‘As a professor, I see my students on Zoom now, in class or during what now passes for office hours. They are usually sitting on their beds, in their childhood bedrooms or in their dorm rooms on mostly deserted campuses. I know why some of them couldn’t go home: a parent has had a transplant; a sibling has cystic fibrosis; the family kicked them out for coming out as gay. I know some of their worries: a student has been sick with covid-19; another student was living off campus and working full time but has now been laid off; a student stayed at the college while two family members were ill; most summer internships and study programs have been cancelled (and some universities are talking about an online-only fall semester). As a parent, I am sharing a house with one college student and one rising freshman, neither of whom planned to be living with me this spring. As a journalist, in recent weeks I have talked to more than a dozen young people whose future and present have been swallowed up in the fog of the pandemic.
One student was finishing his senior thesis, on the Soviet dissident Raisa Orlova. “It’s really hard to think about history when you are living through it,” he told me. He was trying to find a connection to his academic work by thinking about loneliness. Might the loneliness imposed by the pandemic help him understand the loneliness of someone who dared to think differently in a totalitarian society?
[The student] had completed his thesis and had received his passing grade for the spring. He was still on campus but thinking of relocating to a friend’s empty apartment. I asked him if he was still planning to go to law school. “One of the things the pandemic offers is the cruelest reminder that anything is possible,” he e-mailed in response. He wrote:
“Your whole life can be turned upside down, the people you have spent the past four years with can be torn away at a moment’s notice, and you can feel constant paranoia that you’ll get sick or make others sick. On a broader level, the political systems which are supposed to protect us can fail, the entire logic of our economic system can invert, people can show both their best and their worst selves. I am trying, perhaps in vain, to make something out of this. I believe that life can never—and should never—be the same after this crisis.
I have the foreboding sense, however, that we will emerge from this and find ourselves in a world trying to recreate the status quo ante. Even if that is the case, I can’t let that be my own personal response.”
Blaine County, Idaho, for example, which is roughly the size of Delaware, has just three hundred and ninety-nine confirmed cases and two deaths. But, with approximately twenty-two thousand full-time residents, the county’s infection rate is now the highest in the nation—greater even than those of New York’s Westchester and Rockland counties, and possibly on par with earlier pandemic epicenters in northern Italy and Wuhan, China. And, as in Italy, the situation is exacerbated in the aging resort towns of Ketchum and Sun Valley, where the average ages of residents are forty-six and sixty, respectively.
Idaho’s doctors and nurses face the greatest danger. More than fifty health-care workers have tested positive in the state’s South Central Health District, about forty of whom work for the St. Luke’s hospital system in Blaine County and Twin Falls to the south. Jesse Vanderhoof, a nurse at St. Luke’s hospital, in Ketchum, was administering nasal swabs at a drive-up testing site before he became sick. As his condition deteriorated, on March 24th, his wife dropped him back at the E.R.; hours later, she received a call saying that her previously healthy, thirty-nine-year-old husband had suffered a seizure and was boarded onto a life flight bound for Boise. He was put on a ventilator for several days before regaining the strength to breathe on his own.
Brent Russell, one of two E.R. physicians at St. Luke’s in Ketchum who tested positive, battled a hundred-and-four-degree fever with shaking chills; he would awaken in the middle of the night, unable to catch his breath. Russell wrote a letter to the local Idaho Mountain Express pleading with a community that, in his view, was either unable or unwilling to adapt to the new rules of the pandemic. “People were not taking this seriously,” he told me. “I would look out the windows of my house and see groups of people talking and congregating in the street.” As his wife, son, niece, and nephew all came down with symptoms of covid-19, Russell applauded Governor Little’s abrupt stay-at-home order, a decision that caught many by surprise in a state known as a refuge for anti-government individualists. “We need a heavy hand right now,” Russell said. “We need all forces thrown at stopping this thing.”
A ski resort is, in many ways, an ideal breeding ground for an epidemic. Skiing and snowboarding may look from a distance like solitary pursuits; the helmets, goggles, and neck warmers may be assumed to function like alpine hazmat suits. But, at major resorts, stretches of brisk, wintry liberation on the slopes are interrupted by long chairlift and gondola rides, during which people sit shoulder to shoulder and knee to knee with a perpetually rotating cast of strangers. The National Brotherhood may not have brought the virus to Idaho, but it did bring the party, and, in ski towns across America and the rest of the world this winter, the two have gone hand in hand. Ski-resort areas in California, Colorado, and elsewhere “show higher infection rates than more densely populated cities nearby,” Adventure Journal noted, including Mono County, California, the home of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, which now has the highest per-capita rate of covid-19 in the state. In Europe, several governments tracked hundreds of coronavirus cases to one Austrian ski town, with some epidemiological reports identifying beer-pong tables as a potential source of infection. In Mexico, the chairman of the Mexican Stock Exchange tested positive after returning from a ski trip to Colorado’s Vail resort.
Tensions between big-spending outsiders and the local workforce that relies on their spending define life in any vacation town. But, in a pandemic, the calculus is changing. In the Idaho Mountain Express classifieds, one local summed up the situation in Biblical terms: “To everyone coming here to ‘ride out the storm,’ please stay in for 2 weeks before you immerse yourself in our town. Please don’t buy a 3-month supply of groceries, leaving little for the rest of us. Don’t be a plague of locusts.”
‘The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutter our minds and makes of all political and social life a mass illness. Without this housecleaning we cannot begin to see. Unless we see, we cannot think. The purification must begin with the mass media. How?
-Thomas Merton, conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 1968
Jay Rosen, NYU:
I am waiting for the first newsroom that declares a state of emergency. Susan Glasser, staff writer at The New Yorker:
“Is this time any different from other episodes where he has ranted about his unchecked right to do unconstitutional things?” Read her reply:
It sometimes happens in diplomacy that one country has to say to another: “This is extreme. We cannot accept this. You have gone too far.” And so it suspends diplomatic relations.
In 2012 the government of Canada announced that it would suspend diplomatic relations with Iran. “Canada views the government of Iran as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today,” said the foreign minister.
Journalists charged with covering him should suspend normal relations with the presidency of Donald Trump, which is the most significant threat to an informed public in the United States today.
That is my recommendation.
I began making this point on the third day of his presidency, January 22, 2017, when I said the press should send interns to the White House briefing room. Normal practice would not be able to cope with the political style of Donald Trump, which incorporates a hate movementagainst journalists.
“Send the interns” means our major news organizations don’t have to cooperate with this. They don’t have to lend talent or prestige to it. They don’t have to be props. They need not televise the spectacle live (CNN didn’t carry Spicer’s rant) and they don’t have to send their top people. They can “switch” systems: from inside-out, where access to the White House starts the story engines, to outside-in, where the action begins on the rim, in the agencies, around the committees, with the people who are supposed to obey Trump but have doubts… The press has to become less predictable. It has to stop functioning as a hate object. This means giving something up.
So that’s one way to suspend normal relations: send the interns. On MSNBC June 12, Rachel Maddow described another. She said that frequent viewers of her show may have noticed a pattern:
I don’t go out of my way to play tape of the president speaking. Nor do I tend to spend too much time parsing whatever the latest quote is from him. That is not out of any animus on my part, it’s just that the president very frequently says things that aren’t true. He admits that he says things that aren’t true. He calls it, you know, hyperbole, but he lies. And I feel like on this show I’d like you to be able to trust me to give you true information. Because I generally feel like I can’t trust what purports to be information from this president, I just try to do the news without words from him, most of the time.
Normally, the president is quoted more than any other public figure, and clips of him speaking are ubiquitous in television news. Maddow told her viewers that she had suspended this practice because, more likely than not, the president’s words would only misinform them. Every president needs to be fact-checked. This one doesn’t care if what he says is true. That’s extreme, and it calls for a response.
“Anything that a president would say — even if it was libelous or scandalous — it’s the president talking, and I think you report it,” said Chris Wallace, the “Fox News Sunday” host who moderated this year’s third presidential debate. “Under any definition, it’s news, whether it’s sensible or not, factual or not, productive or not.”
A middle-ground would be this: what the president says is neither automatically newsworthy nor automatically suspect. Rather, it has to be judged in context. Which sounds super-reasonable. Who can be against “context” and case-by-case judgment? But here’s the context: bad actor, cannot be given the benefit of the doubt, no matter what the case is.
“How,” asked Chuck Todd on Meet the Press June 17, “can we believe a president who routinely says things that are provably false?” Instead of treating these questions as unsolvable riddles, Chuck Todd could… suspend normal relations. For Meet the Press, that might mean: don’t accept as guests the people the White House sends out as defenders of the provably false (especially Kellyanne Conway.) If Trump himself is willing to sit down with Chuck Todd, fine. Take him on over his many falsehoods. But no surrogates or fog machines unless they are willing to correct the president.
The American press corps is not like the government of Canada, which can speak with a single voice. Thousands of people working for hundreds of newsrooms cannot change their practices in synch with one another. But they can all decide, “This is extreme. We cannot accept this. This has gone too far.” And then make a break with normal practice.
For the Washington Post it might be declining to participate in so-called background briefings. For NPR, it might be refusing to report false claims by the President unless they are served as a “truth sandwich,” a suggestion recently made by Brian Stelter and Margaret Sullivan, interpreting the work of George Lakoff. For CNN, never going live to a Trump event — on the grounds that you will inevitably broadcast falsehoods if you do — would be a good start.
Suspend normal relations. It’s up to the journalists who cover Trump to decide how they will do it. The important thing is that they do it. And then announce what they did, to get others thinking about their own steps. In this way the sovereign state of journalism can take action, and show, as the Canadian prime minister said recently, that it will “not be pushed around.”
“It’s not too late,” Jimmy Stewart pleaded with Congress, rasping, exhausted, in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in 1939. “Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light.” It wasn’t too late. It’s still not too late.
New Dealers were trying to save the economy; they ended up saving democracy. They built a new America; they told a new American story. On New Deal projects, people from different parts of the country labored side by side, constructing roads and bridges and dams, everything from the Lincoln Tunnel to the Hoover Dam, joining together in a common endeavor, shoulder to the wheel, hand to the forge. Many of those public-works projects, like better transportation and better electrification, also brought far-flung communities, down to the littlest town or the remotest farm, into a national culture, one enriched with new funds for the arts, theatre, music, and storytelling. With radio, more than with any other technology of communication, before or since, Americans gained a sense of their shared suffering, and shared ideals: they listened to one another’s voices.
This didn’t happen by accident. Writers and actors and directors and broadcasters made it happen. They dedicated themselves to using the medium to bring people together. Beginning in 1938, for instance, F.D.R.’s Works Progress Administration produced a twenty-six-week radio-drama series for CBS called “Americans All, Immigrants All,” written by Gilbert Seldes, the former editor of The Dial. “What brought people to this country from the four corners of the earth?” a pamphlet distributed to schoolteachers explaining the series asked. “What gifts did they bear? What were their problems? What problems remain unsolved?” The finale celebrated the American experiment: “The story of magnificent adventure! The record of an unparalleled event in the history of mankind!”
The year 1935 happened to mark the centennial of the publication of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” an occasion that elicited still more lectures from European intellectuals coming to the United States to remark on its system of government and the character of its people, close on Tocqueville’s heels.
The endless train of academics were also called upon to contribute to the nation’s growing number of periodicals. In 1937, The New Republic, arguing that “at no time since the rise of political democracy have its tenets been so seriously challenged as they are today,” ran a series on “The Future of Democracy,” featuring pieces by the likes of Bertrand Russell and John Dewey. “Do you think that political democracy is now on the wane?” the editors asked each writer. The series’ lead contributor, the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, took issue with the question, as philosophers, thankfully, do. “I call this kind of question ‘meteorological,’ ” he grumbled. “It is like asking, ‘Do you think that it is going to rain today? Had I better take my umbrella?’ ” The trouble, Croce explained, is that political problems are not external forces beyond our control; they are forces within our control. “We need solely to make up our own minds and to act.”
Don’t ask whether you need an umbrella. Go outside and stop the rain.
Here are some of the sorts of people who went out and stopped the rain in the nineteen-thirties: schoolteachers, city councillors, librarians, poets, union organizers, artists, precinct workers, soldiers, civil-rights activists, and investigative reporters. They knew what they were prepared to defend and they defended it, even though they also knew that they risked attack from both the left and the right. Charles Beard (Mary Ritter’s husband) spoke out against the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day, when he smeared scholars and teachers as Communists. “The people who are doing the most damage to American democracy are men like Charles A. Beard,” said a historian at Trinity College in Hartford, speaking at a high school on the subject of “Democracy and the Future,” and warning against reading Beard’s books—at a time when Nazis in Germany and Austria were burning “un-German” books in public squares. That did not exactly happen here, but in the nineteen-thirties four of five American superintendents of schools recommended assigning only those U.S. history textbooks which “omit any facts likely to arouse in the minds of the students question or doubt concerning the justice of our social order and government.”
The federal government stopped funding the forum program in 1941. Americans would take up their debate about the future of democracy, in a different form, only after the defeat of the Axis. For now, there was a war to fight. And there were still essays to publish, if not about the future, then about the present. In 1943, E. B. White got a letter in the mail, from the Writers’ War Board, asking him to write a statement about “The Meaning of Democracy.” He was a little weary of these pieces, but he knew how much they mattered. He wrote back, “Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.” It meant something once. And, the thing is, it still does. ♦
[Yegor Zhukov’s message about responsibility and love at his trial, for “extremism,” shows what political resistance can be and seems to describe American reality as accurately as the Russian one.]
I was going to write a column about Wednesday’s impeachment hearing, about the way it once again showcased the two non-overlapping realities into which American politics has split. But then I caught up on another hearing that took place on Wednesday, this one in a Moscow court. A twenty-one-year-old university student named Yegor Zhukov stood accused of “extremism,” for posting YouTube videos in which he talked about nonviolent protest, his campaign for a seat on the Moscow City Council, and different approaches to political power. In his most recent video, recorded four months ago, he suggested that “madmen” like Vladimir Putin view power as an end in itself, while political activists view it as an instrument of common action. In many of his vlog entries, Zhukov is seated against the backdrop of the Gadsden flag—“Don’t Tread on Me”—which appears to hang in his bedroom in his parents’ apartment.
The prosecutor had asked for four years of prison time for Zhukov. On Friday, a Moscow court sentenced Zhukov to three years’ probation—an unusually light punishment probably explained by the public response to Zhukov’s speech, which several Russian media outlets dared to publish. Hundreds of people gathered in front of the courthouse on the day of the sentencing. As a condition of his probation, Zhukov is banned from posting to the Internet. The judge also ordered that the flag, which was confiscated by police, be destroyed.
Instead of writing my own column, I have translated Zhukov’s final statement, delivered in court on Wednesday. I did it because it is a beautiful text that makes for instructive reading. Parts of it seem to describe American reality as accurately as the Russian one. Parts of it show what resistance can be. All of it, I hope, will make readers think twice before they use the word “Russians” to mean goons. I also hope it will serve as a reminder of what we miss while we are—rightly—obsessed with American politics, which is made more provincial every day by its isolationist President and the need to try to reduce the harm he causes. As for the column I was going to write, I will still have plenty of opportunities to write it, while the very young man who spoke the following words will be unable to publish for the next three years.
“This court hearing is concerned primarily with words and their meaning. We have discussed specific sentences, the subtleties of phrasing, different possible interpretations, and I hope that we have succeeded at showing to the honorable court that I am not an extremist, either from the point of view of linguistics or from the point of view of common sense. But now I would like to talk about a few things that are more basic than the meaning of words. I would like to talk about why I did the things I did, especially since the court expert offered his opinion on this. I would like to talk about my deep and true motives. The things that have motivated me to take up politics. The reasons why, among other things, I recorded videos for my blog.
“But first I want to say this. The Russian state claims to be the world’s last protector of traditional values. We are told that the state devotes a lot of resources to protecting the institution of the family, and to patriotism. We are also told that the most important traditional value is the Christian faith. Your Honor, I think this may actually be a good thing. The Christian ethic includes two values that I consider central for myself. First, responsibility. Christianity is based on the story of a person who dared to take up the burden of the world. It’s the story of a person who accepted responsibility in the greatest possible sense of that word. In essence, the central concept of the Christian religion is the concept of individual responsibility.
“The second value is love. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ is the most important sentence of the Christian faith. Love is trust, empathy, humanity, mutual aid, and care. A society built on such love is a strong society—probably the strongest of all possible societies.
“To understand why I’ve done what I’ve done, all you have to do is look at how the Russian state, which proudly claims to be a defender of these values, does in reality. Before we talk about responsibility, we have to consider what the ethics of a responsible person is. What are the words that a responsible individual repeats to himself throughout his life? I think these words are, ‘Remember that your path will be difficult, at times unbearably so. All your loved ones will die. All your plans will go awry. You will be betrayed and abandoned. And you cannot escape death. Life is suffering. Accept it. But once you accept it, once you accept the inevitability of suffering, you must still accept your cross and follow your dream, because otherwise things will only get worse. Be an example, be someone on whom others can depend. Do not obey despots, fight for the freedom of body and soul, and build a country in which your children can be happy.’
“Is this really what we are taught? Is this really the ethics that children absorb at school? Are these the kinds of heroes we honor? No. Our society, as currently constituted, suppresses any possibility of human development. [Fewer than] ten per cent of Russians possess ninety per cent of the country’s wealth. Some of these wealthy individuals are, of course, perfectly decent citizens, but most of this wealth is accumulated not through honest labor that benefits humanity but, plainly, through corruption.
“An impenetrable barrier divides our society in two. All the money is concentrated at the top and no one up there is going to let it go. All that’s left at the bottom—and this is no exaggeration—is despair. Knowing that they have nothing to hope for, that, no matter how hard they try, they cannot bring happiness to themselves or their families, Russian men take their aggression out on their wives, or drink themselves to death, or hang themselves. Russia has the world’s [second] highest rate of suicide among men. As a result, a third of all Russian families are single mothers with their kids. I would like to know: Is this how we are protecting the institution of the family?
“What is socialism? Merely Christianity in action. It recognizes the equality in men.”
The New Yorker
Eugene V. Debs and the Endurance of Socialism/Half man, half myth, Debs
turned a radical creed into a deeply American one.
Every man who worked on the American railroad in the last decades of the nineteenth century became, of necessity, a scholar of the relations between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, the masters and the slaves, the riders and the ridden upon. No student of this subject is more important to American history than Debs, half man, half myth, who founded the American Railway Union, turned that into the Social Democratic Party, and ran for President of the United States five times, including once from prison.
In a new book, “Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography” (Verso), drawn by Noah Van Sciver and written by Paul Buhle and Steve Max, Debs looks like an R. Crumb character, though not so bedraggled and neurotic.
People could listen to him talk for hours. “Debs! Debs! Debs!” they’d cry, when his train pulled into a station. Crowds massed to hear him by the tens of thousands. But even though Debs lived until 1926, well into the age of archival sound, no one has ever found a recording of his voice. When Nick Salvatore wrote, in his comprehensive biography, “Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist,” in 1982, “His voice ran a gamut of tones: mock whisper to normal conversation to full stentorian power,” you wonder how he knew. Debs could speak French and German and was raised in the Midwest, so maybe he talked like the Ohio-born Clarence Darrow, with a rasp and a drawl. Some of Debs’s early essays and speeches have just been published in the first of six volumes of “The Selected Works of Eugene V. Debs” (Haymarket), edited by Tim Davenport and David Walters. Really, he wasn’t much of a writer. The most delightful way to hear Debs is to listen to a recording made in 1979 by Bernie Sanders, in an audio documentary that he wrote and produced when he was thirty-seven years old and was the director of the American People’s Historical Society, in Burlington, Vermont, two years before he became that city’s mayor. In the documentary—available on YouTube and Spotify—Sanders, the Brooklyn-born son of a Polish Jew, performs parts of Debs’s most famous speeches, sounding, more or less, like Larry David. It is not to be missed.
“A new kind of left-wing doctrine is emerging,” The Economist writes in its lead article [AXIOS]:
28 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, “socialism is back in fashion.”
“In America Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a newly elected congresswoman who calls herself a democratic socialist, has become a sensation even as the growing field of Democratic presidential candidates for 2020 veers left. In Britain Jeremy Corbyn, the hardline leader of the Labour Party, could yet win the keys to 10 Downing Street.”
“Whereas politicians on the right have all too often given up the battle of ideas and retreated towards chauvinism and nostalgia, the left has focused on inequality, the environment, and how to vest power in citizens rather than elites.”
“Socialism is storming back because it has formed an incisive critique of what has gone wrong in Western societies.”
DT’s consolidation of power. None of the other forces that might have checked the rise of a corrupt homegrown oligarchy can stop or even slow it. The institutional clout that ended the Presidency of Richard Nixon no longer exists. The honest press, for all its success in exposing daily scandals, won’t persuade the unpersuadable or shame the shameless, while the dishonest press is Trump’s personal amplifier. The federal courts, including the Supreme Court, are rapidly becoming instruments of partisan advocacy, as reliably conservative as elected legislatures. It’s impossible to imagine the Roberts Court voting unanimously against the President, as the Burger Court, including five Republican appointees, did in forcing Nixon to turn over his tapes. (Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s nominee to succeed Anthony Kennedy, has even suggested that the decision was wrong.) Congress has readily submitted to the President’s will, as if legislation and oversight were burdens to be relinquished. And, when the independent counsel finally releases his report, it will have only the potency that the guardians of the law and the Constitution give it.
Behind these institutions lies public opinion, and we are quickly learning that it matters more than laws, more than the Constitution, more than the country’s supposedly inviolable founding principles. “If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it,” George Orwell wrote, in “Freedom of the Park.” “If public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.” During 1973, the year Watergate became a national scandal, facts changed the political views of millions of Americans, Nixon’s approval rating fell from sixty-seven per cent to less than thirty per cent, and his fate was sealed. In our time, large blocs of public opinion are barely movable: Trump’s performance in Helsinki—declaring himself on the side of Russia, against his own intelligence agencies and the integrity of American elections—received favorable reviews from eighty per cent of Republicans. Yet public opinion still plays a central role in safeguarding democracy, and it becomes decisive through voting. Demonstrations can capture attention and build solidarity, books can provide arguments, social media can organize resistance. But if the Republicans don’t suffer a serious defeat in November, Trump will go into 2020 with every structural advantage.
Democrats have a habit of forgetting to vote between Presidential elections. Republican turnout has exceeded or equalled Democratic turnout in very midterm since 1978, no matter which party held the Presidency, with an average margin of three per cent—more than enough to decide control of Congress in a closely divided election. The demographic groups that are least likely to vote—young people, Latinos, and those with a high-school education or less—tend to be Democratic constituencies. This tendency has been especially stark in the past two midterm cycles: in 2014, the turnout among eligible voters aged eighteen to twenty-nine was seventeen per cent—one in six. The disappearing Democratic voter also had an effect on the latest Presidential election, when, for example, African-American turnout dropped almost five per cent from 2012—a crucial difference in the three key states that gave Trump the Electoral College.
Republicans, for their part, don’t always entrust their hold on power to democratic methods. Since 2010, nearly half of the states have passed laws that make it harder to vote—from restrictions on early voting to I.D. requirements, mandatory proof of citizenship, and purges of voting rolls. The purpose of these laws is not to fight a mythical epidemic of fraud but to depress turnout of normally Democratic constituencies. They show incremental signs of success: a government study found that new laws reduced turnout in 2012 in Kansas and Tennessee by two or three per cent, notably among young and black voters. Other states have expanded the franchise, particularly to former felons, but Republican control of two-thirds of state legislatures and the shift of courts to the right give the momentum to efforts to curtail voting.
Gerrymandering is another effective tool for staying in power. The Brennan Center for Justice recently released a report on the effects of redistricting in states like Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas. Algorithmic mapping has grown so precise that Republican legislatures have created a sixteen-seat advantage in the House of Representatives that remains impervious to standard electoral pressures. In November, just to achieve a bare majority, Democrats will have to win the national congressional vote by nearly eleven per cent. (Other studies put the number at around seven per cent.) And legislatures elected this year will redraw state and federal districts after the 2020 census. There’s a thick seawall standing in the way of a blue wave.
But it’s self-defeating to exaggerate the external obstacles: in 2016, Democratic turnout declined in states with and without new voter restrictions. Gerrymandering is a time-honored practice of both parties—look at Maryland’s House delegation. Unfettered money in politics doesn’t always favor Republicans, let alone guarantee victory—Hillary Clinton raised twice as much as Trump did. The greatest obstacle to voting is the feeling that it won’t matter, and that feeling seems to be more prevalent among Democrats.
In some cases, that sense may be based on overconfidence and insularity—a presumption that the other party’s outrages will automatically disqualify it in voters’ eyes. More often, it comes from a belief that politics doesn’t change anything in people’s lives. For two generations, the Republican Party has been an expression of grassroots conservatism, most recently the fever that’s ceded the Party to Trump. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has grown less connected to its voters. It’s like a neglected building, perennially on the edge of collapse, which left-leaning Americans occasionally use for some purpose and then abandon.
This year, something seems to be changing. The new faces among Democratic candidates, the new energy behind them, suggest a party of members, not squatters. But, come November, they will have to vote. It’s the only thing left. ♦
The disturbing world of Jim Carrey’s anti-trump cartoons.
(Holed up in his L.A. home, the actor sketches furiously, and watches lots of cable news.)
House Republicans have called for the impeachment of Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General, who is overseeing the Russia investigation, but his defenders are speaking out. Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, has called Rosenstein “highly capable,” while Sally Yates, the former acting Attorney General, said that the impeachment effort would “undoubtedly fail.” Perhaps the most impassioned testimonial came from the actor Jim Carrey, who drew a picture of Rosenstein as a saint with a halo, invoking early Christian art. Carrey tweeted a photo of the drawing to his nearly eighteen million followers, with an earnest plea: “I hope there are other Republicans like you who will defend us against this thuggish lot.”
Since 2016, Carrey has created more than a hundred cartoons protesting the Trump Administration, a pastime that borders on the obsessive. “I fight him to the end,” he said recently, citing the Bhagavad Gita. “It’s my Arjuna moment—my responsibility to pick up the sword.”
Carrey was at his home in Los Angeles, a one-story ranch-style house where he lives alone. (On this day, two employees and a publicist were on hand.) Now fifty-six, he wore a black T-shirt and cargo shorts. His hair was shaggy. He’s still acting—he’d spent the previous afternoon on the set of an upcoming Showtime series he’s starring in, “kidding”, directed by Michel Gondry—but, like everyone else these days, he watches a lot of cable news.
He sat down near a large television in his living room. “Right now, everybody is laser-focussed on every detail of this Administration,” he said. “And I am, too. I read news online, but mostly I watch MSNBC. They’re flawed, but Rachel Maddow is really good.” He sketches while he watches: wonky portraits, satirical headlines, grotesqueries. “It makes me feel better if I can alchemize all of this,” he said. “Turn it into something creative and make people on the Twitter feel good.”
Besides cartoons, Carrey also makes abstract paintings. The walls of his house are covered in his own work: Technicolor images streaked onto mirrored surfaces, or canvases that have been slashed and stitched. Some are signed “Church of FFC.” (The acronym stands for “Freedom from Concern.”) Though he was an artistic child, he didn’t start painting seriously until seven years ago, he explained, “in the midst of heartbreak.” The cartooning started the day before the 2016 Presidential election. “It was in the middle of the killer-clown phenomenon,” he recalled. He shouted to his art manager, in the next room. “Linda, can you find that killer-clown sketch?”
Linda replied, “The killer clown pressing the button, or the—”
“Pressing the button, yeah,” Carrey said, slightly impatient.
She brought over a drawing of Trump as a clown with a blue nose and fangs.
Politically, Carrey described himself as a “conservative Democrat, because I don’t like boundaries.” As a cartoonist, his humor tends toward the obscene. He flipped through a stack of sketches, and found a picture of Trump with a Russian flag planted in his rear end. “I did that one before the Helsinki meeting,” he said. “It was a prediction.” There were drawings of all the minor players: Sean Hannity as a manatee, Trey Gowdy as an insect, Adam Schiff as a Ken doll dropping his pants. (Carrey found the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee to be insufficiently animated on TV. “Show some passion!” he wrote in the caption. “We’ve had it with your calm, reasonable manner! make some f’ing noise!!!”) His position affords some flexibility. “I don’t work for a publication, so I’m allowed to do crude things, which I enjoy,” he said. “Twitter doesn’t mind.” Lingering on two Munch-esque portraits of Rudolph Giuliani, mid-scream, Carrey said, “I love these Giuliani images.” He pointed to his subject’s bridgework: white on top, brown below. “These people don’t bother to dye the bottom teeth.”
Carrey said that, as an actor, he’d most like to play Paul Manafort. “When I see Manafort walking into the courtroom, I’m, like, ‘Does anybody else notice that he’s, like, a frigging alien in a skin suit?’ Hasn’t studied his subject.” He stood up and did an impression, legs and arms akimbo. “He’s an interesting character, because he hasn’t visited his actual being in a long time. He’s been consumed by a maelstrom of future chaos.”
Carrey called out to another employee. “Brogan,” he said. “Can you bring up Roy Moore? You know, the little one? It’s in there.”
Like many people in show business, Carrey has crossed paths with Trump. He recalled meeting him at a New York fund-raiser. “He said, ‘Hey, Jim.’ I said, ‘Hey, Donald.’ Later, I rented his ice rink for a Valentine’s Day skate. He was a fine guy when he was a reality-show host.” He returned to his sketch pad. A more subtle idea had occurred to him. “I started drawing a cartoon this morning that’s just an empty desk and chair on the floor of the Senate,” he said. “I don’t know what the caption will be yet.” ♦
The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency
How Robert Mercer exploited America’s populist insurgency.
By, Jane Mayer
[Dark Money, The Dark Side, Strange Justice]
“Robert Mercer now owns a sizeable share of the United States Presidency.
Mercer’s influence has been huge .He’s not the first person in history to use money in politics, but in my view Trump wouldn’t be President if not for Bob. It doesn’t get much more effective than that.”
RICHARD RORTY’S PHILOSOPHICAL ARGUMENT FOR NATIONAL PRIDE
“In the days leading up to and following the Presidential election, a seemingly prophetic passage from the late philosopher Richard Rorty circulated virally on the Internet. The quote, which was subsequently written about in the Timesand the Guardian and on Yahoo and the Web site for Cosmopolitan magazine, is from his book “Achieving Our Country,” published in 1998. It is worth quoting at length:
Members of labor unions, and unorganized and unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. . . . Once the strongman takes office, no one can predict what will happen.
The chilling precision of these words resulted in renewed interest in Rorty, who died in 2007. Eighteen years after its release, “Achieving Our Country” sold out on Amazon, briefly cracking the site’s list of its hundred top-selling books. Harvard University Press decided to reprint it.
Rorty’s new fans may be surprised, opening their delivery, to discover a book that has almost nothing to do with the rise of a demagogic right and its cynical exploitation of the working class. It is, instead, a book about the left’s tragic loss of national pride. “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals, a necessary condition for self-improvement,” Rorty writes in the book’s opening sentence, before describing in grim detail how the democratic optimism, however qualified, of Walt Whitman, John Dewey, and James Baldwin has been abandoned in favor of what he calls a “blasé” and “spectatorial” left.
Newcomers to Rorty and “Achieving Our Country” may be surprised on a second count as well. The Times piece about the new interest in the book summarized its argument like so: “In universities, cultural and identity politics replaced the politics of change and economic justice.” This is broadly accurate, but incomplete. Rorty, in “Achieving Our Country,” shows unqualified admiration for the expansion of academic syllabi to include nonwhite and non-male authors, and describes such efforts as one means of awakening students to the “humiliation which previous generations of Americans have inflicted on their fellow citizens.” He adds, without reservation, “Encouraging students to be what mocking neoconservatives call ‘politically correct’ has made our country a far better place.”
Rorty’s only issue with identity politics was that the left, having worked so hard to transfer stigmatic cruelty away from received categories like race and gender, had done too little to prevent that stigma from landing on class—and that the white working class, finding itself abandoned by both the free-market right and the identity left, would be all too eager to transfer that stigma back to minorities, immigrants, gays, and coastal élites. (Hence the viral prophecy.)
The principal object of Rorty’s derision was neither identity politics nor the rise of an ignoble free-market right but a peculiar form of decadence, which his larger intellectual project aimed to counter. I knew Rorty a little; he was a shy and gentle man, a red-diaper baby who grew up to be a bird-watcher and a savorer of Proust and Kant in their original languages. But his loathing of the academic left was neither shy nor gentle. The “Foucauldian” left, he writes in “Achieving Our Country,” “represents an unfortunate regression to the Marxist obsession with scientific rigor.” In the specific case of Foucault, this involved locating the “ubiquitous specter” known as “power” everywhere, and conceding that we are without agency in its presence. “To step into the intellectual world which some of these leftists inhabit is to move out of a world in which citizens of a democracy can join forces to resist sadism and selfishness into a Gothic world in which democratic politics has become a farce,” he writes.
How could Rorty have celebrated the rise of identity politics in the university while also deriding the major trends in critical theory as illiberal and decadent? And how did his exhortation for a renewed national pride connect with his earlier, more technical work on human mentality and the foundations of knowledge? Early in his career, Rorty had been preoccupied by the major questions of modern philosophy as they first arose in the seventeenth century, alongside the rise of experimental science. Is the human mind an object in the world, like all the other objects in the world? Is it, too, universally law-obedient to physics? And, if it is law-obedient, do we lack agency and, like other objects, inherent dignity?
Instead of solving these problems, Rorty thought we could ditch them, just as Descartes had ditched the problems of thirteenth-century scholasticism, and at a similarly low cost to the progress of human knowledge. The cheerfully non-philosophical way to ditch them was to ignore them, like most healthy people do. The slightly more philosophical method was to notice that people argued from, rather than to, their moral intuitions—an observation that may encourage us to accept that truth is at best a matter of consensus, not an observable fact of the world. The most philosophical way to abandon them was therapeutically: one could relive the philosophical past the same way an analysand relives her emotional past. By drawing, inch by agonizing inch, an unconscious pattern to the surface, one might discard it forever.
Around the same time Rorty completed his metaphysical therapy, and was reinventing himself as a general-interest writer, his peers in the English department were replacing the categories of mind and world with language and text. They were, in other words, reproducing the epistemological conundrums that had bedeviled modern philosophy since Descartes. Instead of ditching the old neurotic patterns, literary theory repeated them ad nauseum. Problems of knowledge became problems of interpretation. The glamour of its European intellectualism aside, this meant only that literary theory knocked back and forth between the assertion that nothing can be known—versions of this skepticism are found in Descartes, Hume, Berkeley, and Kant—and the assertion that skepticism can be vanquished when knowledge is reconstructed upon a new foundation.
Foucault rode this line perfectly. He said that all knowledge was inherently unstable, because it was historically contingent, and he built a new way of knowing around the master term “power.” The primal Foucauldian move is to locate abstract and universal rights, reason, and the notion of the human within concrete social practices, and show how they were coercive or hypocritical—or sadistic—from the start. The perfect symbol for liberal modernity is a prison, as governed by a panopticon, an instrument of universal surveillance. Point taken; but Rorty believed that, in addressing more or less all of humanity as his fellow-prisoners, Foucault was being decadent, and not simply because he was weakening the distinction between metaphorical and actual inmates. Foucault made seeing, or, really, seeing through, into a revolutionary activity, while implying that only an apocalyptic transformation in human thought might liberate us.
Foucault was a great philosopher. He worked tirelessly on behalf of prison reform for actual prisoners, and he was as canny as anyone about his own epistemological biases. Rorty and Foucault were, however, as temperamentally antithetical as two human beings can be. From intellectual habits that Rorty distrusted, Foucault moved on to a belief that Rorty detested. After exposing liberalism as a lie, Foucault then asserted that illiberalism was true to our nature. At times a fairly vulgar Nietzschean, he insisted that the substrate of our common reality, however we might suppress it, was cruelty. Shame is our hidden essence; the ugliest part of a thing is its truest part; being decent or kind or liberal is a sign of self-suppression or weakness; cynicism is knowledge. Here, the various tributaries of American nihilism flow into one another; a knowing passivity that regards cynicism as political courage leads to the rejection of liberal democracy on a juvenile dare. It was against just this sort of foolishness that Rorty wrote ‘Achieving Our Country.'”