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

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

 

“Sparks”
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.

Continue reading “New Fiction on the American Divide”

A Wicked Problem

America is in existential peril. That’s no surprise; media here and abroad—including this blog—have charted the country’s decline for years. But the reason our peril is existential is less frequently noted. It is because there is no clear-cut solution for America’s afflictions, which means we are facing a wicked problem.

As Wikipedia defines it, a wicked problem is a problem “that cannot be fixed, where there is no single solution to the problem; ‘wicked’ denotes reistance to resolution, rather than evil.”

I take issue with the idea there is no evil involved in our present situation, though. To cite just one example, Joe Manchin, a man who places his personal wealth and power above the lives of his fellow citizens, could rationally be viewed as evil. So too could a U.S. president who urges his followers to violently attack the Capitol and overturn a democratic election. It’s likely neither man regards himself as evil, even as his actions produce starkly harmful results.

America’s backward steps have resonated loudly in recent months. Thanks to the far-right Supreme Court alone, the country has:

* Overturned Roe v. Wade—already, a raped 10-year-old has had to travel to another state for an abortion, and her provider has been repeatedly threatened.
* Dramatically expanded gun rights and proliferation, despite mass shootings on a near-weekly basis.
* Handicapped our ability to respond to climate change, even though climate change represents a growing emergency here and around the world.

These and other setbacks have caused the U.S. to drop once again in the annual Democracy Index, published by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Below, you see the top 15 democracies (click to enlarge), ranked by pluralism, civil liberties, functioning of government, political participation and political culture. We are not among them.

2021 Democracy Index
2021 Democracy Index, from the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Instead, we come in at #26 and are labeled a flawed democracy, along with Botswana, Slovenia and East Timor. Full democracies have a cumulative score of 8.01-10.00. Flawed democracies score from 6.01-8.00. The U.S. has a score of 7.85; this score has declined with every new index issued since 2006. We were last considered a full democracy in 2015.

So how can we address our wicked problem? That is indeed the question, and it’s one we’ll grapple with this year and next as we head toward a potentially cataclysmic 2024.

Recent Reads

One of the abiding benefits serious readers derive from literature, whether well-made fiction or poetry, is the ability to participate in other worlds. Indeed, the mind-meld between a good writer and his/her ideal reader is deeper and richer than any Metaverse could hope to be.

The reader not only gains new understanding and perspectives from a successful novel, but also a  vacation of sorts from the “real” world. I don’t mean a relaxing beach resort getaway, but a vacation from one’s usual preoccupations and concerns. In dangerous, stressful times like these, such a respite is invaluable in its own right and also conducive to a more balanced outlook.

Here, in the order in which I read them, are three engrossing ways to take a break.

The Ministry for the Future.
The Ministry for the Future. Photo: Orbit Books.

Kim Stanley Robinson is an acclaimed science fiction writer, noted especially for his Mars trilogy. His latest book is something different—a fictional account, drawing on real-life scientific scenarios, of how we might save ourselves from the ravages of climate change.

The Ministry for the Future has been criticized on a few counts: it can be a bit didactic in places, the plot is somewhat thin and its conclusions could be viewed as overly optimistic. It is a gripping read nonetheless—here is an intelligent, engaged writer offering carefully researched solutions for mankind’s salvation. Even though accelerating climate change is anxiety-provoking in real life, reading this book will expand your horizons and possibly offer some comfort as well.

The Anomaly.
The Anomaly. Photo: Other Press.

Hervé Le Tellier’s The Anomaly was a breakout success in Europe and has enjoyed good sales in the U.S. as well. It is extremely well-written; the translation by Adriana Hunter is outstanding. The book deftly blends a number of individual stories in a narrative that mixes crime, sci-fi and thriller—the result is a real page-turner.

The anomaly in the book’s title is the arrival of more than one Paris-New York flight, months apart, in which the plane, its crew and its passengers are identical. The idea of “the double,” an individual who is exactly like you but whom you have never meant, is not new in literature, but Le Tellier makes exceptionally good use of it here: The Anomaly won France’s Prix Goncourt. This is a novel that will engross you and also set you to pondering.

Wayward.
Wayward. Photo: Penguin Random House.

Dana Spiotta should be better-known than she is; she is a truly excellent writer, accurate, funny and insightful—a very distinctive voice. Wayward is her fifth novel and like the previous four it has received very strong reviews (it was one of the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2021). In many ways this is the most traditional novel on my mini list, and it operates on a smaller and more intimate scale than the other two. But I believe it is also wider and deeper, and further removed from the headlines, despite its heroine’s revulsion at the election of Donald Trump (the novel is set in 2017).

Samantha Raymond is confronting the changes of middle age (perimenopause) and the shifting mental and emotional ground that comes with them. On impulse, she buys a ramshackle house, once beautiful, on a hill above Syracuse, NY. She moves there without her husband or teenage daughter to try to come to terms with things, including her ailing mother, her willful daughter and how she herself should live. In the process she offers piercing observations on American life, its inequality and brutality as well as its promise, and on mortality and the cycle of life. Highly recommended.