Build Back Better

After getting off to a widely praised (among Democrats) fast start, the Biden administration is slowing down. I’m thinking of the $2.25 trillion infrastructure package in particular, where Democrats have, at the President’s urging, tried to negotiate with Republicans to pass a bipartisan plan. It has become obvious, at the end of May, that the two parties are very far apart—just as they are on virtually everything else.

President Biden driving a disguised electric F-150 truck at Ford's Electric Vehicle Center on May 18. Photo: Doug Mills, The New York Times.
President Biden driving a disguised electric F-150 truck at Ford’s Electric Vehicle Center on May 18. Photo: Doug Mills, The New York Times.

The Republicans retain a dated view of what constitutes infrastructure, one that excludes electric vehicles, for example. It is another instance of their willful disregard of science, of climate change, and of the need to create new economic and social opportunities to improve the country’s health. EVs represent a wide-ranging near- and mid-term economic boom that will encompass a large population while also helping to meet the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions. How can the Republicans not see this?

The same way they cannot see their responsibility for the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. The same way they insist on investigating Black Lives Matter alongside that insurrection. The same way they retain fealty to Donald Trump, who did everything he could to accelerate America’s downward path.

When the Ford Motor Company, hardly a model for social democratic initiatives, introduces an electric version of their F–150 pickup, America’s best-selling vehicle, it’s obvious that EVs represent the future. Republicans, as usual, do not. Instead, they represent a very real and increasing threat to the future, in myriad ways. And it goes without saying that they are negotiating in bad faith on infrastructure.

President Biden has spent enough time on this last-ditch attempt at bipartisanship—a former political norm which, for all practical purposes, is dead. It’s time to use the reconciliation process to “build back better” and more broadly, in order to address this country’s huge infrastructure needs on the widest possible scale.

Take All the Guns

This column won’t follow the usual pattern of analysis and a plea for gun “control” following yet another mass shooting, except to state the obvious: United States policies regarding gun ownership are deranged. In terms of analysis, the facts have been out there for a very long time. This country simply has more guns, and more gun owners, than is sane; more guns equate to more gun deaths (see the obligatory chart below, click to enlarge).

Gun deaths and gun ownership by population.

There is, at this point, no plausible way to enact meaningful gun control. If we couldn’t do this after Newtown, then we’re not going to do it at all. Anything Congress might manage to do now—and the odds against Congress doing anything at all are very high—will make very little difference in terms of everyday outcomes. Why? Because there are already some 400 million guns floating around the country, a great many of them in unstable hands. For those guns, and for the people who own them, any unlikely new law (universal background checks?—it’s a bit late for that) would be meaningless.

What needs to happen is the removal of those 400 million “loose” guns. To be absolutely clear, the guns need to be removed from their owners (they would be compensated for their value), and their owners need to be prevented from acquiring replacements. The Holy Second Amendment, which has been grossly distorted by Republicans and their conservative courts, needs to be scrapped. Nothing less than these measures will solve the current problem.

The right will scream in outrage at this—if I had a larger right-leaning audience for this blog, one or more readers might well try to shoot me (a common impulse among problematic gun lovers). The left will say what I am proposing is impossible, and these people would be right. Under our current United States government, the solution I’ve described is impossible.

So what can be done? The answer, as for so many other intractable American problems, is secession: rational people joining together to create a rational new state (the Democratic Federation of America, let’s call it). A state where individual gun ownership would be permitted only under the most tightly controlled circumstances. A state where long-standing American myths—manifest destiny, rising by one’s own bootstraps, the inalienable right to shoot oneself or others—would no longer hold sway. A democratic socialist state on the Nordic model where crime would still occur, but rarely and on a much smaller scale. Where people would have more equality, where there would be far less poverty and deprivation. A state where life seemed meaningful again.

Jettison the crazies. Start over. Don’t “build back better.” Build something new, and better.

Last Chance, Long Odds

Without phenomenal luck and remarkable courage, the United States will soon be over.

Where to begin? The events of January 6 represent one of the darkest chapters in American history, and point the way toward a very bleak future—toward no future at all, where the country is concerned.

Today’s Republican Party is an active threat to democracy, truth and life itself. Yet it retains, and appears as though it will continue to retain, tremendous power. The fact that Trump will almost certainly be acquitted by the Republicans for his nihilistic and seditious behavior speaks for itself. So do the 74 million votes cast on his behalf in the recent election.

Although Democrats have achieved nominal power, this is deceptive. America’s built-in structural inequities guarantee that President Biden’s, and the Democratic Party’s, power remains very fragile. It’s good to see the flurry of Biden executive orders attempting to undo some of the damage Trump has done, but those orders themselves are fragile—they can easily be undone by the next right-wing president—and they don’t do enough to address America’s ongoing medical, political and societal emergencies.

President Biden's inauguration. NBCNews.com.
President Biden’s inauguration. NBCNews.com.

What can be done? In an ideal world, in a sane world, a world governed by logic, the Democrats would employ their current shaky majority to attempt radical, structural change, despite the odds against achieving such change. And I’m not talking about economic or racial inequality here, because unless the nation can successfully address the emergencies referenced above, those are moot points.

Some ideas, none of which are likely to be implemented:

  • Criminalize disregard of public health precautions during the pandemic. Make anyone not wearing a mask or observing social distancing do substantial jail time and/or pay a crippling fine. America’s current laissez-faire attitude toward life itself is a disgusting perversion of the founders’ conception of individual rights.
  • Shut down social media. All of it. The ignorant and the destructive have no inherent right to spread their craziness among the population at large. The use of social media does not equate to free speech when such use produces obvious widespread damage.
  • Implement re-education camps (yes, just as the far right fears). Much of today’s appalling ignorance and susceptibility to lies and conspiracy theories stems from the 40-year-plus failure of America’s educational system. But instead of barbed wire and guard towers, try using America’s best and brightest teachers—we still have some—to show the benighted Trump public what gullible, harmful dupes they have been. Pay those people to obtain the education they should have obtained years ago (the carrot), and punish non-compliance (the stick).
  • Try the worst Republican politicians for treason. From Trump on down, Republicans have done their damnedest to undermine faith in the country’s democratic values, and their blatant spread of lies and misinformation has cost hundreds of thousands of lives during the Covid–19 pandemic. Republicans have also seriously weakened our standing in the world and they have made democratic governance almost impossible.
  • Use the National Guard, where appropriate, to clamp down on violence, including police violence (witness the cops’ typical double-standard at work on January 6). And while we’re at it, root out right-wing radicals from the Guard and from police departments nationwide.
  • Outlaw all militia groups and go for their guns. I don’t mean to be facetious here—400 million guns floating around the United States virtually guarantees that many of the 74 million Trump voters will eventually use them, and relatively soon, to “take back their country.” Offer a combination of money and National Guard force to mandate compliance. Allow the retaining of individual weapons for self-protection where appropriate (it usually won’t be).
The assault on the Capitol. USAToday.com.
The assault on the Capitol. USAToday.com.

How likely do you think it is that any of these six suggestions will become reality? Right—none of this going to happen. Therefore, the intelligent thing to do is prepare for what comes next as we hurtle toward disaster. I’m not talking about Civil War (though that is a distinct possibility), but a negotiated separation. Now is the ideal time to begin this process, while Democrats do wield some sort of power.

Governors of blue states and mayors of major cities should start the discussion now. The one way out of America’s downward spiral, the one chance that some semblance of America’s best moments in history and its leadership role in the world can be salvaged, is to say a permanent goodbye to Trump, to his voters and to the Republican Party at large. Let them go their own way. And let the rest of us regroup to try and salvage a sane and healthy American future, even if it’s on a reduced scale.

Criminal

As this incredibly dysfunctional and deadly year nears its end, I’ll close 2020’s posts on a personal note: it was a tough year for writing, at least for me.

Many wonderful novels, stories, poems and non-fiction works were published this year, to be sure. Yet I know I’m not alone in feeling the effects of distraction and isolation on my writing. When every day is “Blursday,” it’s tough to focus. Not to make excuses—one must try, and I did. I published a grand total of one poem and one story this year. (Actually, the story won’t appear in Gargoyle until next summer.)

So, not a productive year. I can’t blame it all on the pandemic. Part of the responsibility is mine—I should have found more and better, more consistent, ways to focus, and I didn’t. Part of the responsibility lies with a fundamentally flawed literary marketplace, especially the minor leagues of literary magazines and chapbooks. There are myriad problems here which will likely be the subject of a future post.

The one poem I published, “Criminal,” appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of Poetry Quarterly. I’ll reproduce it below, since its subject matter and especially its title seem relevant to the horrific year we’ve just experienced.

CRIMINAL

I know it was a crime
at least as cold as
the fluorescent light that
bore down on my father’s deathbed.

But I still can’t grasp the
betrayal, or the indifference
that enabled it. No
conscious thought was involved.

Dad had been declining for a year,
dropping faster toward the end,
life’s last, careless insult
a needless broken hip.

It was the fall that did me in, he
told me when I flew out to
see him in San Jose.
When I first arrived his head was thrown back

and his mouth gaped. It was awkward.
He was propped up in the hospital
bed, and later that
day I spooned out soup.

He slurped happily, as though life
hadn’t changed all that much.
But then he knew again
it had—his time was nearly gone.

You’ll stay with me? he asked, eyebrows raised.
I can’t, Dad, I told him.
I have to get back.

He died the next evening,
after I’d returned home.
Distance helped blunt the news.

—Thomas Pletcher

Here’s hoping for a better new year.

Yes!

Today, November 7, 2020, is a day for celebration. Donald J. Trump, easily the worst president of the modern era and a contender for worst president ever, has been vanquished. Joe Biden will become America’s 46th President.

What’s more, Kamala Harris will become America’s first woman and woman of color to serve as America’s Vice President. In light of the country’s long record of racial and gender inequality, this is icing on the cake.

President-elect Joe Biden. Photo: Wikipedia.
President-elect Joe Biden. Photo: Wikipedia.

Biden’s ascension to the presidency will not automatically solve America’s myriad problems, which are severe. But there will be ample time to focus on these problems, and their possible solutions, after the new president and his team take office. For now, every thinking American owes Mr. Biden their gratitude for his defeat of the malignant Donald Trump.

Celebrate!

 

 

 

Time to Vote

Well, here we are again—on the eve of The Most Important Election Ever. This time, it may be true.

Image: cnn.com.
Image: cnn.com.

However, if (like me) you’re not convinced that a Biden victory on November 3 will fix everything, then I offer you the following. I published a slightly different version of this poem four years ago, and I believe its message remains useful today.

“A Villanelle for Election Day”

When the world begins to disintegrate
And the country begins to fall apart
Just breathe in deep and steer your own thoughts straight.

Every campaign lie is defined by hate
And every campaign is a lie at heart
When the world begins to disintegrate.

If fear expands and gathers too much weight
And you fear carnage is about to start
Just breathe in deep and steer your own thoughts straight.

Some will tell you it’s really fucking great
And it’s time to upset the apple cart
When the world begins to disintegrate

The darker it grows, the more it grows late
And you know compassion won’t play a part
Just breathe in deep and steer your own thoughts straight.

Perhaps the end is really up to fate
Perhaps it’s finally time to grow smart
When the world begins to disintegrate
Just breathe in deep and steer your own thoughts straight.

To a new beginning.

 

Break It Up

It’s the day after the New York Times published its scoop on Trump’s taxes, and while I hope the news helps the Democrats in November I don’t plan to focus on it here. Instead, let’s take a brief look at what happens after the election, regardless of who wins.

It’s been said many times that Trump is merely a symptom of America’s dysfunction and I believe this to be true. We’ve had appalling Presidents in the past, and we’ve always had plenty of truly deplorable citizens. So, defeating Trump in November (or December, or January) will not resolve the nation’s problems.

In fact, you could argue—and I do—that nothing can or will “fix” America as it’s presently constituted. This is also the argument that Nation contributor Richard Kreitner makes in his much-discussed new book, Break It Up. Kreitner reviews the long history of this country and demonstrates it has never been truly united. The “union” has been held together by one morally abhorrent compromise after another, right up until the present day.

Break It Up, by Richard Kreitner—an instructive look at America's past and a possible path to America's future.
Break It Up, by Richard Kreitner—an instructive look at America’s past and a possible path to America’s future.

But now we’re running out of time. Consider:

* We have 200,000+ deaths from Covid–19, and the pandemic continues.
* Climate change is here now—witness unprecedented West Coast fires, producing the world’s worst air quality.
* America’s built-in, historical social injustice is being confronted almost daily on the streets but little tangible progress has been made.
* We have a dysfunctional two-party system with entrenched safeguards against genuine democracy, resulting in minority rule.
* America lags behind other “advanced” countries in nearly every measurable quality of life indicator.

Imagine the Democrats win the White House and the Senate. More than 40% of the citizenry would still be adamantly (perhaps violently) opposed to any new agenda the government might offer. The country’s judicial system has shifted to the right. Right-wing militias are on the rise, and America has more guns than people.

Is progress likely under such circumstances? Can we really address the myriad emergencies facing this country?

Now imagine another scenario, one in which “red” and “blue” states agree to go their separate ways. Secession is a fraught issue but it is one that has always been with us, as Kreitner shows. Let’s say, for the moment, that each side of the country agreed to negotiate a peaceable separation which would possibly entail a common defense but also two new charters or constitutions for the two new nations. Granted, such negotiations would be extremely thorny. But each side’s desire to be free of the other would be a powerful motivator.

And what possibilities might ensue! A Blue America could follow a charter that guaranteed truly equal opportunity for all, a sane health care system, a dedication to fighting climate change and a rational system of justice. There would be no Second Amendment and no widespread gun ownership. Police forces would be college-educated and professionally trained; they would not have military equipment at their disposal. Prisons would not be capitalistic enterprises but would instead be focused on reform. Education would again become one of the country’s most revered professions. And on, and on. We could have a social democracy built on the Nordic model and strive to improve it further. We could have a country that people of good will, empathy and conscience could take genuine pride in.

I’m not naïve; I realize that dividing the country into separate nations would not be easy, nor would it produce a utopia. But it could produce a hell of a lot more genuine progress than we’re likely to get under our present flawed system. Given the intractable division in the U. S., and given the various states of emergency we confront, it’s time for another carefully considered look at the benefits which could accrue from secession. Reading Break It Up is a good place to start.

A Burning

My intent this time out was to forgo the increasingly bleak political and societal scene in the US and examine a compelling work of fiction instead. The book under review here is A Burning, by Megda Majumdar, and it is a debut novel. Don’t let the word “debut” put you off, though—this is one of the most powerful and accomplished works I have read in quite some time.

A stunning debut and a savage indictment.
A stunning debut and a savage indictment.

However, if you sometimes read fiction to “escape” the cascadingly unpleasant realities of day-to-day American life, I cannot in good conscience recommend A Burning, even though it is set in and intimately concerned with India instead. While the societal particulars are quite different (and in some ways, as bad as ours have ever been), and while there is no pandemic underlying the action, this novel is a razor-sharp examination of basic aspiration in a capitalist society of grotesque inequality, and the ways in which universal human nature can be twisted in such circumstances. Indian setting or not, this book will not let you escape life in the United States.

The plot is streamlined and increases in intensity throughout the novel. A Burning will in fact grip you like a thriller. A poor young woman whose principal ambition is to achieve a middle-class existence is unjustly accused of a horrendous crime. The lives of two other Indians striving to make their way upward in a fundamentally flawed society—a physical education teacher who falls in with a right-wing political party and an engaging Hijra who is determined to achieve film stardom—intersect with hers in ways that seem inconsequential at first, and then increasingly heartbreaking.

If calling a novel “the book of the summer” once conjured up beach reads like Jaws, this novel will instead make you freshly aware of just how much we all have left to achieve. It truly is the one novel you should read this summer, and experiencing Majumdar’s brilliant and savage dissection of Indian society will help fortify you to face the enormous challenges remaining in this country.

This is a stunning and immensely rewarding book.

Why We’ll Never Fix the Police

In the wake of George Floyd’s brutal murder in Minnesota and the resulting nationwide protests against police brutality and racism, there’s been a lot of hopeful talk about the possibility of structural change.

It’s not going to happen.

Granted, there have been positive steps taken around the country. New York State, for example, just put in place several reforms—including the banning of chokeholds and the opening up of police disciplinary records—that should make it easier to prosecute individual cops who commit murder. That’s the theory, at any rate.

Derek Chauvin, in the process of murdering George Floyd. Photo: theguardian.com.
Derek Chauvin, in the process of murdering George Floyd. Photo: theguardian.com.

But already, ambitious reforms are running into age-old roadblocks. This is certainly the case in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, and it will prove to be the case elsewhere as well.

Structural change is hard. Especially when the conditions for it do not exist. And the conditions for it do not exist in these so-called United States.

To actually change the system, a great majority of the populace must agree there is a great need to do so. But in the U.S., a substantial portion of the population does not agree such a need exists. A substantial portion of the population does not agree on anything.

While earnest and appalled citizens were taking to the streets to protest racism, millions of others were challenging them, on the streets and, especially, on social media, with “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter” taunts. Others have signed on to the so-called boogaloo movement, which wants to incite civil war and overthrow the government. And that movement has plenty of company on the far right.

Meanwhile, the nation’s government itself works against the interest of its citizens on a daily basis (see Covid–19, America’s failure to respond) and pays the most token of lip service to protesters’ demands for change.

As much as all reasonable and empathetic citizens would like to change America, we must face the truth of life in this country today:

  • Racism is built-in. It’s not going away.
  • America’s cultural and political divisions may have reached an all-time high, and there is no fix for this on the horizon.
  • There are many good cops, as the truism goes. But there are many more bad cops. They join the force from warehouses and fast food restaurants and become drunk with their newfound salaries, benefits and power. What’s more, they become part of a cool blue fraternity that always sticks together. I contend that the worst young men and women in America aspire to join the police precisely because they will be able to commit violence with impunity.
  • America’s two-party system is hopelessly hamstrung in terms of flexibility and rapid response. And it, like the people it supposedly serves, is also crippled by cultural and political divisions, likely beyond repair.
  • There are too many stupid politicians and too many stupid cops. If we don’t have a competent and professional government, how can we expect to have a competent and professional police force?
  • The ideal solution to eliminate killings by the police would be to disarm them, as in Britain and other countries. Oh, wait—there are more than 300 million firearms floating around the United States. Guess that’s not such a practical idea.
  • Well then, what if we got rid of all the guns, then disarmed the police? Yeah, good luck with that one. Refer to all the points made above.

Our country is irremediably broken, folks. Outrageous police brutality is just the latest systemic problem we will not be able to resolve, at least not as the U.S. is presently constituted. And racism, of course, is our original sin. It endures.

It’s not just police departments that need to be dismantled and rebuilt more intelligently.

It’s the nation itself.

Learning from The Plague

Several months in, it seems to me that too many Americans have begun to accept the ongoing pandemic as some kind of “new normal.” Perhaps not the millions who have recently lost their employment, and certainly not those who have been directly impacted by COVID–19, but many, many others seem to have become quite acclimated to America’s current state of affairs. This may be due in part to the rash/rush of “openings” in the past few weeks.

Casual accommodation is not a realistic viewpoint, as the majority of American health officials continue to maintain. Not with a death count of more than 100,000 and rising. If you’d like a corrective dose of reality, you could do far worse than read Albert Camus’s classic novel, The Plague. I reread the Stuart Gilbert translation a couple of months back and it is a brilliant work of art and philosophy which goes straight to the heart of what it means to experience a pandemic.

Albert Camus's exemplary novel still packs a punch. Jacket photo: Penguin Random House.
Albert Camus’s exemplary novel still packs a punch. Jacket photo: Penguin Random House.

The novel describes the sudden disruptions, growing fear and increasingly desperate measures taken to fight the invading disease in ways that are now intimately familiar to thinking Americans. Its protagonist, Dr. Bernard Rieux, exemplifies the heroic medical personnel fighting on the front line of today’s pandemic. Moreover, the book is a gripping read in and of itself.

But perhaps the novel’s greatest contribution lies in its depiction of human nature, vis-a-vis the outbreak. While it’s true that the townspeople in Camus’s novel did not have to contend with deluded far-right “patriots” determined to expose themselves and others to the disease in the name of “freedom,” they did have to contend with many other dark strands of humanity. The novel’s invading plague is often cited as a metaphor for the Nazi occupation of France. One might make a similar comparison of the COVID-19 pandemic and what passes for “government” in America today.

Our broken and corrupt national government will certainly need to be dealt with, and soon. But so will COVID–19. The current policies being implemented, especially in Middle America and the South, are not going to work.

Odd as it may seem, reading The Plague today is a strangely uplifting, even hopeful experience. This is because, while it tells stark truths about human nature, it also shows people at their best, as with Dr. Rieux. The book is both cautionary and morally instructive, as shown in its final paragraph:

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.