State of the Union

The state of the union is extremely precarious. Regardless of anything our fraudulent president might have to say when the delayed (through his own arrogance and stupidity) State of the Union address eventually takes place, it is beyond dispute that the United States is more polarized today than at any time since the Civil War.

Chanting “White lives matter!” “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!” several hundred white nationalists and white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017. Photo: Washington Post.
Chanting “White lives matter!” “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!” several hundred white nationalists and white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017. Photo: Washington Post.

To say we are “polarized,” though, is an incomplete explanation. Further, it implies a rough equivalency between the two estranged sides. There is no equivalency. On one side there is liberal democracy. On the other, a crude, atavistic nationalism that is being used by the extremely wealthy to further their own interests.

To make matters worse, the same grim scenario is now playing out in Europe. Nationalism is growing so rapidly there that 30 prominent European intellectuals recently issued a call to action to defend democracy. Many of the phrases in their brief document could be applied to the U.S. as well:

“A politics of disdain for intelligence and culture will have triumphed. There will be explosions of xenophobia and antisemitism.”

“We believe it [liberal democracy] remains the one force today virtuous enough to ward off the new signs of totalitarianism that drag in their wake the old miseries of the dark ages.”

“In response to the nationalist and identitarian onslaught, we must rediscover the spirit of activism or accept that resentment and hatred will surround and submerge us.”

Polish nationalists march in November 2017. Photograph: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images.
Polish nationalists march in November 2017. Photograph: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

There is, though, one important distinction which may yet be America’s salvation. Europe is a collection of nation-states attempting to act within a common framework (the EU). We are a collection of states attempting to act within a national framework.

The importance of our national framework was clearly evident during Trump’s recent, longest-ever government shutdown, when planes couldn’t land at LaGuardia and millions couldn’t get paid or live their normal lives.

Every American citizen depends upon the U.S. government, whether they acknowledge it or not. It is these ligaments, these much-maligned civil servants, that currently hold us together. Trump and the Republicans would retain only enough government power to maintain their place at the top.

We must fight, as Europe must, to keep liberal democracy in place. Without it, we will have no union.

Time Out

If you’re the sort of person who believes in moral truths such as murder should be punished, disadvantaged people should be offered a hand and lies should be unmasked (and a majority of Americans still hold these beliefs), then you’ve been having a hard time with the news lately. The ongoing dismantling of American values is a hard thing to witness every day. It’s no wonder that people sometimes turn away, seeking whatever relief they can find elsewhere.

Hobbies are one way to take some time out. In my case, quite literally—I’ve developed a new appreciation of the nuances of horology.

Some time back, I was superficially into watches, primarily as a status thing I must admit. Rolex, Omega and Tag Heuer seemed like essential business accessories. Now, I have a renewed appreciation for the art of watchmaking itself and status is no longer a consideration per se. I’m glad to have outgrown my former shallowness.

The Seiko SARB035—incredible value for money.
The Seiko SARB035—incredible value for money. Photo: Pinterest.com.

The person most responsible for my renewed and deepened interest in fine watches is the novelist Gary Shteyngart. His most recent book, Lake Success, features a protagonist (hedge fund manager Barry Cohen) who is a WIS (Watch Idiot Savant). The novel is quite good in its own right, by the way; it’s made the annual New York Times 100 Notable Books list.

Thus inspired, I proceeded to bring myself up to speed on the current state of the watch industry. Here are a few things I learned:

  • Rolex is the only high-end watch most people know. They think it is either the ne plus ultra (not true) or gaudy, overpriced crap (also not true).
  • Since the quartz crisis of the eighties and early nineties, the Swiss watch industry has largely recovered. Most WIS people prefer mechanical movements on aesthetic grounds, though they remain less accurate than quartz.
  • One company—Seiko—makes very high quality watches at every price point, from $100 or so to $50,000-plus (via the Grand Seiko line).

If you’d like to explore for yourself, check out Hodinkee, Worn and Wound and A Blog to Watch (Shteyngart occasionally writes for Hodinkee). You’ll rapidly pick up nuances along with fundamentals: the very wide range of brands, including some small Kickstarter-launched companies; the technical aspects of fine watchmaking; the rich history behind the storied names. There are many, many video reviews out there (check The Urban Gentry channel on YouTube), along with various helpful forums (try Watchuseek).

I wound up (pun intended) refurbishing a couple of vintage Tag Heuers and buying a range of Seikos at various price points. My favorite watch so far is the Seiko SARB035, the cream-dial beauty in the photo above. It, along with its black-dial sibling the SARB033, have recently been discontinued, so their prices have edged past $500 and are still rising. But they could cost two or three times that amount and still represent tremendous value—see the numerous reviews (for example, here and here) comparing them to Rolex or Grand Seiko models to see what I mean.

My SARB035 was purchased to mark a milestone. I’ve owned a Rolex Explorer II in the past, and it is not unreasonable to compare the Seiko to the Rolex, despite the wide divergence in their price points. As for future milestones, I’d like to mark them with a Nomos, probably a Rolex again, and (ultimately) a Grand Seiko model. But that’s off in the future. For now, my little foray into horology has enabled me to temporarily escape the horrors of the news cycle. But only temporarily.

Whatever outside interest you can find to distract yourself, go for it—everyone needs a break now and then. But be sure to come back. You’re going to be needed.

Break It Up

As the midterms approach, some people are expressing hope that things can begin to change. If only the Democrats can take the House, at least there will be some check on Republican power, they say.

I believe this is short-sighted, wishful thinking. The Democrats could take all of Congress, and take back the presidency in 2020, and there would still be some 40% of Americans festering in ignorance and hatred. Despite its name, this country has been only sporadically united, and then only under severe external threat (financial ruin, world war). We have always been divided. I believe it’s time to acknowledge this fundamental truth once and for all.

Blue Red by Ellsworth Kelly, thebroad.org.
Blue Red by Ellsworth Kelly, thebroad.org.

Creating separate blue and red Americas is fraught with danger, of course. Yet the alternative—trying to remain together—is at least as perilous. Hatred and violence are growing by the day, and the current nation’s gun “policies” are insane. Rather than the constant, growing battle for social and cultural supremacy, why not let each side go its own way? Why not appoint ambassadors from each side to negotiate a separation agreement?

Well, one reason is that the more perceptive residents of Red America would quickly recognize they were getting the short end of the stick. The international power and clout of America reside largely in the blue states, as does America’s intellectual and cultural capital. The ordinary red(neck) citizenry might say “good riddance,” but the smarter denizens of Texas and Missouri would soon realize they’d be at a considerable disadvantage as a stand-alone country.

Does the above paragraph reflect my anger and contempt for Trump-supporting America? You’re goddamned right it does—political animus is by no means restricted to the backward-looking heartland.

What, then, is the answer? Should Blue America simply secede? Much as I’d love to live in that new country, the answer is, probably not—secession would almost certainly lead to some sort of new, 21st century civil war, or at the very least to an escalation of the already intolerable level of everyday violence.

We’re at an impasse, folks. What to do with that problematic 40%? The Democratic Party doesn’t seem capable of taking and holding power in this country. And holding power would be necessary, if for no other reason than to reestablish a strong public education system to stamp out the appalling ignorance that underlies our present situation.

With all its inherent difficulties, then, some sort of formal separation seems to be our best bet going forward. But it won’t be easy.

The American Emergency

Of all the many spectacular failings our country has experienced over the past year, the ongoing gun crisis is both the most visible and the most illogical. What other country would tolerate so many mass shooting episodes? What other country—or what other country’s leader—would claim, with a straight face, that arming still more of its citizens is the solution? If you can picture America as a person, then that person is in the back of an ambulance, bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds and speeding to the emergency room with sirens blaring.

A Baptist church in south Texas, scene of the latest American carnage. Photo: Nick Wagner/AP.
A Baptist church in south Texas, scene of the latest American carnage. Photo: Nick Wagner/AP.

 

 

 

 

 

The patient may not make it. And if the country does manage to survive, it is not likely to be in its current two-party, 50-state form. The U.S. is too divided, and too sick, to bounce back into its younger state of health.

I and others have written about the country’s new kakistocracy, which is almost entirely Republican. Today’s Republican party is a vicious fungal infection that is pushing America into an ever more perilous condition. On virtually every issue, including the gun issue, the Republicans are not merely wrong—they are unbelievably wrong. Some of this is self-interest and cynicism, of course. But most of it is simply mind-boggling stupidity, especially among the party’s base. President Trump is a glaring, throbbing, dangerous manifestation of this. If he doesn’t manage to plunge a steadily weakening America into some sort of nuclear exchange he still stands to promote the dissolution of the country’s most important institutions, including democracy itself.

Where the gun issue is concerned, the Democratic Party is also to blame—it has displayed unforgivable cowardice. For every Democratic politician like Connecticut’s Senator Chris Murphy (who represented Newtown in Congress at the time of the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre) urging Congress to “get off its ass and do something,” many other Democrats stay silent. And advocacy groups for gun control also fall sadly short. Groups such as Americans for Responsible Solutions, founded by Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, do not go nearly far enough in their proposals and remain hamstrung in their deference to the wildly misinterpreted Second Amendment.

The Supreme Court’s disastrous, conservative-led 5-4 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller that “the Second Amendment protects a personal right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes, most notably for self-defense within the home” has somehow morphed into the right for anyone to bear arms anywhere for any purpose, which of course is the NRA’s and now our so-called President’s stance. This is quite insane yet it is the law of the land, a land currently led by “a fucking moron” as our Secretary of State has said.

As we contemplate that ambulance speeding toward a hospital with a dying democracy inside, it’s important to note that guns are only one of America’s deadly symptoms. A dysfunctional federal government, a chaotic health care system, and the rollback of almost every ethical, social and scientific advance made over the past century are others. But if we can’t address the gun issue it’s likely we can’t cure any of our other serious illnesses, either.

Can we address the gun violence emergency in this country? Not with our currently divided political system. As British journalist Dan Hodges wrote about Sandy Hook, “Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.”

I hope you’ve noticed I haven’t used the words “Sutherland Springs” in this post. What difference would they make? That little Texas town is just the latest in a long procession, the latest recipient of America’s thoughts and prayers. We’ll soon move on to the next locale.

My thought, or rather my hope, is that both of our national parties will fragment into their constituent parts and we will, sooner rather than later, be able to put together a government representing a coalition of the sane. Multiple political parties would break the gerrymandered stranglehold that Republicans hold over so much of America and enable a coalition government, say between a new progressive party and the remaining Democrats, to have a decent shot at power. That coalition would then be able to enact laws resembling those in Britain and Australia, where personal gun ownership is very tightly controlled. How those laws would then be enforced is a subject for another post.

Do Something!

I had actually planned to write a mild, informative post on recent developments in software for writers. Instead, unfolding events compel a look at some atrocious happenings in the world and our so-called United States.

Which to address: the looming, horrific use of nuclear weapons or the flagrant resurgence of right-wing ignorance and violence throughout this country? I’m going to opt for the latter, on the grounds that once nuclear weapons are flying again, blog posts, Facebook, Medium et al. will all become instantly irrelevant. Trump’s Twitter as well. You could argue they are already irrelevant, of course. But while there is still some degree of social structure and control in place, social media may have some role to play. Bear in mind, though, that both sides believe this. Hence the heading for this post—it’s not sufficient to opine or respond on social media alone. If you want to protect what’s good in our society, genuine action is required.

Murderous moron: James Alex Fields Jr. Photo: Charlottesville Police Department, via Reuters.
Murderous moron: James Alex Fields Jr. Photo: Charlottesville Police Department, via Reuters.

Trump has encouraged, and thereby unleashed, a kind of hillbilly fascism at the grassroots level. We saw the most recent results in Charlottesville, VA this weekend: helmet-wearing thugs wielding various weapons to protest the removal of a statue honoring a 19th century racist and Civil War relic. Confederate flags and Nazi slogans were there in abundance, along with plenty of “Make America Great Again” merchandise. David Duke said “We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” in order to “take our country back.” And Trump responded to the violence by decrying hatred on “many sides” (certainly his supporters cannot be asked to bear the blame alone).

Apart from the particulars, though, none of this is really new. Trump is an especially crude and vulgar exemplar of America’s worst tendencies, but he is hardly the first president whose statements and actions belie the nation’s stated principles and laws. Be honest and admit it: the highest ideals of America have always been an alluring lie. Yes, many admirable and dedicated people have sacrificed greatly to try to bring those ideals to life. But a great many other people in this country are either indifferent, or closer in spirit and sympathy to the idiots who gathered in Charlottesville to “Unite the Right.”

So what action can be taken in response, by those of us who would prefer to live in a country that actually adheres to its stated ideals? Here are some quick thoughts:

  • Band together. Not in small, local groups ringing doorbells but across states and regions. Progressive people must stand together regardless of location, and do so in big numbers.
  • Push to form regional alliances: California, New York, New England, for example. These areas already cooperate closely on issues like the environment. Let’s push for cooperation on other major issues that cry out to be addressed.
  • Urge the adoption of state-level legislation to form legally binding ties among these regional partners. If the South wants to secede again (and I say, let them), then progressives can respond by forming a sort of country within a country as a preliminary step toward building a new, blue America. The U.S. has never been truly united and it never will be. It’s time to acknowledge this.
  • BTW, the newblueamerica.org domain is available and I’m available to help build a site there if others want to pitch in with money, resources and political connections in progressive states.

It’s time to Think Different, as the late Steve Jobs once said about something much less important. Very little is working today, a great deal is broken. Catastrophe is barreling toward us on multiple fronts. Keeping one’s head down and going with the flow is only inviting disaster. We need to start thinking about big, unconventional change outside the normal political boundaries, and working to achieve it, before it’s too late.