going to pretend that you have my best interests in mind. You’ve shown me otherwise.

One last thing, and I feel the need to give this to you in numbers as hard as a bar of iron to the belly. Here in Hudson County, we’ve lost 1,355 people to the virus. This is a conservative estimate — there were probably many other uncounted deaths, but that’s the number that the state has supplied, so until it’s revised, that’s what we’re going with. We further know that about twenty thousand people have tested positive for the coronavirus; there’ve been approximately twenty thousand cases here. Thirteen hundred into twenty thousand is six and a half per cent. More than one in twenty of cases turned out to be fatal. Then there were all of the cases that merely sent people gasping to the hospital, cases that sickened our neighbors who still haven’t shaken their symptoms, cases that seemed to go away before roaring back, cases that destabilized families and shut down small businesses and interrupted educations and canceled weddings and ruined a summer for thousands. Those who minimize the virus insult every one of us. We got sick; then we got disrespected. We won’t forget. Strategic denialism from powerful people won’t erase the memory of ambulances on this block, every night, straight through March and April and deep into May. They seem intent on making us call those ambulances again. Maybe it’ll be me in the ambulance this time. There may be no way to avert that outcome. But my best bet for survival is you. If you care, at all, you’ll act accordingly.

Just before the fall

Election Day is two months away. I don’t think we’re prepared for it. There are going to be arguments and hot air, there’ll be disbelief, there’ll be conspiracy theories, charges and counter-charges, accusations, psychological breakdowns, horror shows on the nightly news, psy-ops in broad daylight. Will there be violence? I sure hope not. But the trend lines aren’t too promising.

The last election season was vexed. This one is already beyond belief. With each news cycle, fresh obstacles to fairness, clarity, and calm resolution arise. No prior hazard is ever removed. We’re heading down the rapids toward an unprecedented national disaster, and nobody can do anything about it but gawk.

I hate writing pessimistic stuff. I feel like I’m gloomy enough as it is without reinforcing that for my reader — even if that reader is me. But I’ve looked at our predicament from every angle I can think of, and I have to admit that I don’t see how we’re getting out of this one. We’ve lived through hard years before, and we’ve always been able to rebuild what’s broken. This time seems different. In the hope that I’m wrong, and that I can look back on this in March 2021 and chide myself for my alarmism, I’m going to go ahead and lay it out:

  • An ongoing pandemic has killed 186,000 Americans, and put many more in the hospital. We don’t know the precise number, because state and national governments have gotten parsimonious about official communications. Yet we do know that the pathogen is highly contagious, and we fear there’ll be another wave of illness in the fall — right in time for the election.
  • A reasonable response to a respiratory illness that threatens to suppress voter turnout: mail-in ballots. Yet the President has done what he can do to discourage voting by post. He’s made it clear that he’d like to torpedo the USPS altogether, and he’s taken steps to do just that. People who don’t want to run the risk of catching the coronavirus are absolutely going to try to vote by mail. How long will it take to count these ballots? Can the post office be trusted?
  • The White House claims (with no evidence) that mail balloting will lead to fraud. This is apparent attempt at delegitimating mail-in votes, and, by extension, preemptively delegitimating the results of the election.
  • The campaign to re-elect the President isn’t even attempting to win an outright majority. Instead, they’re looking to massage the Electoral College, which, they hope, will deliver the Republican Party its third minority victory of this millennium.
  • After the prior minority victory, the President claimed, with no substantiation, that millions of votes had been cast illegally for his opponent. He has been using the same inflammatory rhetoric against his challenger’s campaign, talking openly about fraud, dirty tricks, and election-stealing. Should the former Vice President win the election outright — not impossible — many, many supporters of the President will view the election result as a criminal act of usurpation engineered by a shady cabal of fixers.
  • Millions of Americans already believe that the President came to office illegitimately. They’ve concluded that he cheated his way to the Oval Office with a helping hand from international crime syndicates backed by the Kremlin. None of these Americans think that the President is running an honest campaign. Should he win — and incumbents usually do — they’re not going to accept the results of the election.
  • Although ample evidence exists that those international syndicates are planing further election interference and should be countered, the President is instead focusing on an internal enemy: American cities run by Democratic mayors. He’s explicitly running an American vs. American campaign: he receives dissent as a personal insult, and reflexively takes the side of police departments against protesters. By now, it should be clear that mediation is well beyond his abilities, and he gives no sign he’s interested in it, anyway.
  • Just yesterday, the White House threatened to withhold money from those cities. The governor of New York responded that the President had better have an army with him if ever comes to Manhattan. This is straight-up civil war talk, saber-rattling right out in the public sphere at a time when accelerationism is on the ascent.
  • Those of us who live here recognize the President’s characterization of New York City as “anarchist” as the height of absurdist theatre. But not everybody is familiar with New York. It’s frighteningly clear that many of those who don’t are taking this rhetoric seriously and are actively engaging in, and furthering, a ridiculous misapprehension about American cities.
  • America is armed to the teeth.
  • No, really. There are at least 350 million guns in the United States. That’s more than 40% of all the guns in the entire world. Those weapons are concentrated in places that don’t have restrictive gun control laws. That means that a whole lot of firepower is in the hands of people who don’t live in American cities, and urbanites, by contrast, are relatively unarmed, depending as we do on police forces to protect us from violence.
  • Last week, a seventeen-year-old crossed the Wisconsin state line, arrived in Kenosha with an automatic weapon and appointed himself executioner. He brought a loaded firearm to a town that wasn’t his, and used it to kill two protesters.
  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, but deeply problematically, many influential Americans refused to denounce the shooter. That included the President. Millions of dollars have been donated to his legal defense fund.
  • In Portland, another man shot and killed a supporter of the President who’d come to town as part of a caravan of counter-protesters.
  • These street confrontations are taking place against the backdrop of nationwide protests against the police killings of unarmed black men. Many of those who support the police (and, perhaps, the police executions, too) see the Black Lives Matter movement as a socialist insurgency that needs to be stamped out. Yesterday, in shades of Charlottesville, a car slammed into a BLM march in Times Square.
  • The Department of Homeland Security has dispatched armed squads in unmarked vans to cities where protests are taking place. Anonymous DHS agents dressed in camouflage have pulled protesters off of the street and detained them without explanation.
  • Lots of people — way more than you think — believe wholeheartedly in a theory that identifies prominent politicians and celebrities as members of a Satanic cult of child abductors, sex criminals, and cannibals. For more than four years, they have salivated over the perceived imminent arrest of the Clintons, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, and other critics of the White House.
  • The President has consistently signaled unwillingness to transfer power to the opposition. Perhaps he truly believes that he is the victim of an international conspiracy, and perhaps he fears losing the immunity to prosecution that the office confers.
  • Because of the distortions created by the Electoral College, American Presidential elections tend to go down to the wire. It is possible that the outcome will be made clear by the voters on November 4. But it’s also possible that it won’t. There’ll be mail-in ballots to count, pathogens to avoid, and, inevitably, vote-suppression controversies to resolve. Long lines at polling stations during primaries did not augur well for the night of the general election.
  • If there are recounts, or even slow counts, we could be looking at days, or even weeks, of indeterminacy. Based on everything we’ve seen so far in 2020, how do you think those days are likely to go?

I am not a fighter. I don’t own a weapon, and I’m not going to go get one. Words have always been my defense, and they’ve held me in good stead so far, so I’m going to keep on using them. Yet I know that the battle hasn’t reached its highest pitch yet, and we may all be marching to a field where words are useless. Honestly, we might be there already, and people are just too polite, or too cagey, to tell me.

Because what I’ve learned over the past two weeks is this: I am a sitting duck, and the hunters are well-armed and well provisioned. I am effectively defenseless in my own nation. This is something I’ve always believed (and it’s something that black Americans always feel) but rarely has the point been driven home so authoritatively. If an angry teenaged vigilante from the sticks comes to my city with an AR-15 and shoots me, I understand that powerful people are going to excuse his actions. If I am loaded into an unmarked van and driven god knows where by a goon squad from out of town, those same people are going to say that I had it coming. All illusions are shattered: millions of countrymen aren’t my friends, and never will be. They’re not people with whom a peaceable conversation can be engineered. They don’t want to sit down at a table and break bread. They want to see me hurt.

As we all wake up, however groggily, to an internal conflict that started awhile ago, we’re coming to the realization that there’s nowhere to hide. The time to learn Norwegian and move to Oslo has passed — and they wouldn’t want us there, anyway. As a non-combatant by nature, my utility to the cause is minimal, and my desire to fight is less than zero. But to those authorities who are lighting the matches and pouring the kerosene, and engaging in calumny against the place where I live, I would like you to know: I see you. I know what you’re doing. You don’t want an election, and you certainly don’t want a discussion. You want a brawl. You want to use that arsenal you’ve amassed. You may just get your wish. I can’t say I’m ready, because I never will be. But I will not be taken by surprise.

Hater you participate

I consider it a thing of monstrous arrogance to support a political candidate because he or she agrees with me. For starters, my judgment is compromised in dozens of ways. I take it for granted that I’m misinformed, and woefully ill-equipped to untangle the sort of knotty problems that leaders face. John McCain stands out as a political figure whose positions on things I hardly ever agreed with, but what would it mean if I did? Our frames of reference couldn’t have been more different. He was a hothead warrior who went on combat missions in Vietnam. I’m a writer, musician, and aesthete from Northern New Jersey. Instinctively, I didn’t think his disposition was very well suited to the jobs he wanted. I’m sure he would say the same thing about me, only with much greater vehemence. Maybe we’d both be right.

So I am not eager for a replica of myself to attain ultimate political power. I feel that would be a disaster for everyone. My positions on the issues, such as they are, are pretty much what you’d expect them to be given my temperament and my geopositioning. No big surprises there, and not too illuminating. Some of my friends who identify as socialists have periodically expressed frustration and disappointment with my willingness to cast votes for corporate-party candidates — they see that as an unacceptable compromise with a value system that I don’t share. I get that, and I do understand why they can’t find it in themselves to abet the rise of whichever Clinton or Clinton-like individual is asking for their support. It hurts their souls, and I don’t like to see my friends accrue soul bruises.

That said, when it comes to elections, I am 100% realist, preferring to save my flights of fancy for the recording studio or boardgames or story hour. I am not going to pretend that there aren’t but three possible outcomes to the national election in November. Either the incumbent will win himself a second administration, or Joe Biden will win himself the opportunity to set up a new one, or, because of the public health crisis and related disasters, electoral democracy will crater and there won’t be a vote at all. Honestly, I doubt that the third thing is even a possibility, and I spent some time in my last dispatch explaining why we shouldn’t want that to happen anyway. Utopia is not dawning in that direction. Trump and Biden are the only two people with a shot at winning Election 2020, and the chance to make an intervention in that binary choice passed us by months ago. It’s going to be one or the other, so you’ll either have to pick the one you believe will be a better steward, or, if you think they’re both equally bad, you might cast a vote for a protest candidate with no shot at winning, or just sit this one out.

But… if you’re taking that position in 2020, I have to admit that I don’t believe you; not entirely, anyway. American politics is not a math problem, politicians are not integers, and no two possibilities are ever equally bad. Even if we can agree that our system is no longer delivering us palatable options, the way in which those options are bad will still differ, and as citizens invested in the health of the republic, we ought to be able to discern which of the unappetizing choices we’ve been served is more digestible. It’s actually our responsibility to do just that. If the nation is poised to travel down one of two paths, it really doesn’t do us much good to insist on the merits of a path that we’re not going to take, or stand at the crossroads and throw a tantrum because neither road is lit with fairy lights.

In November 2016, I voted for Hillary Clinton. I didn’t do that because I believed we shared the same quadrant of the Nolan Chart, or even because I wanted to see history made. I did it because I didn’t think her opponent could do the job. New Jerseyans had been privy to a view of Donald Trump that other Americans weren’t; we had a good idea of his limitations and a strong sense that he lacked the crisis management skills that are mandatory for a chief executive to possess. Many of the intuitions I have about famous people, mediated as they are through publicists and prejudices, turn out to be wrong. In this case I was right, and then some. My sense is that some of those whose image of the President was formed by game shows and television appearances are waking up to his incapacity. Maybe they aren’t. Regardless, it seems that the reelection effort is determined to make an issue of Biden’s age and mental frailty, which seems awfully strange to me, given that the President is neither young nor sharp. He appears to be inviting a comparison that flatters nobody. And it occurs to me today, on the Fourth of July of the twentieth year of the twenty-first century, that that might be the exact plan: discredit the Presidency, make it all seem like a pointless joke, further depoliticize people, shake their faith in the process and get them to sideline themselves. Democracy dies by attrition. Those who don’t want you to exercise your rights will celebrate your discouragement.

Eventually, systems are judged by the results they produce. By that standard, our electoral democracy isn’t doing well. It keeps empowering people with iffy ethics, deep tribal allegiances, and very little interest in unity. But even among unappetizing options, gradations still exist, and it is always worth remembering that the name on top of the ticket isn’t all you’re voting for. You’re also voting for the many people who’ll attend to the President, and have the President’s ear, and will determine the direction of the President’s policies. Republicans didn’t vote for Stephen Miller directly, but Stephen Miller is what we got, and it’s certainly what we’ll continue to get should they return Trump to office in November.

Certain wishcasters have revived the theory that Trump will stand down. Polls haven’t been wonderful lately, and he doesn’t enjoy the grind of the Presidency, so why wouldn’t he spare himself the aggravation? I don’t doubt that the President is having a lousy time, but I do think it’s a huge stretch to imagine he’d ever let go of power voluntarily. It’s clear that he recognizes that he’s been saved from prosecution by the immunity conferred to him through his office. The moment he returns to private life, he’s going to fly straight into a spiderweb of court cases — and he’s not going to have a subservient attorney general at his disposal. But no special counsel or Congressional investigation or, God forbid, military or police coup was ever going to oust the President. The only one with the power to do that is you, and me, and everybody else with a vote. They’re going to do everything they can to make you believe that vote is irrelevant. But it is relevant. Its relevance exceeds that of any other tool we’ve got at our disposal. If it didn’t, they wouldn’t be trying as hard as they are to discourage us from using it.

Seven score and four years ago

The Kentucky primary election is still too close to call.  A landslide of mail-in ballots are going to need to be counted, and that’s going to take time. Understandably, many voters were reluctant to head to the voting booths in the middle of a pandemic. But many weren’t, and the lines outside polling places became a story, as they did in Georgia, and as they did in Wisconsin, and as they also did right here in New York City.  Whether the White House succeeds in torpedoing the postal service or not, universal mail-in balloting isn’t going to be implemented before the general election in November. By then, a second wave of coronavirus may well be cresting, right in time to coincide with flu season.  Expect fear, waits, confusion; expect a long count and, maybe, an indeterminate outcome. 

We might also anticipate a legitimacy crisis.  Decisions such as Bush vs. Gore have placed an asterisk next to the results of certain general elections.  But I don’t think I have ever seen the country as unready to accept an electoral result as we are right now.  No matter who wins, it’s a lock that millions of people will refuse to believe that the result was reached fairly.  The President is already telling his followers that mail-in voting is some sort of conspiracy against him.  Meanwhile, a not-insubstantial percentage of Democrats are already convinced that Trump is a Russian plant, and that his foreign creditors will intervene and throw the election his way.  If Trump ekes out a narrow victory, those long lines at the polling places will be viewed as indicative of Republican electoral shenanigans, just as Biden’s wins in the primaries were often attributed to voter suppression.  Should Biden prevail, you can expect to hear from the White House about busloads of immigrants, and the crooked media, and deep fakes, and general fraud, and an entire litany of finger-pointing excuses meant to undermine public faith in the system.  If the final count is in question, as it may well be, we’re likely to be rudderless for awhile.  Nobody is going to know for sure who’ll form the next government, so promises and suggestions made by politicians will be effectively meaningless.

It’s tempting to think that there’d be something salutary about this result.  Our politicians haven’t been serving us too well, so there’s no harm in seeing them all discredited, right?  History tells us otherwise. Legitimacy crises tend to consolidate the power of entrenched authorities, who are able to step into the vacuum created in the absence of the public’s imprimatur. Should we convince ourselves that elections are meaningless, and it’s all rigged anyway — and buddy, we’re almost there — we surrender one of the few tools we have. This is why certain unscrupulous politicians won’t take obvious measures to make voting easier, even in the midst of a health emergency that threatens to make it more difficult. They don’t fear a legitimacy crisis, because they believe they can exploit one to their advantage. They’re probably right.

Consider the consequences of the centennial election of 1876. Samuel Tilden, the governor of New York, reasonably believed he’d become the first Democrat to be elected President in two decades. He’d won more than fifty per cent of the popular vote, and, with three states to count, he was within one electoral vote of clinching the victory. All he had to do was win one of three states in the Deep South — states bordered by other states that he’d already won. To put it another way, Rutherford B. Hayes, his opponent, needed every electoral vote in every ambiguous state in order to usher in a Republican successor to the second Grant Administration. The Republicans cried voter suppression, and accused the Redshirts and the Klan of intimidating freedmen voters, which was surely accurate, but not something the Democrats were going to accept. The electoral commission established to examine the votes in disputed areas consisted of eight Republicans and seven Democrats, and in a foreshadowing of the party line machinations of Bush vs. Gore, they voted 8-7, over and over, in favor of Hayes. By a single electoral vote, they named him the nineteenth President of the United States.

This kicked off one of the nastiest legitimacy crises in American history. Democrats felt swindled out of the Presidency and refused to accept Hayes as the winner; they called him “Rutherfraud”, demonstrating that coinage of mean nicknames for politicians is not a 21st Century phenomenon alone. The blood had barely dried on the Civil War battlefields. Republicans had no taste for a renewed insurrection. So the representatives of the kind of interests that always seem to take the lead during a legitimacy crisis worked out a compromise. Hayes and the Republicans would get the White House. In exchange, Reconstruction would end. The remaining Yankee troops would pull out of Dixie and segregationist state governments would be allowed to treat freedmen however they saw fit to treat them: horribly, usually. Many of the discriminatory measures enabled by the Compromise of 1877 would remain in place until the 1960s.

A terrible irony of this: Rutherford B. Hayes was a decent person. He made his name in Cincinnati as an abolitionist lawyer who defended runaway slaves in court. During the Civil War, he served as a field officer, and he took a Confederate bullet at South Mountain during the invasion of Maryland that culminated in the Battle of Antietam. Grant commended him for his gallantry and bravery, and he was brevetted to the rank of major general. He campaigned for equal rights at a time when it wasn’t always easy to do so, and in a place (Southern Ohio) where the Copperhead movement was strong. It’s a shame that he’s associated with the rollback of Reconstruction measures meant to integrate America, but then Hayes wasn’t driving the train. He came to office at a moment when trust in government was in the gutter, and that severely compromised his latitude for action. He wasn’t an expression of public will, or the people’s voice, because he couldn’t be. He lacked the democratic authority that comes from the result of a true plebiscite. All he could do was stand by while powerful people — institutional party leaders, industrialists, white supremacists, etcetera — struck a noxious private deal on behalf of their own interests. That deal was ostensibly made on his behalf, but really, it cut him out. That’s what happens during a legitimacy crisis, and it’s what I expect will happen in November unless we can recover some of our faith in the systems we’ve designed to divine popular sentiment. The lesson is the same as it was in 1876: when we don’t believe our elections are on the level, that benefits those who’d prefer that we didn’t have elections at all.

Can’t happen here

We started getting reports from China in early January. They were sketchy, but we knew something was going on. Then there were the cruise ships, at least one of which regularly docked in Bayonne. Close to home, quite literally, but the news didn’t clarify much. By late February, the doors to the Life Care Center in Kirkland were shut. Shortly after that, life in Seattle changed, and it has yet to change back. The Seattle Times was all over this; they lifted the paywall and shared their coronavirus stories with anybody who wanted to read them. I read them.

Ordinary dispatches from Seattle reached us, too. One independent journalist laid it all out for us in blunt language. What we’re experiencing now, she told us, you’re all about to experience. It’s all coming to your town: lockdowns, shortages, store closings, park closings, government warnings, constant fear of contracting and transmitting a communicable disease. If you think you’re going to dodge this, you’re wrong. I read it. In mid-March, people in Bergamo posted videos from isolation and sent love across the Atlantic in anticipation of our coming hardship. Soon you must suffer like we suffered. I watched those videos.

Yet there was a part of me that simply refused to believe it. It was completely irrational, but it was there. I didn’t want to stockpile food. I didn’t want to stay inside. Maybe I wouldn’t have to. Maybe the virus would burn out before it reached us. If you’d sat me down during the second week of March and forced me to have a reasonable conversation, I think I would’ve conceded that the whole world was about to go sideways. But I was not open to reasonable conversation; not entirely, anyway. There were already too many voices in my brain — too many anxieties, too many competing claims, too much noise in an overtaxed system.

While the certainty of the denialists isn’t something I have the capacity to understand, I do think I get where they’re coming from. I experienced a version of it myself. Because visible worry is a bad negotiating tactic, and we value strategic acumen above all other mental traits, Americans are taught never to admit weakness. Americans are trained to downplay threats. We refuse to behave like we’re rattled, even when circumstances might forgive us a little panic. If somebody rushes into town with the news that the neighboring village is on fire, we’re supposed to remain cool, act nonchalant, and lead with our skepticism. So it doesn’t matter what I say to a doubting Arizonan or Floridian about my experience in Jersey City in April and May. He might not dismiss me outright. Intellectually, he might understand that community spread is accelerating in his state, and an intervention might need to be made. But he’s probably not going to change what he’s doing. He’s more likely to dig in.

The global health crisis has magnified the country’s least appealing traits. Among other things, we’ve been exposed as atrocious risk assessors. Our tendency to minimize has never served us well; lately, the consequences of our national complacency have been pretty lethal. They’re reminders that the coronavirus is hardly the only crisis we’re facing. People have been warning about our ecological recklessness, our unequal distribution of power, and our staggering debts for decades. Sometimes, we’ll even agree that these are crises. Nevertheless, we won’t act. We treat them like television shows that will inevitably wrap up with tidy endings, and all we’ll have to do is kick back and watch. We’re not going to be the ones running around with our heads on fire, because those people look silly, and silly is the one way that Americans cannot bear to look.

People in other countries don’t share our vanity. They don’t have to pose with their chests puffed out and pretend that they aren’t afraid of fearsome things. They’ve cultivated other modes of sociability and other ways of being, and hard as it might be for us to hear, we might want to follow their lead. As an American myself, I hate to be shown up, but as a person with eyes and ears, I can acknowledge that that’s exactly what has happened. Hong Kong has shown us up. Austria and Germany have shown us up. New Zealand has shown us up. Taipei has shown us up. Vietnam, a country we actively tried to destroy not so long ago, has certainly shown us up. People did not have to watch their immediate neighbors die before they admitted that the virus was real. They didn’t wait until the house was on fire before they turned on the pumps. They took the word of the epidemiologists and acted accordingly. America prides itself on its initiative and its productivity, but our individualism isn’t worth much if individuals can’t muster the will, or the wisdom, to put aside their differences and work together when we absolutely have to. The whole world has watched us mess this up. Admirers overseas are now going to turn to other models, other leaders, and other systems to emulate. It’s hard to blame them.

The Tulsa trap

About a month after the 2016 general election, George drove me home from practice. He was, as we all were, very worried about the consequences of the decisions that the country had made and the experiment in extreme laissez-faire that was about to commence. The American governing apparatus, he believed, was a machine too powerful and too globally consequential to put in the hands of an operator who refused to read the owner’s manual. George felt that it was likely we wouldn’t live to see the end of a Trump Administration, and ticked off the ways it could all go wrong. There could be an atomic attack, or an old-fashioned nuclear accident. Social divisions could be exacerbated to the point of violent insurrection. Rollback of environmental protections meant that we stood a pretty good chance of getting poisoned in one way or another. George — and I recall this clearly — also predicted that the country would be unprepared for a pandemic.

Politicians make scary choices. Those in power are always threatening our lives, and livelihoods, in one way or another: prioritizing certain groups at the expense of others, making decisions that expand or contract different segments of the economy, stoking the engines of their future campaigns with the hot coal of public discontent. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a chief executive do anything as deliberately, unforgivably, irrationally dangerous as the boneheaded thing that Donald Trump is determined to do tonight.

We don’t know everything about the coronavirus, and we’re unlikely to get a complete picture for years. But we’ve developed a workable transmission model, and that model tells us that packing thousands of unmasked chanters in an indoor arena — and keeping them there for hours! — is indefensible. That the White House feels at liberty to act in contradiction to the germ theory shouldn’t be a surprise; nevertheless, the brazenness with which they’re flaunting their defiance of basic science in the midst of a pandemic that has already affected millions of people worldwide is breathtaking in its irresponsibility. Some of the people who’ll attend tonight’s rally no doubt believe that prayer will see them through. I’ll be praying for Tulsa, too. I pray that they remember that God gave them brains, and He expects them to use them, even when the authorities refuse to use theirs. Especially when the authorities refuse to use theirs.

I try not to write about the President. This disinclination of mine isn’t hard to maintain, because the President does not tend to do interesting things, or say interesting things, or make choices that are salient to the health emergency we’re facing. Since he lacks organizational skills and intellectual discipline, I didn’t expect him to make a productive intervention in the progress of the pandemic, and boy howdy, he has not. All I ask of this administration and its enablers is that they don’t exacerbate a terrible problem. They’ve failed to clear that very low bar. Tonight, they don’t even plan to jump; they’re just going to run straight into the bar at top speed.

You may suspect that they have genocidal intentions. I don’t think that’s unreasonable, but.. that gives them too much credit. There’s no plan I can see other than the consolidation of power at all costs. They’re more than happy to throw you straight into the volcano to appease the hunger that remains their only motivation. The President’s poll numbers haven’t been good. He wants a televised rally, because television and rallies are all he understands. If he has to jeopardize or even sicken people to get what he wants, well, that’s tough luck for America.

Defenders of the administration are using a tit-for-tat argument: they feel that the recent street demonstrations have given them authorization to stage an event of their own. If you can set aside the batshit insanity of this and look at it squarely, it actually tells you a lot about the mentality of the President’s supporters. They’re not interested in scientific models and probabilities; they’re not interested in the pandemic at all. They’re certainly not interested in social justice movements. Everything in the world is filtered through a simple, elemental calculus — does the item under consideration help Donald Trump, or does it hurt him? Entrenching the President’s position becomes the foremost priority, and all else is secondary, including a global health crisis that endangers everybody on the planet. It is astonishing to me that any politician can have this sort of effect on his followers, let alone one who doesn’t seem to be able to string together a coherent sentence, but here we are. Trump has an uncanny ability to draw objects of all sizes into a dark orbit around him. Don’t get caught up.

Hard choices

The five-day rolling averages continue to alarm me. Cases and hospitalizations are up, sharply, in Florida, Texas, Nevada, Alabama, the Carolinas, Arizona, and other sunny states where the warm weather was supposed to make it difficult for the coronavirus to reproduce. We all knew that reopenings were likely to assist the transmission of the pathogen, but some of these places never exactly closed. Nowhere is the virus spreading as aggressively as it did in New York and New Jersey in April. Numbers are climbing nevertheless, and if they continue, it’s likely that governments will intervene again.

On the other side of the globe, China is locking Beijing back down after an outbreak traced to a wholesale food market. The Chinese authorities have been loud about their response to the coronavirus — how decisively they’ve moved, and how well they’ve been able to put out fires — but I get a sense that they speak with fingers crossed behind their backs. They clearly expect to be slapped by a second wave.

Regardless of the direction of the lines on the state graphs, America ought to be ready, too. Some epidemiologists predict a spike during flu season, but that’s just a guess based on older models that may not apply to the threat we face. Here in the Jerz, some of my neighbors proceed as if they’ve been through the storm and made it to the other side, and this pandemic is now the Sun Belt’s problem to deal with. Restaurants in Asbury Park opened their doors and invited patrons inside. Through court order, the state government put the kibosh on that. Nevertheless, businesspeople on the Shore are getting restless. They don’t want to lose their livelihoods. They want to get the summer rolling.

Meanwhile, street protests continue. In Atlanta, where coronavirus remains steadily problematic, a white cop killed a black man named Rayshard Brooks. This shooting, which happened on Friday night, was more kerosene tossed on a blaze that is burning from coast to coast. Even before it was ruled a homicide, it prompted justifiable public outcry. That’s going to mean more people congregated in public, and more opportunities for the virus to spread, and I imagine some unscrupulous politicians are readying their excuses and gathering their talking points even as I type.

Can the acceleration of cases be attributed to the protests? Not too cleanly, it turns out. Many of the hottest zones are located in places where people haven’t been marching. But let’s be fair here: unless the germ-theory is somehow inaccurate or inapplicable in this case (no evidence for that), mass actions and mass gatherings will necessarily lead to more coronavirus. It would be nice to think that structural change and public awakening might happen in a manner that didn’t further the spread of a deadly disease, but I doubt it can. We may not know whether street actions will prompt municipal governments to reform their police departments, but we can be pretty certain that nothing positive is going to happen unless there’s public pressure.

So that’s the state of the nation on the ides of June, and it’s an ugly one. In order to stare down one threat, we need to run the risk of amplifying another. To make matters worse, there’s no guarantee that our efforts to address either problem will amount to much, and more than a little reason to believe that they won’t.

But we’ve got to try, because inaction would be downright suicidal. There are many who say that we’re all bound to be infected with the coronavirus eventually, just as there are many who’ll say about institutional racism and police brutality that that’s just the way it is/some things will never change. Don’t you believe them. Other countries have demonstrated that the pathogen can be stopped in its tracks, or at least kept at bay, through a combination of tracing, isolation, mask-wearing, and good hygiene. In America, our government is going to be whatever we will it to be. For quite some time, it’s been terrible because we’ve been terrible; it’s been a frighteningly accurate expression of our national priorities. We can realign those priorities, and we can get healthy. It’s not going to be easy, and we’re not all going to make it. But all the airborne particles and all the smoke from the burning Wendy’s can’t obscure the way forward. It’s pretty damned visible.

The beat goes on

Businesses in New York City reopened yesterday. Our side of the Hudson is coming back to life, too. There was a party on the block this weekend, and I don’t think anybody really minded. A few countries have managed to knock out the virus altogether, at least for now: New Zealand, for instance, announced a temporary eradication. Some European cities that were bracing for a June spike have found that the second wave hasn’t materialized. Some lockdowns have been lifted, others have just been allowed to lapse. People are back out on the street in Jersey City, and New Jersey in general, some masked, some unmasked, many absolutely determined to have a summer as long as the pathogen cooperates.

Elsewhere, the picture isn’t as pretty. The Johns Hopkins tracker reveals that America has flattened its logarithmic curve, which means that the virus isn’t spreading exponentially anymore. But new cases, new hospitalizations, and new deaths keep right on happening. Attention has turned to the protest movement, and the coronavirus has become something of an afterthought, even as the American case count reaches the two million mark. We might be forgiven for taking our eyes off the ball: it’s been a grueling three months, and if the epidemiological models are accurate, we may face another tough period ahead once the summer is over. Nevertheless, it’s more than a little dispiriting to see American officials behave as if the mission has been accomplished.

It has not. In New York and New Jersey, the caseloads continue to decline, but they’re hovering quite a bit above zero; the plane hasn’t touched ground yet, and we all feel the lurch of every sudden updraft. Elsewhere in America, the picture isn’t too pretty. The rolling five day case average in Texas reached a new peak last week. After a May plateau, numbers are climbing in Florida again, and Florida has consistently underreported and obfuscated, so it’s a safe bet that conditions are worse than the government admits they are. North Carolina, which never completely closed, is reporting three times the number of coronavirus cases as it did in mid-April. I don’t even have the stomach to look at the Arizona graph. My hope is that none of these places will have to suffer the extreme hardship that we did: we’ve got a better transmission model in place now, and viruses don’t like June weather. But it helps nobody to pretend that the crisis is over and it’s time to move on to juicier stories.

We don’t know yet whether the protests will drive a surge in cases. I believe those of you who’ve argued that activists have taken prophylaxis more seriously than the government did, and those who’ve distributed sanitizer and face masks at the rallies are definitely doing the Lord’s work. Most of the protesters have been young and healthy, and even as they’ve chanted in unison, and many of them have respected distancing suggestions. Nevertheless, given what we know about asymptomatic spread, it’s virtually certain that some transmission is happening at the street actions — especially when authorities have become confrontational and tipped the marches into chaos. The action in Jersey City drew a huge crowd to City Hall this weekend: people came to say things that they were absolutely driven to say, even in the face of lethal peril.

My sense is that some of my neighbors will call that an irresponsible thing to do, and I certainly understand why. But the plan was never to stay inside forever. We were trying to buy ourselves some time to figure a few things out, break old habits and learn some new ones, and apply what we’d learned to any subsequent re-engagement with public culture. That work is incomplete at best. But we’re not Taiwan, and we’re not New Zealand. In America, we get by on a little bit of information, a little bit of prayer, and a whole hell of lot of unstoppable forward momentum.

Screwed up

Forgive me if everything I’m about to write is redundant to you: if you follow pop news, you probably know all of this already.  Yet the overlap between the music press and mainstream media is not as great as those of us who spend our mornings reading Okayplayer and The FADER often imagine it is, so it’s possible that your account of the life of George Floyd isn’t as complete as it could be. In case this is new to any of the people who occasionally read this page, I’d like to explain.

George Floyd was a genuine affiliate of the Screwed Up Click. He was a high school athlete in Houston, but he was a rhymer, too, a participant in the creation of the Screw Tapes that rechanneled the flow of hip-hop. For those who aren’t aware, the late Robert Earl Davis, better known as DJ Screw, was the facilitator of an expressive movement that gave a voice to places that most of the rest of the country, and even the rest of the city, hadn’t heard. George Floyd, or Big Floyd, was from one of those places: Third Ward, the Cuney Homes. He had a tale to tell. DJ Screw provided a platform, and a matching, marvelously illustrative sound. 

That’s what Screw did for many, many rappers, some of whom, like Lil Keke, Z-Ro, and Lil Flip, would go on to achieve some measure of national recognition. But none of the members of the Screwed Up Click, including Screw himself, achieved a fraction of the fame that Screw’s method did. DJ Screw slowed down his beats quite radically, sometimes to a poured-molasses crawl, and he favored rappers whose rhyme styles suited the pace he favored. That meant thick-voiced rappers, wary rappers, low, rumbling, cautious baritones, ones with the heaviness of hot and humid summer nights in their voices. Big Floyd had a voice like that: his was perfectly suited for the chopped and screwed treatment. While Screw was the visionary, it’s fair to say that he achieved the sound he was going for – one he developed over the course of making hundreds of tapes – in collaboration with the vocalists he recorded. Tape distortions and synth-signals pulled like taffy, or dripping on the tarmac like melted ice cream, and plaintive, soulful, aggrieved Texas vowels: from those building blocks, Screw built an aesthetic that is now embedded in the hip-hop vernacular. You can hear the echoes in Drake’s artfully-muffled production, or see reflections in Kanye’s candy-coated paranoia, or Future’s digital masks, or fellow Houstonian Travis Scott’s own fantasies at the meeting point between the steaming street and the oil-black Gulf Coast sky. It’s a provocative sound, a beautiful/disgusting sound, a disorienting and pained sound, full of suffering and longing, and unfulfilled promise, and fear, and everything else that makes hip-hop the great American art form it is. George Floyd was part of that.

Even at the time, the chopped and screwed style was associated with a specific drug: lean, that purple drank, promethazine with codeine, mixed in a Styrofoam cup with plenty of crushed ice and a jolly rancher for flavor. Some Southern rappers called it barre, or syrup, or sizzurp, and those who partook would get “throwed”; everything pleasantly, or maybe not-so-pleasantly, slowed to a near-halt and rendered irreal. The psychedelic applications of Screwed Up music is immediately apparent – it’s an altered state in progress, the mind playing tricks on you, and word was always that Screw’s music never sounded more appropriate than it did to those under the influence. In 2000, Screw overdosed on sizzurp, forever cementing the association between slowed-down Houstonian underground hip-hop and drug addiction. But if getting throwed was all there was to the Screw Tapes (there are 350 of them!), their significance to hip-hop history would not have been nearly as great as it is. Like all great drug music, from Pink Floyd to P-Funk to Lana Del Rey, the Screwed Up sound is less a celebration of hedonism than it is an exploration of a particular state of consciousness. What does it feel like to be alone and hunted, in the small hours, on a hot street in the summertime, when all you can feel is the beat of your heart and your fear that you’re in somebody’s crosshairs? What does it feel like to be observed, even as you can’t see who is looking at you?  How long do the moments stretch when you’re afraid? How hard do you tug on the second hand in an attempt to stop time when you feel like you’re slipping, inexorably, toward the edge?

These were the beats that Big Floyd – George Floyd – rhymed over. In strict adherence with H-Town tradition, he rapped about his aspirations, his skills, the pride he took in his block, and his faith that he’d have a future worth inhabiting. There’s always something liturgical about the rapping on Screw Tapes, as the rappers bring out H-Town signifier after signifier, the draped up and dripped out paint, the barre, the gold grills, the smooth conflation between the ornamental car and the decked-out human behind the steering wheel. In verse, Big Floyd knelt at every station with the peculiar combination of awe and confidence common to true believers everywhere. As he did, Screw swung around the hammer: the big, slowed-down beats that stood in for those crushing, pile-driving pressures that dented the lives of the artists he worked with. We all find the churches that suit us, and Screw’s was a wide one, a beautiful one, a brave one, and ultimately, a realistic one. George Floyd was not an atypical parishioner, and eventually the prophecy inherent in the music came true for him, just as it came for Screw himself.

I was just a kid from urban New Jersey when I first heard Screwed Up music. Three decades later, I am no kid anymore, and I’m no less pale-faced. I don’t get throwed; I don’t even take aspirin. But I hope that true Houstonians will forgive me for saying that I felt this music from the moment I heard it, and I further feel that my understanding and respect deepens with each trial I face. I felt I knew exactly why Screw slowed the beats down, and why the emcees sounded so burdened, even as they rhymed about liberation through drugs, through fast cars, through their own outsized talents. Superficially, my life experience might not share much with that of George Floyd, but I know what it is to have a story to tell, and to search for a sound that matches my own sense of destabilization, and alienation, and my worries about my place in a society that never seemed to have any use for me. I know what it’s like to be told to shut up and go away, and to go right on talking nevertheless. And I know that’s precisely where fascism starts: first, the speaker is discouraged from telling his story because of who he is, or how he speaks, or his association with an unfavored class or group. You’re told that your voice is illegitimate, that you’re unworthy, or you’re too stoned, or you’re not man enough, or you aren’t using the right kind of language. For most, that discouragement suffices. Others continue speaking, right up until the day they feel the knee on their neck. You may feel it too, right now. You might be pushing through that same shortness of breath. You march for George Floyd, you march for Third Ward, you march for DJ Screw, you march for hip-hop, you march for me. I thank you. God bless you.