An Image of Terminal Decline

As the United States prepares to celebrate Independence Day, the picture it presents to the world at large is not a good one. For that matter, the rest of the world isn’t looking so hot, either. The turn to the right, here and globally, seems inexorable.

The recent presidential “debate” is a stark example of how far this country has fallen. We’re offered two elderly white male candidates, one a convicted felon and congenital liar, the other an 81-year-old who could not complete his thoughts or sentences.

The catastrophic debate. Photo: Kenny Holston/The New York Times.
The catastrophic debate. Photo: Kenny Holston/The New York Times.

“I am worried about the image projected to the outside world,” Sergey Radchenko, a historian at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, was quoted as saying in the New York Times. “It is not an image of leadership. It is an image of terminal decline.”

France, Germany and the Netherlands, along with Italy, have also swung to the right, and thus have begun the process of dismantling societal safeguards that right-wing governments generally undertake. (The UK, thankfully, appears to be proceeding in the opposite direction.)

It’s well-known that the U.S. has been declining in terms of its citizens’ well-being relative to other nations. U.S. News & World Report, famous for its controversial college rankings, puts the United States at #23 in the world overall. The OECD* Better Life Index has us at #10 overall, but #33 (of 35) for social inequality, #28 (of 41) for voter turnout and #29 of 41 for life expectancy. Factor in our increasingly lax laws on the country’s 300 million+ guns and the Supreme Court’s determination that President Trump has absolute immunity for “official acts,” and our national situation is even worse than it looks.

As of this writing, President Biden is reportedly considering whether he should continue trying to persuade his party and the general public that he is an effective candidate, one who could handle the presidency for the next four years. The Times reports that if he concludes he cannot recover from his debate debacle, he could drop out of the race as soon as next week. That would raise new risks as a group of alternative candidates would grapple for the nomination at the Democratic National Convention. Nonetheless, it is probably the best course of action.

Even so, Trump seems likely to win in November. If he does, America’s outlook will be bleaker still.

* Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Stop Trashing Tesla

The injunction above is aimed at the two entities currently doing the most damage to the image and reputation of the innovative EV maker: The New York Times, and Mr. Elon Musk. Tesla has taken some major hits lately, and both the Times and Musk seem determined to intensify the damage.

Let’s begin with the Times. For well over a year now (actually, it’s probably longer), the Times has featured negative coverage of Tesla or Musk or both, on an almost-daily basis.

Tesla's Model Y became the world's best-selling car in 2023. Photo:
Tesla’s Model Y became the world’s best-selling car in 2023. Photo:

Here are some recent examples of the paper’s anti-Tesla coverage from just the past two weeks:

– Tesla Fires Many on Charger Team, Raising Doubts About Expansion (April 30)
– That Strange Piece of Metal Origami Embodies All of Elon Musk’s Flaws (April 30)
– Tesla’s Dangerous Course (April 29)
– Auto Safety Regulator Investigating Tesla Recall of Autopilot (April 26)
– Tesla’s Flop Era (podcast, April 26)
– Has Tesla Peaked? (April 16)
– E.V. Sales Are Slowing. Tesla’s Are Slumping (April 15)
– Tesla Will Lay Off More Than 10% of Workers (April 15)

Granted, some of this coverage is legitimate—the layoffs, the declining sales, the inexplicable removal of most of Tesla’s Supercharger team. Even in those cases, though, the negative coverage is accentuated. The rest of the stories are consistently slanted and/or speculative.

We have few complaints about negative Musk coverage—he deserves it. From the end of 2021, when Musk moved Tesla HQ from California to Texas, his management of the company has sent it on a downhill slide.

– Musk’s right-wing turn has alienated many of his original customers, who tend toward the other side of the political spectrum
– His constant price-juggling over the past year has dented Tesla’s prestige
– His mass, “hard-core” layoffs—particularly the layoff of the Supercharger team—are wrong-headed and extremely damaging
– His distraction by “X,” by SpaceX, and (especially) by politics has hurt the day-to-day operations of the company

Musk does deserve credit for driving Tesla to become the world’s most valuable car company, and for leading the way on EVs in general. He also deserves credit for the vital role SpaceX plays today. But his recent performance threatens Tesla’s continued well-being. As Bill Russo, an EV consultant in Shanghai notes, Tesla is the only strong American contender in EVs. “If they ever died,” Russo said, “the whole EV market dies with it in the United States.” (New York Times, “China’s Electric Cars Keep Improving, a Worry for Rivals Elsewhere,” May 1, 2024.)

Musk did not found Tesla, although he launched a lawsuit that eventually allowed him to claim this was so. (The company was actually founded by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning.) Musk did lead Tesla into a very strong position, but it’s a position he is now rapidly squandering. It’s time for him to go.

Tesla’s Musk-controlled board doesn’t think so, though. They want to overrule a Delaware judge and award him a payment package worth at least $55 billion. They plan on asking shareholders to OK this. Obviously, it should not happen.

We don’t know exactly how Musk can be separated from Tesla, but separated he must be. If Tesla doesn’t somehow transition to the responsible, uncontroversial and forward-looking management it deserves, its future looks bleak.

Genocide in Gaza

Where to begin? Let’s start with the oft-cited justification for the atrocities Israel has committed in Gaza since the Hamas attack of last October 7: “Israel has the right to defend itself.” What does that actually mean?

In practice, it seems to mean whatever the Israeli government says it should mean. It means well over 30,000 Gazan deaths so far (over 32,000, according to Al Jazeera), including a shocking number of children. It means indiscriminate bombing and reducing homes to rubble. It means mass displacement and it is beginning to mean starvation.

Yazan Kafarneh, 10, died of severe malnourishment on March 4. Photo: Hatem Ali/Associated Press.

Many Western figures, in government and media alike, seem to accept this “anything goes” rationale as a logical extension of Israel’s “right to defend itself.” President Biden basically endorsed this stance after October 7, before his more recent cosmetic, slow-moving retreat. And David Brooks, a supposed compassionate conservative, exemplifies the tortured logic behind Israel’s supposed need to obliterate Gaza in the process of defeating Hamas in a recent column entitled, “What Would You Have Israel Do to Defend Itself?”

“So where are we?” Brooks asks. “I’m left with the tragic conclusion that there is no magical alternative military strategy.” The rest of the column duly notes Israeli discrimination against Palestinians and the need for a more equitable future (but without endorsing a two-state solution).

Let’s illustrate this thinking in blunt terms. Mr. Brooks, do you believe it was necessary for Israel to kill more than 32,000 people, including more than 13,000 children; to destroy more than half of Gaza’s homes (some 360,000, Al Jazeera estimates); to implement mass displacement and withhold shipments of aid to create starvation for use as a weapon, in order to defeat Hamas? Answer: yes (tragically).

More than half of Gazan homes have been destroyed. Photo: Mohammed Hajjar/AP.

By this same rationale, it was necessary for Hamas to attack Israel on October 7 and kill more than 1,100 Israelis in order to fight injustice, strike a blow for freedom and underscore the Palestinian cause. If you’ve been oppressed for more than 70 years, had your land stolen and your rights taken away, doesn’t the end justify the means? Many American college students believe exactly that, which is why the leaders of Harvard and Penn were deposed, after a self-righteous and hypocritical hearing in the House.

The truth, it should be obvious, is that no one has the “right” or the justification to murder innocents. Yet Israel and its defenders insist on precisely that right. At times, they employ the memory of the Holocaust or Shoah, to underscore their need to have this right. If you’d like to take a closer look at how the Holocaust is employed in service of Israel’s murderous policies, this article in the London Review of Books does just that.

South Africa has brought a case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, the United Nations’ highest court, arguing that Israel is committing genocide. Most Western countries will reject this claim, but it appears Ireland is about to file an argument in support of South Africa’s case.

We believe genocide is occurring in Gaza, and that Israel and its leaders have committed numerous war crimes. We also believe Israel’s current actions have provoked a spike in antisemitism worldwide and have imperiled the country’s future security.

Ideally, an ICJ verdict in support of the genocide charge would be a first step toward justice and, hopefully, change. But change remains unlikely, especially if the U.S. continues its unequivocal military and financial support of the rogue Israeli state.

Life, Death and the Hidden Light

This year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Jon Fosse of Norway, is a prolific writer who should now become better known in the West. His work certainly merits this. Septology, a 7-book novel comprised of three individual titles (The Other Name, I Is Another, A New Name) in just one sentence, more or less, is widely—and justly—regarded as a masterpiece. The work has been hailed as both a new form of fiction and a completely unique reading experience.

In the United States, Septology is published by Transit Books, a small, recently founded publisher based in the Bay Area. The brilliant, incantatory English translation is by Damion Searls. Publishing Fosse is quite a coup for the new imprint.

Septology is a different kind of reading experience. While the seven-book, one-sentence description above may sound daunting, the work itself is anything but. It might best be described as a kind of spiritual journey, one keenly felt by the reader as well as the principal protagonist, a painter named Asle.

Asle’s St. Andrews Cross, generated by DALL-E.
Asle’s St. Andrews Cross, generated by DALL-E.

Asle believes in God, though not merely in the conventional ways. For him, God resides in everything, as a sort of hidden light. Early on, he has worked on a painting which his neighbor dubs St. Andrews Cross—two thick lines forming an X-shaped cross on a black background, one line brown, the other purple. Asle believes a dark light shines from this painting.

That light somehow reflects the inexplicable mysteries of life, death and God, Asle believes. As he says, “…it’s definitely true that it’s just when things are darkest, blackest, that you see the light, that’s when this light can be seen, when the darkness is shining, yes, and it has always been like that in my life at least, when it’s darkest is when the light appears, when the darkness starts to shine, and maybe it’s the same way in the pictures I paint, anyway I hope it is….”

Fosse’s writings about the ineffable somehow seem deeply real, and intensely engaging. Lauren Groff, reviewing his more recent novella A Shining in the Guardian, writes that his fiction “somehow dissolves the border between the material and the spiritual worlds,” and this is true. Yet Fosse’s work is amazingly accessible and compelling, nowhere more so than in Septology (though A Shining will provide you with a brief, stripped-down example).

These works will not resolve the great issues of life, death or God; no straightforward explanations are offered, nor could they be. But in reading Fosse, you will feel the grip and importance of these issues and the questions they raise as never before.

Ceasefire Now!

This page has been silent for most of 2023. In part, this has been due to work on a sizable project. In larger part, though, our silence reflects a stunned reaction to the ever-growing cascade of dire news around the world. What to say? Where to even begin?

Now, however, with 2024 on the horizon, it’s time to speak out again. We could address Trump’s possible (likely?) return to the White House next year … the world’s pathetic efforts to combat climate change … the hopeless situation of gun violence in America. Instead, we’ll focus on the most conspicuous bit of bad news on our screens at the moment: the incredibly disproportionate and criminal violence Israel continues to inflict on civilians in Gaza and the West Bank.

Gaza destruction.
Bombing survivors. Image source: Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images.

Yes, Hamas did commit atrocities against Israeli citizens on October 7. Horrendous atrocities. There’s no argument there. The argument is against the scale of Israel’s response. As always, far more Palestinians have died than Israelis, thanks in part to America’s long-term, continuing military support. And the Palestinians who have died are overwhelmingly civilians (many of them children), not Oct. 7 attackers. When called out on this, Israelis have pointed to America’s own disproportionate sins, namely Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We should specify that we do not believe our anti-Zionist stance is antisemitic, though Israel and right-wing U.S. supporters would claim that it is. Rather, our condemnation of Israel’s long-term behavior, and its atrocious behavior right now, is a straightforward matter of observation. In addition to the vast destruction and the indiscriminate killing Israel is currently perpetrating, officials in that country’s government have been outspoken in calling for the blood of the “human animals” they are murdering in Gaza. Within the far-right Israeli government, there is not even a pretense of concern over civilian deaths.

Both Amnesty International and Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), two groups noted for trying to stop violence and bloodshed around the globe, are calling for an immediate ceasefire. That is but a minimal first step. It’s a contemptible shame that Western governments, including our own, lack the courage to support even that.

By the way, Amnesty International also notes, correctly, that Israel operates an apartheid state, and has done so for decades.

If any of the above resonates with you, write to your government officials. Do something to counter the blind, pro-Israel support dominating our government. Say something! Donate to Amnesty and MSF. And if you want to push Israel harder, consider supporting BDS. (Note that this last step may entail personal risk at some point.)

Trigger Warning

Recent shootings of innocent visitors by elderly homeowners in Kansas City and Upstate New York have prompted a lot of anguished discussion. Both incidents are mind-boggling: why would you shoot a 16-year-old kid for ringing your doorbell? Why would you fire live rounds at visitors turning around in your driveway?

Elderly man with a rifle. Image source: Craiyon.
Elderly man with a rifle. Image source: Craiyon.

“Stand-your-ground” laws have been cited (Missouri has one, New York does not). So has the “castle doctrine.” However, Christopher Slobogin, law professor at Vanderbilt University and director of the school’s Criminal Justice Program, notes that both of these legal precepts “… still [require you] to be reasonable in your response to the attacker.” *

Fine, except there was no attacker in either case. Ralph Yarl, a black teenager, was shot twice by 84-year-old Andrew Lester for ringing Lester’s doorbell. Yarl was shot in the head but nonetheless survived. Kaylin Gillis, 20, was shot by 65-year-old Kevin Monahan for mistakenly driving, with friends, up Monahan’s driveway in search of a friend’s house. The cars were turning around when Gillis was shot and killed.

So, in addition to questionable self-defense doctrines, you could look at age as a possible factor in these shootings. You could certainly cite racism in the Kansas City case. But you still wouldn’t get to the heart of the matter: the obscene flow of guns throughout America, guns which are available to anyone at any time, regardless of their capabilities or circumstances.

Caroline Light, author of Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense, notes that stand-your-ground laws have been associated with an 8% to 11% national increase in monthly homicide rates and have given ordinary Americans a selective right to kill.** 

Light further notes that “the key thing here is that in this uneven landscape, where the laws are all kind of different state-by-state, we can see how the circulation of firearms and the expansion of justifiable homicide creates a more precarious landscape for everybody.”

Indeed. It’s the guns, people. It’s the goddamn guns.

* Ralph Yarl, Kaylin Gillis shootings may renew debate about ‘stand your ground’ laws.

** Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense.

ChatGPT Looks at the Coming Year

Last year around this time we offered a quasi-optimistic take on 2022. This time, as a corrective, we turned to two outside sources for guidance on what 2023 (and beyond) might look like: Cormac McCarthy and OpenAI.

McCarthy’s year-end pair of novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris, were the literary event of the year for us, George Saunders notwithstanding. Quite dark, though. To counter McCarthy’s (and our own) innate pessimism, we enlisted the help of Open AI’s ChatGPT and DALL·E 2.

Despite his bleak outlook (or perhaps because of it), McCarthy is eminently quotable. Here is a line from The Passenger that we used to generate OpenAI’s year-end outlook: “The horrors of the past lose their edge, and in the doing they blind us to a world careening toward a darkness beyond the bitterest speculation.”

A dark future. Image: DALL-E-2.
A dark future. Image: DALL-E 2.

A Dark Future?

It is difficult to predict the future with certainty, but it is possible to imagine a future in which the horrors of the past are remembered and acknowledged, but no longer have the power to haunt and dominate the present. This could be a world in which people have learned from the mistakes and atrocities of the past, and have made a concerted effort to prevent them from happening again.

In this future, the horrors of the past may have lost their edge because they have been widely recognized, acknowledged, and addressed. People may have developed a deeper understanding of the causes of these horrors, and may have implemented measures to prevent them from occurring in the future.

However, it is also possible that this focus on the past could have the unintended consequence of blinding people to the present and future. People may become so focused on preventing past horrors from repeating themselves that they overlook other pressing issues and problems that are unfolding in the present.

Furthermore, it is important to recognize that the future is not predetermined, and that the actions and choices of individuals and societies can shape the direction in which the world moves. If people are not careful and vigilant, it is possible that the horrors of the past could be repeated, or that new horrors could emerge. It is crucial that people stay aware and engaged in the present and the future, in order to prevent darkness and suffering from taking hold.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Loving What Was Lost

This blog recently addressed the pervasive sense of political unease in the United States, an unease which is only growing as the midterm elections approach. Everyone acknowledges how important the election results will be for the country’s future. At the same time, many of us believe we’ve already embarked on a dark path which cannot be stopped or altered, no matter how we vote.

But is this true? Are we really powerless to change the direction of our country?

Liberation Day, by George Saunders. Cover photo:
Liberation Day, by George Saunders. Cover photo:

Well, the empirical evidence does not look good. Election deniers already hold offices in many states and are in a position to tilt the results. The January 6 Committee is likely to be shut down in just a few months, assuming Republicans take back the House as expected. And ex-President Trump is likely to run for reelection, although by law he should not be permitted to run for any office whatsoever.

One of our best writers, the Booker Prize-winning George Saunders, has just published a new collection of short stories—Liberation Day—which takes our current situation as a starting point and imagines what life will be like in the near future.

Perhaps the most direct of these stories is “Love Letter.” It takes the form of a letter written by a grandfather to his grandson after dark times have descended, a letter which tries to address the issue of injustice and whether or not anything can still be done to rectify it. It is also a love letter to that which has been lost, namely the democracy we once took for granted. Plausibly (and chillingly), the letter is dated February 22, 202_.

The grandson challenges his grandfather, asking why he didn’t do more to stop the nation’s descent. The grandfather replies reasonably, noting all the things he and his wife did do. They voted. They called their elected representatives, they signed petitions. They wrote letters to the editor. After the third such letter, the grandfather notes, he was stopped by the police and told to stay off his computer.

Both generations are aware of people who have been wrongfully imprisoned. Indeed, the grandson has written to his grandfather seeking assistance in freeing someone from prison. Neither knows whether the person in question, named only as “J.” for safety’s sake, is in a state facility or a federal prison. J. refused to identify someone who lacked the proper papers. And J. appears to be romantically involved with the grandson, who wants to expedite her release.

The grandfather replies: I advise and implore you to stay out of this business with J. Your involvement will not help (especially if you don’t know where they have taken her, fed or state) and may, in fact, hurt. I hope I do not offend if I here use the phrase “empty gesture.”

Yet the grandfather cannot help but offer his grandson monetary assistance, even though he believes it is pointless and fervently hopes his grandson will keep a low profile.

He—the grandfather—is full of regret for what was lost. And for how it was lost, so gradually and imperceptibly. There was a certain critical period, he says. I see that now.

We have entered that critical period. Is there anything we can do?


Danger Ahead

There is a widespread sense of unease in the world today, not least in the United States. In fact, what’s happening in the U.S. is in large part responsible for the world’s unease.

America’s political dysfunction does not bode well for future world stability. Our political grotesqueries are in themselves enough to give any thoughtful person pause, but we seldom address their potential consequences.

Yes, it’s true that polls show many Americans (though not a majority) expect civil war to break out in the relatively near future. But this is simply another form of categorization, albeit a dramatic one. It’s a way to superficially acknowledge our political situation without making any real attempt to address it. In that way it’s similar to our collective categorization of Covid—we’ve pushed it to the background and gone on with our lives.

President Biden speaking in Philadelphia. Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times.
President Biden speaking in Philadelphia. Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times.

This is why President Biden’s speech last night, in which he bluntly called the MAGA Republican Party a clear and present danger to the nation, was important: it frankly acknowledged the peril we face.

Unfortunately, though, Biden’s address, with Independence Hall in the background and the Liberty Bell nearby, will probably not be enough to stave off the dangers he warned us about. Even as he spoke, shouts of “Let’s go Brandon” were audible from the other side. And Biden’s age and stammer did him no favors in terms of the speech’s presentation and impact.

What’s more, the president chose to dilute the alarm he was sounding by touting his administration’s accomplishments ahead of the midterm elections. “Vote! Vote! Vote,” he urged. None of the major broadcast networks chose to carry the speech, though cable news channels did. As of this morning, the speech is already receding into the background.

Best-case scenario: Biden helps to turn out some additional pro-sanity voters in the midterms and the Democrats hold the House and gain in the Senate. Trump is charged with criminal obstruction and prosecuted, then found guilty.

Likely scenario: Republicans take back the House. Trump is not charged with anything and runs for President again. Division widens. We collectively ignore the ramifications for 2024.

New Fiction on the American Divide

The following story was accepted two years ago by Gargoyle, a literary magazine based in Washington, D.C. It has just been published this summer, due to pandemic delays. (Check it out: you’re looking for issue #75, the one with the traffic cone on the cover. Because of the editorial delays this issue is much thicker than usual and chock full of good stuff.)

“Sparks” is written from the point of view of an economically disadvantaged young person in upstate New York on the eve of the 2020 presidential election. I believe it remains relevant today.

Trump on TV. He lost, but how did he reach so many people? Photo source:
Trump on TV. He lost, but how did he reach so many people? Photo source:


by Thomas Pletcher

It’s early November, Monday I think, and I’m driving my beat-up bike around Winwood feeling chilly in my thin denim jacket and trying to figure out what to do next. I’m going to need to find work at some point but that becomes harder to do when the weather turns cold. There are some construction jobs going on—there are plenty of new houses being built—but the crews are usually locked in by this time of year. And I don’t feel like doing scut work on someone’s fancy-ass house project anyway, especially once it starts snowing. Plus there’s the masks and the distancing and all.

This is an election year, not that that means anything.

I’m thinking I could really use some oxy, or at the very least a six-pack, but I’m strapped as usual. I’ve only got one pill left and I don’t want to use it until I know I can get more. I don’t have a lot of money left, either. Then it occurs to me that Carl Stolz, my hard-hearted dealer, might take something other than cash if I can come up with the right something—some nice jewelry, maybe, or a big chunky watch. At this point I’m rounding the steep wide curve going up Circus Road when I see a white Tesla SUV with some smug-looking fuck behind the wheel turn out of his long driveway and head down the hill.

Well, well, I ask myself, who’s this? Probably the guy who owns that big new house. I throw a quick glance at the driver as the Tesla slides by but the stuck-up bastard just keeps his eyes on the curving road. I slow slightly and my piece-of-shit Kawasaki starts belching even louder but as far as Mr. Tesla is concerned I simply don’t exist. Once he rounds the curve and disappears down the hill I cut my engine and pull the bike into the short driveway of a smaller house across the way.

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