An occasional blog about populist politics and popular music, not necessarily at the same time.
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Sunday, January 3, 2021
Table of contents:
Woke up thinking about a possible introduction, but nine hours later my brain is fried. I not only can't remember what I was thinking, I no longer care. So this feels like a stub, a mere exercise, but I vaguely recall a few hours back thinking this is still a fairly efficient way to digest the week's news. I've learned a few things along the way, and I've written more than usual below.
One thing I will note is that I'm about 3/4 through Kurt Andersen's Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History. Much of the book covers a story I've contemplated writing for much of the subject period: he has a fundamental understanding of the mechanics of increasing inequality, and how those levers were plied by Republicans (and way too often Democrats) since the late 1970s. His characterization of the architects of this counterrevolution as "evil geniuses" is well put, although somewhere in that last quarter of the book I expect they will lose the "geniuses" part. (Not that the right-wing is incapable of clever sophistry any more, but as their rationalizations have worn thin, they'd rather just throw their weight around.)
One key idea that I hadn't thought much about is Andersen's theses about change and nostalgia. He describes the 1960s and early 1970s as the period of "peak new," followed by an extended period of reaction and nostalgia. He points out that even fashion, design, and art have ceased changing after 2000, whereas during the 20th century it was relatively easy to identify the decade any photo was taken in. What this means isn't always clear. For instance, he points out that the 2020 election came down to competing nostalgias.
It occurs to me that intense change -- change so substantial and accelerated we're conscious of it happening in real time -- is not only rare in human history, but can largely be consigned to the 20th century. I'm imagining an S-curve where the steep slope is limited to 1900-2000. Not sure what to label the Y-axis: maybe domination of and estrangement from nature? I must admit I am fond of the idea of balancing time/progress on the fulcrum of my birth in 1950. Long ago it occurred to me that there's never been a "generation gap" like the one between my generation and my parents'. As for how dramatic the changes were around 1900, my eyes were first opened up by John Berger's essay, "The Moment of Cubism." Technological change over the 19th century was substantial (and accelerating), but didn't come close to the impact after 1900. Similarly, we haven't stopped since 2000, but the pace seems slowed, and the scale reduced.
Lost track of all the deaths this week, but did want to mention Judy Loganbill, a former Democratic state legislator here in Wichita. The obituary doesn't do her justice. She was a teacher before she got into politics, and she was a lifelong peace activist, who served on the board of the Wichita Peace organization.
I also wanted to mention Dawn Wells, the actress who played Mary Ann Summers on Gilligan's Island, as sort of the archetype of Kansas womanhood. I watched that show religiously, but the role became even more memorable for me through Tom Carson's novel, Gilligan's Wake, where she represents archetypal America in her ability to regain her virginity after every lapse. Where I do have a bone to pick is Carson's genteel treatment of Bob Dole, whose rank in the pantheon of American political scoundrels was fixed in my mind by his scurrilous 1972 campaign against Bill Roy.
Michelle Cottle: The 2020 high school yearbook of Donald J Trump.
Chauncey DeVega: Top 10 reasons why making year-end lists won't save America. Article doesn't even begin to follow from the title. I think the annual EOY list exercise does two things: it encourages thinking comparatively over a period of time longer than the usual right now; and it usually reinforces the idea that years are much more alike than different. Could be that 2020 will prove the exception. Right now, I feel that movie lists are even phonier than whoever won whatever major league sports titles anyone bothered to hold. On the other hand, books and TV shows have more lead time, and are delivered straight to the home, so they're probably more or less normal. Music? Well, that's harder to say. Nobody toured, so music product meant to promote tours had to be recontextualized, if it made any sense at all. (Taylor Swift and Sturgill Simpson probably made the best use of that change.) At the other extreme, a lot of half-assed DIY product appeared, most soon forgotten. (Brad Mehldau's Suite: April 2000 and Hamell on Trial's The Pandemic Songs are two exceptions.)
Paul Krugman: 2020 was the year Reaganism died: "The government promised to help -- and it did." Well, not so fast. Government in 2020 was divided, and while some parts of it tried to help (and indeed did), other parts didn't try, or didn't help, or in some cases actively worked to make a bad situation worse. If Reaganism died in 2020, expect a whole year of zombie columns in 2021 -- as you may recall, Krugman spent much of the last decade railing against zombie economics (assumptions proven wrong decades ago, yet still somehow directing politicians to further folly). On the other hand, we should try to remember the brief moment in March when the economy and the stock market collapsed and Republicans were so desperate for something they let Democrats largely craft a bill that actually helped people. Too bad Democrats didn't get (or claim) more credit for that. By the end of the year, Republicans had restored the people's cynicism about the corruption and/or ineffectiveness of government, which left them nicely positioned to obstruct Democratic efforts to solve or reduce problems, without getting blamed themselves.
Jeb Lund: Ron DeSantis is TNR's 2020 Scoundrel of the Year: "An heir to Trumpism, the Florida governor has concealed the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and fomented a depraved indifference to human life."
Derek Robertson: The eight pieces of pop culture that defined the Trump era. A pretty maudlin list, half of which totally escaped my attention -- perhaps the lesson is how little pop culture we actually share these days?
Spencer Sunshine: 2020 was a record year for far right violence in the US.
Several publications and writers looked back at what they wrote in 2020, and recommended a few articles:
Richard Fausset: Trump calls Georgia Senate races 'illegal and invalid'. I doubt that means anything, but the implication is that he has inside knowledge that the Republicans are losing the elections. The two races are to be decided by the voters on Tuesday. Money and advance voting are off the charts. More:
Christopher Flavelle: How Trump tried, but largely failed, to derail America's top climate report.
Ryan J Foley: Federal judge in Iowa ridicules Trump's pardons: US District Judge Robert Pratt: "It's not surprising that a criminal like Trump pardons other criminals. But apparently to get a pardon, one has to be either a Republican, a convicted child murderer or a turkey." I don't think Rod Blagojevich qualifies on any of those counts, but Trump recognized a kindred spirit in someone convicted of trying to sell an appointment. What happens when Trump gets tied into a similar influence-peddling scheme?
Andrew O'Hehir: Josh Hawley becomes first GOP senator to contest Biden's certification, likely forcing Jan. 6 fight. But not the last:
Ashley Parker: Trump to give ally Nunes the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Cameron Peters: Louie Gohmert's failed election lawsuit, briefly explained: It's slightly more technical, but the point of the lawsuit was to put aside the votes and let the Vice President decide who becomes President. A Trump-appointed judge dismissed, arguing that Gohmert "lacks standing" to bring such a lawsuit. That may be a technicality, but it's rarely been more obvious. Pence, by the way, seems to have leaned both ways:
Jamil Smith: Trump's lost cause: "The fight underway to keep Trumpism alive post-presidency has an ugly and worrisome precedent in American history." Key term is "lost cause." When I first saw this piece, I figured it might focus more narrowly on Trump's love for the monuments that helped perpetuate the Confederate slavery regime, but this suggests Trump aspires to a greater level of martyrdom.
Michael Stratford: Trump opens up federal dollars for private school vouchers amid pandemic.
The last days of the 116th Congress ended with an override of Trump's veto of the Defense Department funding act, and Mitch McConnell blocking Trump's proposal for $2,000 stimulus checks (embraced by Democrats, and passed in the House). Then, as of January 3, the newly elected 117th Congress took over (See: Cameron Peters: A historic new Congress has just been sworn in.) The new Congress has a reduced Democratic majority in the House (but not enough to keep Nancy Pelosi from being elected Speaker), and a reduced and tenuous Republican advantage in the Senate, subject to two runoff elections in Georgia (on Tuesday, January 6), which could result in a 50-50 tie, with Vice President Pence holding the tie-breaker vote until Kamala Harris becomes Vice President on January 20.
David Atkins: House Dems signal bolder action by weakening self-imposed austerity rules. You may (but probably don't) recall how the Democrats in the House celebrated their new majority status in 2019 by adopting unnecessary and counterproductive "PAYGO" rules. Rejecting them this time is less a victory of "progressives" over "centrists" than a win for people who want to be able to do things vs. those who don't.
Daniel Block: The new surprise billing law is an imperfect win.
Sarah K Burris: Nancy Pelosi's house vandalized with dead pig's head. By the way, Mitch McConnell's house was also vandalized, albeit less menacingly, allowing the mainstream media to achieve bipartisan nirvana; see: Meryl Kornfield: Homes of Pelosi, McConnell are vandalized after Senate fails to pass $2,000 stimulus checks.
Ben Ehrenreich: The year of magical thinking in American politics: "Trump campaigned on one kind of nostalgia, while Biden campaigned on another. The less regressive vision won out, but we're still hurtling toward the abyss."
Brittany Gibson: How Georgia got organized.
Ian Millhiser: How Bernie Sanders plans to force a vote on $2,000 Covid-19 relief checks. The idea was to hold up the vote on overriding Trump's veto of the Defense Department funding bill, trying to force McConnell into agreeing to a vote on the $2,000 checks Trump wants and the House agreed to. It didn't work, in part because most Democrats were more anxious to override Trump's veto than to pass the checks. For one take on this, see Jake Johnson: Stimulus standoff ends in "Democratic surrender": After McConnell blocks $2,000 checks, Dems move on. Some more pieces on $2K (I also wrote about this under St Clair, below):
It was a very quiet news week regarding Biden's staffing picks. See Building Biden's Cabinet for a survey of who's been selected for Biden's top administration positions, and who's being considered for still open slots. Another updated scorecard is Intelligencer's All of president-elect Joe Biden's cabinet nominees.
Shikha Dalmia: How Biden can future-proof America's immigration system.
Bruce Gyory: How Biden won: Six hard truths: "Digging into the exit poll data on gender, education, age, and more."
Alex Thompson/Theodoric Meyer: Janet Yellen made millions in Wall Street, corporate speeches.
Latest map and case count: 20.5 million+ cases (14 day change -5%, total up 1.4 million in last week), 351,068 deaths (flat), 123,614 hospitalized (+10%).
Dan Diamond: How Trump warped HHS long before Covid-19.
Quint Forgey: Fauci predicts normal life won't return in US before fall 2021: Sounds like another example of him toning down his messaging based on calculations about how much gloom the American people can take. I doubt the old normal will ever return, but sure, by Fall 2021, a new normal for acceptable risk in social and business interactions may be possible. Before that, less so. [PS: Here's a survey of "11 top experts" that predicts "a steady decline in cases by next fall, and back to normal in a few years": Here's how the pandemic finally ends.]
German Lopez: Everyone failed on Covid-19: "The US's coronavirus epidemic is an American failure, not solely a Trump or Republican one." That may be the most general truth, but Trump, Pence, Kushner, and a long list of other Republicans distinctively stamped the mass failure. Also, note that nearly everything that Congress did to lessen the impact of the shutdown and help masses of people through the crisis was driven by Democrats, and often obstructed by Republicans. And while deep biases, like promotion of business needs over everything else, also affected Democratic officials, Republicans were more single-mindedly devoted to that creed, partly because they their contempt for most Americans allowed them to ignore the health and security implications of their preferred policies. Another factor is Republicans' unique fear and ignorance of science. Scientists and public policy wonks have been studying and developing countermeasures for pandemics at least since the 1990s, so when this one hit, public health officials had a good idea what to do. Their success around the world correlates directly with political systems which followed their advice. America's federal system, its long subordination to business interests, and our deeper commitment to individualism, made fighting the pandemic harder here than in most other countries, but you can go back to any date and find political choices that made the situation worse or could have helped. And nearly always you will find Republicans doing the wrong things. Even if you look at the purple map here which purports to show that "Every state has too many Covid-19 cases per capita," the only two states that aren't maximum purple are Hawaii and Vermont.
Anna North: Elected Congress member Luke Letlow has died of Covid-19: "The Louisiana Republican is the first Congress member or member-elect to die from the disease." He was 41. Also note:
Brian Resnick: The worst idea of 2020: "Natural herd immunity" as a pandemic relief strategy.
Rachel Roubein: Trump misses 20 million Covid shot target.
Waler Shapiro: The importance of brutal honesty in this pandemic winter.
Michael D Shear/Maggie Haberman/Noah Weiland/Sharon LaFraniere/Mark Mazzetti: Trump's focus as the pandemic raged: What would it mean for him? Didn't Trump say that after the election Covid-19 would drop out of the news? Maybe he just meant nobody important would talk about it anymore? Indeed, he hasn't said a word. You might take that as further evidence of how extreme his narcissism is.
David Wallace-Wells: America's vaccine rollout is already a disaster. Big problem here is that only a small percentage of the vaccines allotted have actually been administered. A chart in the article works out to about 13.5%. The more current numbers at Bloomberg's vaccine tracker are better, at 32.8% shots used, but still run the risk of vaccine shots expiring unused. By the way, at the moment Kansas is by far the worst state in the nation, with 17.1% of shots used (compared to Mississippi at 25.3% and Alaska at 26.7%, or for that matter Guam at 22.0%). Kansas is also dead last with 0.67% of the population vaccinated (Mississippi has 0.71%, Alaska 2.52%). The Bloomberg stats also go international. The one nation that is far ahead of the pack on vaccination is Israel, with 10% vaccinated. However, see: Oliver Holmes/Hazem Balousha: Palestinians excluded from Israeli Covid vaccine rollout as jabs go to settlers.
Ed Yong: Where year two of the pandemic will take us: "As vaccines roll out, the US will face a choice about what to learn and what to forget."
Michael Crowley/Charlie Savage/Eric Schmitt: Pompeo weighs plan to place Cuba on US terrorism sponsor list: "The move would complicate any effort by the incoming Biden administration to resume President Barack Obama's thaw in relations with Havana."
Eric Schmitt: In abrupt reversal of Iran strategy, Pentagon orders aircraft carrier home: "After weeks of escalation and threatening language, the Defense Department is sending mixed messages as the anniversary of the death of an Iranian general nears." A couple days earlier, Schmitt wrote: Pentagon sends more B-52s to Middle East to deter Iranian attacks on US troops. As recently as December 2, Schmitt co-wrote: Trump sought options for attacking Iran to stop its growing nuclear program. More on Iran:
Alex Ward: How military superiority made America less safe: "America's dominance wasn't by happenstance. It was a choice." Interview with Stephen Wertheim, author of Tomorrow the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy. One interesting thing here is that Wertheim dates the idea of supreme US global power to 1940, before US entry into WWII. Indeed, his short book ends in 1945, with "The Debate That Wasn't," so he doesn't really get into the fateful decision to repurpose the idea of global supremacy as a cudgel in the global class strugle, playing up the threat posed by the Soviet Union and the growth of Communist-led anti-colonial movements.
Tim Barker: Life Beyond Markets, with Mike Konczal: Interview with Konczal, about his forthcoming book, Freedom From the Market: America's Fight to Liberate Itself From the Grip of the Invisible Hand. [Pub date Jan. 12; I have a copy on order.]
Christopher Ingraham: World's richest men added billions to their fortunes last year as others struggled: "Billionaires have added about $1 trillion to their total net worth since the pandemic began."
Ethan Iverson: Modern Hollywood discovers its jazz 'Soul': Pixar's Christmas release is the best jazz film in a long time. But then, there isn't a lot of competition."
Ian Millhiser: The decline and fall of the American death penalty: "The number of death sentences and executions in the US has fallen off a cliff since the 1990s. 2020 continued that trend." Despite Trump and Barr.
Ellen Nakashima: Microsoft says Russians hacked its network, viewing source code.
Jeffrey St Clair: Roaming charges: It is what it is, but is that all there is? Lots of things, starting with tweets from Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman opposing "untargeted" $2,000 relief checks. Any other day they'd be complaining that progressives are undermining pragmatic compromises by insisting on ideal solutions. But no one thinks the checks are an ideal solution. The only reason they're on the table is Trump demanded them, and of all the things Trump's willing to go along with, they're not so bad. My own take is that they're not relief (as we normally think of it) but a one-shot experiment with guaranteed income. Sure, some people who get the checks will simply bank them as a hedge against future expenses, but what's wrong with giving people a bit more liquidity? Guaranteed income doesn't stop working when people are able to balance their books; that's actually when it starts making a real difference. Of course, nobody's touting it in those terms. Some other items of note here: