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: 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.

A Few Resolutions

As the new year draws close, it strikes me that I should end this site’s recent silence—even if silence is a perfectly reasonable response to the past year’s events—and proffer a few thoughts on what might lie ahead.  Such thoughts often take the form of resolutions, so I’ll venture a few here.

A leap of faith. Image: Image: poetryclubs.com.
A leap of faith. Image: Image: poetryclubs.com.

Is the glass half-full or half-empty? The preponderance of evidence would seem to point toward pessimism, on almost every front. So my first resolution will be to seek out reasons for optimism and disseminate them when I can. Here are two cases in point, from today’s New York Times.

  1. People from around the world can come together to accomplish great things, as they did with the recent successful launch of the $10 billion James Web Space Telescope. This instrument has the potential to deepen our understanding of the universe, a perspective we might keep in mind when daily life seems overwhelming.
  2. Some progress is being made in cleaning up the environment, both visibly (electric vehicles, for instance) and behind the scenes (cleaner, more sustainable mining operations to extract the materials needed to power said vehicles).

All right, granted—these are just two examples. Still, to see both stories appear in one day’s edition of the Times is worth noting.

My second resolution is to make better use of time in general, and to be more discerning in how I spend each day. Toward this end, I’ve cut way back on tech-related activities (Linux, websites, this blog) and focused more on my core interests (reading, writing, other people, the state of the world at large). Here’s a tip for 2022: avoid the “metaverse” at all costs. Facebook is bad enough as it is, and we’re already too estranged from the real world. It’s quite disappointing to see Apple planning to go down this rabbit hole next year but since we’re being optimistic we’ll gloss over that for now.

Finally, a third resolution. (Please remember, these resolutions are entirely my own and I realize I may not be able to achieve/sustain them.) Try to be more empathetic. Try to be more understanding. Don’t jump to quick conclusions about anyone.

Given the state of American politics and the never-ending pandemic, that last resolution is going to be really, really tough. Still, one must try.

Happy New Year everyone.

Tesla vs. the Government

The Biden administration announced a plan to promote electric vehicles today, part of its response to the world’s growing climate emergency. This is a vast improvement from the previous administration’s do-nothing stance but it is still woefully inadequate.

Part of the reason for the plan’s shortcomings is its constantly touted “bipartisan” approach. Thanks to this bipartisanship, Biden’s infrastructure plan has been substantially cut back, is running behind schedule, and is far from guaranteed Congressional passage. Its shrinkage of electric vehicle support is particularly notable—what had been the largest single portion of the infrastructure bill has been significantly reduced.

The 2021 Tesla Model Y. Photo: Tesla.com.
The 2021 Tesla Model Y. Photo: Tesla.com.

At today’s event, Detroit’s three major automakers were present. They say they support Biden’s modest goal of having EVs or plug-in electric hybrids constitute half of all auto sales by 2030. There are several striking things wrong with this picture:

  • Plug-in electric hybrids currently only travel 25 to 40 miles on electric alone; they depend heavily on gas. Therefore they should not count toward Biden’s 50% goal.
  • Even if the goal were 50% purely battery electric vehicles (BEVs), it would still well lag behind what is needed to address climate change today.
  • While representatives of Detroit’s “Big 3” smiled and shuffled and congratulated themselves on their forward thinking, the largest and most successful EV manufacturer on earth was conspicuously absent, having not been invited.

I am of course referring to Tesla, the company which put BEVs on the map and which still maintains a wide technological and sales lead in the sector.

Tesla, operating in less than ideal circumstances (the four years of Trump’s administration, to cite just one example) has almost single-handedly pushed electric vehicles into the public spotlight. The company has also managed to get a large number of electric vehicles onto the nation’s streets and highways, having sold more than 200,000 cars last quarter. Yet Tesla was not invited to be part of Biden’s big EV event, an event where he joked about one day driving an “electric Corvette.”

I’m sorry to say this yet again, but the Tesla omission is yet another example of the current administration’s fumbling, inadequate response to both America’s mediocre infrastructure and our accelerating climate crisis.

Collapsing Infrastructure

The heading above is, sadly, quite literal, the Florida condo collapse being only the most recent example of America’s dangerously neglected roads, bridges and buildings. But the heading also refers to President Biden’s attempts to address the problem—by compromising with Republicans on a smaller package, and by pushing projected passage of this legislation out to the fall, the Democratic administration risks accomplishing nothing whatsoever.

Rescue crew members and a search-and-rescue dog at the collapsed Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, FL. Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post.
Rescue crew members and a search-and-rescue dog at the collapsed Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, FL. Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post.

As of this writing, it appears that well over 150 people will have perished in the Florida disaster. Residents of neighboring buildings wonder, rightly, if their homes are safe to occupy. Where is the sense of urgency that should be driving attempts to repair our infrastructure? (Where, for that matter, is the urgency that should be driving our efforts to preserve the right to vote?)

Are we going to continue to accept our slide into societal mediocrity? Are we going to allow Republicans, by engaging in “bipartisan” negotiations with them, to reassert minority rule in Congress next year?

The “GOP” has become a party of nihilists, a party that doesn’t care whether America falls apart as long as it retains power. The Democrats, in contrast, seem willfully ineffective. They have so far failed to protect the basic right to vote, and—until and unless this reduced infrastructure bill passes—they have failed to address our crumbling roads and bridges. (Don’t even ask about climate change.) By trying to achieve a bipartisan consensus that is no longer possible, Biden and his delusional colleagues may well have dug another large pothole on our country’s road to ruin.