Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Supreme Court Insanity

June 26, 2022

Just when the public is demanding, as never before, action to curb our gun violence epidemic, the Supreme Court does the opposite. Disallowing reasonable gun regulation for the sake of public safety. The court’s most insane decision ever.

It struck down New York’s century-old “Sullivan law,” requiring a showing of some particular need, for a permit to carry a gun in public. Thus making the Second Amendment right “to keep and bear arms” practically absolute. Public safety be damned.

No right is ever unbounded. Your right to swing your fist proverbially stops at my nose. Ordinary citizens — the vast majority of us — have rights too. A right to live without fear of guns, and without being shot more than occasionally.

This is about men who fancy swaggering as tough guys packing heat. Supposedly to “protect themselves” by being able to shoot someone. But let’s be real, that’s a complete silly fantasy. Can you cite a single instance where anyone “protected” themselves against some miscreant by whipping out a gun and plugging them? It simply never happens.

What does happen — with tragic regularity — is those weapons injuring or killing those macho gun nuts themselves, or their family members or pals, or other innocent people.

Guns do not make anyone safer — least of all their owners. Instead, the more guns there are around, the less safe we all are; the more shooting there is.

This is real “American exceptionalism.” Not only with gun violence orders of magnitude greater than in any other country, but way more police shootings. Often killing innocents. That’s again because so many guns abound. So the police often face guns, but moreover there’s a very real fear that in any encounter they might face a gun. Making them tragically trigger-happy.

This the Supreme Court’s insane ruling exacerbates. Putting more guns on the streets. And for what? For men’s moronic juvenile fantasies of shooting bad guys, which never actually happens in real life.

And even if you hallucinate that guns protect anyone, surely nobody needs a military style assault weapon whose only purpose is to kill a lot of people fast. Surely the founders who enacted the Second Amendment 231 years ago never imagined it covering such extreme modern weapons. Might as well allow howitzers. Yet so deep is America’s gun craziness that Congress can’t even agree, not to ban such weapons, but to prohibit their sale to kids under 21! Best we can get is some background checking, and good luck enforcing that.

The day after its gun decision, the Court overturned Roe v. Wade.* A big victory for “pro-lifers.” The juxtaposition between the two cases could not be more surreal. Pro-life? With tens of thousands of Americans killed annually by guns. And these people also prattle about “law and order” — when a key reason for so much violent crime is the ubiquity of guns. It makes my head explode.

And only days earlier, the rampaging high court also blew up the wall of separation between church and state. Forcing Maine taxpayers to subsidize religious indoctrination of school kids. As Justice Sotomayor’s dissent says, church-state separation is now unconstitutional. Indeed, three justices even say government neutrality toward religion isn’t required — it can actually favor religion.

It’s getting lonely and dispiriting in rationalityland.

* I previously wrote about that: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2021/12/19/supreme-court-follies-1-abortion/

Was Mike Pence a Hero? Is there hope for America?

June 22, 2022

Now Mike Pence is called a hero — for shrinking back from the greatest crime in U.S. history. He’s credited with saving the country, which in a sense is actually true. Had Trump’s coup plot succeeded, that would have blown up America.

Pence as Vice President presided over Congress’s electoral vote certification. Trump wanted him to just throw out Biden votes. That Pence even considered this was crazy. At least he was sane enough (unlike many in Trump’s circle) to finally refuse. Pence realized it couldn’t be legal for one person to decide the presidency. (He’d also be re-electing himself VP.)*

At 2:24 PM on January 6, after being begged to call off the dogs, Trump instead unleashed a tweet cursing out Pence. Further enflaming the mob already baying “Hang Mike Pence!” It came within forty feet of him.

Aides tried to evacuate Pence from the besieged Capitol, but he insisted on staying to complete the election formalities. For that at least Pence does merit praise.

But if he really had moral courage, he’d denounce Trump for January 6. He still won’t, despite his own near-death experience. Calling the whole thing just a small difference of opinion. Because he still fantasizes a presidential nomination — by the Trump cult party — that would still actually rather see Pence dead than president.

In a rational world, the January 6 committee’s fact-based presentation would be like a Heimlich maneuver upchucking Trump from our body politic. His crimes make Nixon’s Watergate transgressions look like jaywalking in comparison. Republicans ultimately did upchuck Nixon, but are circling the wagons around Trump. The hearings, instead of opening their eyes, further enrage them against the truth tellers. (My own puny efforts will change no minds.) Trump-sucking election deniers are winning GOP primaries. The Texas Republican party has voted not to recognize Biden as president.

In a recent poll, about half of Americans opined that our democracy is in grave peril. Mostly Democrats, I assumed. Wrong! Both parties were evenly split. So only around half of Democrats see the threat. While half of Republicans (swallowing Trump’s lies) imagine it comes from Democrats.

But Republicans don’t believe in democracy anyway. Not if it means losing elections. They’ll stop at nothing to prevent it. They’re now empowering GOP election officials to throw out lawful votes. If Republicans control Congress after 2024, they’ll do that. And if all else fails, there will be a repeat of January 6 — with more guns.

Prosecuting Trump for his coup attempt apparently hinges on intent — whether he knew his election fraud claims were lies, or actually believed them. Maybe a dicey point when it comes to a mentality so sick. Perhaps his defective mind did convince itself — and he should plead “not guilty by reason of insanity.”

The Justice Department understands that prosecuting Trump would pour gasoline on what’s already our political conflagration. And could backfire if he gets off. Those are grave considerations. But his return to power would be worse. If prosecution might forestall that, let it be our gotterdammerung.

Yet it’s doubtful America’s democracy can still be saved. The necessary sense of national togetherness among citizens has been shredded. Likewise our democratic ideals, when the country just yawns at Trump’s shocking assault upon them.

Perhaps there’s this slim hope: that his death might lance the boil and open a restorative path.

* If the VP had that power, Al Gore would have liked to know it when he presided over the count for the 2000 election — decided by 537 genuinely disputed votes in just one state. Trump’s idea of Pence messing with the electoral vote was cooked up by law professor John Eastman, and even he apparently realized it was illegal. The plot also included sending fake electoral vote certificates to Congress — talk about ballot fraud!

Menthol Madness

June 20, 2022

A proposed FDA ban on menthol cigarettes is being hailed as a victory for health and civil rights advocates both. Because methols are particularly favored by Black American smokers (85% use menthols), 40,000 of whom die annually of smoking related illnesses. A rate higher than for whites, who tend to smoke less.

A local newspaper commentary favoring the ban says “[t]he history of menthol cigarettes is a history of racial injustice,” and lashes the tobacco industry, opposing the measure, as deceptively self-interested. And it’s true it has aggressively marketed methols to Blacks in particular.

We’ve long known that tobacco is unhealthy, yet it remains legal. Are menthol cigarettes more unhealthy than regular ones? No! Nothing makes menthols, puff for puff, more dangerous. The problem is that they’re more pleasurable, hence people smoke more. Especially Blacks.

So the government wants to tell them: you can’t smoke menthols, which you prefer, but can only smoke regular cigarettes, which you like less. That’s how we’re protecting your health!

Talk about racial injustice. Remember how crack cocaine (popular among Blacks) entailed much harsher penalties than powdered stuff (favored by whites)? Here it’s the product favored by Blacks being outlawed, while the version mostly used by whites remains perfectly legal. And as if Blacks aren’t already disproportionately incarcerated, how many will be jailed for violating a menthol ban?

We seem to realize that banning tobacco and alcohol won’t fly, even though they’re more dangerous than many other substances we do outlaw. Now we’re going to ban a tobacco product on grounds of popularity. The whole picture makes no sense. Nobody should be punished for their personal choice to use any of these things.

The Hearings: January 6, Trump, The Big Lie, and Democracy in Peril

June 14, 2022

Trump concocted his big “stolen election” lie because his sick psyche couldn’t face losing — and to help him overthrow democracy and retain office by coup.

Any sensible person already knew that, but the January 6 Congressional committee’s hearings, says The Economist, are the most important in U.S. history. The scandal bigger than any before. And the hearings are filling in compelling details. Trump’s own hitherto toady Attorney General Barr testified that he told Trump his vote fraud claims were “complete nonsense . . . idiotic . . . silly . . . crazy stuff . . . bullshit.”* Yet the evidence shows how Trump nevertheless worked a host of illegitimate schemes to undo his election loss, conniving at the Capitol violence as his last-ditch ploy. Gleefully watching it unfold, refusing to act to stop it, even endorsing the insurrectionists’ cry, “Hang Mike Pence!” Failing only by a hairsbreadth.

Who could ever have imagined so criminal a U.S. president? So why hasn’t he been indicted? The Department of Justice seems to be proceeding very carefully, striving to avoid any appearance of a partisan witch-hunt (though Republicans will scream that anyway). Even in normal circumstances the DOJ wants to be pretty sure an indictment will result in conviction. These are far from normal circumstances. The last thing we need is Trump indicted and then acquitted. Plus, even a conviction would provoke endless appeals, and the politically tainted Supreme Court majority might find some pretext to exonerate Trump. Maybe better to leave the case to the court of public opinion. Despite its questionable wisdom.

For a moment after January 6, it seemed GOP officialdom was washing its hands of Trump for what he’d wrought. But they quickly turned tail upon realizing the cult of Trump voters was unshaken. So Republicans refused to support a congressional investigation, they denounce it as a partisan sham, and even obstruct its work by defying subpoenas. The committee’s two Republican members, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, are lonely heroes, being purged from a party now making itself totally complicit in the attempt to overthrow American democracy.

You’d think this would destroy its credibility and bona fides forever among most voters. How could any serious civic-minded person, believing in America’s founding democratic values and ideals, continue to support such a party?

I’d long warned that our democracy was not ordained by God forever, and could not endure without a citizenry steeped in those values. Now we’re seeing what little presence those values still have in our political landscape. A president’s attempt to overthrow democracy is shrugged off. Candidates embracing him and his big lie suffer no electoral penalty. We’re told voters care more about issues like inflation, crime, gas prices. And that Democrats will fail if they stress January 6 in their midterm election campaign.

It’s tempting to say, I give up. Like I’m howling at the moon.

Meantime, columnist David Brooks has a different take on the congressional hearings. Again, all honest people already know the truth about January 6 and Trump’s ghastly malfeasance. But what really needs investigation and exposure — ringing a five alarm fire bell — is the ongoing Republican effort to make sure they “win” future elections — regardless of votes. All under the dishonest guise of “protecting election integrity” while actually blowing it up.

This will culminate in January 2025 with a GOP-controlled Congress making Trump president, setting aside if necessary the actual election results.

Voting Republican now is insane.

* Barr also denounced as rubbish the feature film Two Thousand Mules, pushing false vote fraud claims and garnering huge audiences in Trump country.

Alternatives to capitalism?

June 12, 2022

Denounce “capitalism” or the market economy all you want – but what’s your alternative? This system was not foisted on us. Rather, it’s the natural paradigm for human economic relationships; everything else is an attempt to impose some artificial one. Stone age people had a market economy – trading flints for pelts, for instance, at an exchange rate they’d negotiate.

The invention of money made things a whole lot easier. Yet some people demonize money (“the root of all evil”) and the whole concept of selling anything for money (not to mention that bugbear, “profit”). They fantasize instead a “sharing economy” – you share your flints with me, and I share my pelts with you.

Indeed, such sharing too is fundamental to human nature. We share a lot, especially among friends and family. Among strangers, not so much – we are altruistic, but only up to a point. That greatly limits the scope for a “sharing economy.” You may persuade your pal to share some flints, but will have a tough time cajoling GM to share its cars. In fact, how would cars get made at all in a “sharing economy?”

The great beauty of a money/market economy is that all the contributions of the many disparate people needed to produce a car get rationally and efficiently organized, via everyone in the picture being compensated for what they provide, out of the money you pay for the car. Otherwise – no cars. Nor pretty much anything else you buy.

So a “sharing economy” would be fine, as long as you’re happy living in a cave sharing flints and pelts.

Of course, the real-world alternative to a capitalist, market economy has been socialism, where the government does everything. And I say “has been” because few apart from Bernie Sanders still think this is a good idea. Turns out that absent a profit motive, with the associated impetus to satisfy customers, you get East Germany’s Trabant car rather than West Germany’s BMW.  And also a government too powerful for its own good (or yours). “Democratic socialism” has proven an oxymoron; whatever you can say about Cuba, or Venezuela, “democratic” ain’t one of them (unless you torture the word’s meaning, as socialists will do).

However, there’s another conceivable alternative – worker cooperatives – businesses owned by their employees, bridging the divide between capital and labor. Nothing incompatible here with market economics or even capitalism. And the profits go to those who produced them, nowhere else. What’s not to love?

Actually, we’ve gone partway toward that model, with many employees owning stock in their companies, especially in 401k plans; and pension funds have huge shareholdings. Yet we’ve seen very few firms owned outright by their workers.

You might wonder why workers in a plant being closed don’t just organize to buy and run it themselves, so they can keep their jobs. Well, plants get closed for economic reasons. Workers won’t ship their own jobs overseas, but wishing won’t make them and their products competitive in the global market. Workers investing their own hard-earned money in a struggling business is not a great idea.

But what about a thriving one? Employees pooling funds to take over, say, Delta Airlines, might be theoretically conceivable, but the sum required would be daunting. And even a seemingly healthy firm might not be a sound long-term investment. The world changes. Too many people have put their nest-eggs in their own employers’ stock that plummets. Enron was a prime example. Not to mention the managerial problems, with big conflicts of interest, that employee ownership would entail.

Guess we’re pretty much stuck with plain old capitalism. Boo hoo; but it’s raised global average real dollar incomes five-fold in the last century, lifting billions out of poverty. Maybe not such a bad system when you really think about it.

Meantime, a kind of “sharing economy” is emerging in the form of enterprises like Uber and Airbnb – people sharing their cars and homes. Of course they don’t do it altruistically, but for money. Thus this actually highlights the true virtue of free market economics – people finding ways to create value for other people, and thereby benefiting themselves. What’s not to love?

Hitler, Stalin, Mao . . . Putin . . .

June 8, 2022

Hitler, Stalin, Mao. The Big Three. Greatest monsters of the 20th Century. Or GOAT? Well, Genghis Khan; Tamerlane; Ivan the Terrible; and others. But such figures lacked the scope to kill at modern industrial scale. And anyway, they’re too far back to be vivid to us like our “Big Three.”

And now Putin. Quite the achievement, breaking into those rarefied ranks.

But nobody sets out to become an historic villain. No, the ego soaks up adulation. Being treated like a god, and actually considering yourself one. Stalin’s mind is opaque to me, don’t know if he really saw himself on some epic mission (“building Communism”) or simply loved cruelty. But Hitler and Mao definitely had the grandiosity thing. Messianic to the max, believing themselves achieving Great Things, and sustained by mass idolatry.

Where does Putin fit in? A totally cynical Stalin-like self-aggrandizing opportunist? Partly, to be sure. But he also does have the messianic syndrome. Himself a victim of his own propaganda, apparently believing his murderous destruction of Ukraine fulfills some God-ordained historical destiny. Though one doubts he actually believes in God. He believes totally in himself. It comes to the same thing.

Is he a “madman,” as often said? The word can hardly fit such extreme psychological phenomenology. His success (thus far) bespeaks a certain rationality in what he’s doing. He may yet ultimately win in Ukraine, or win enough ground to claim victory, simply by refusing to quit. Some Western voices (the “peace” camp; Kissinger, Macron, others) urge giving Putin a face-saving “off-ramp.” Others (the “justice” camp) say that would only encourage him and other such villains; they must be crushed.

And rationality and morality are two different things. Though perhaps we can say such a total moral disregard necessarily bespeaks a kind of insanity. Yet of course Putin would deem his actions of the highest morality — reasoning so perverted, it too could be considered insane. Monsters never see themselves as monsters.

Stalin ruled by terror, but like with Hitler and Mao, Putin’s horror show is bolstered by a population cheering its support. Or at least much if not most of Russia’s citizenry. What are they thinking? Critical thinking it’s not. Of course they’re marinated in pervasive propaganda, painting Putin’s alternate reality (heroically fighting to “denazify” Ukraine), with all other information sources blocked. Still, it defies sense. When it’s obvious other information is stifled, and all you see is what the regime spoon-feeds you, how much brainpower does it take to realize something’s wrong with this picture? That you’re being played for fools. Worse, made complicit in atrocity.

Hitler, Stalin, Mao — so 20th Century. Now we’re in a new century, and its big monster is Putin. So far. But this century is young, with much history to unfold.

And when that history is written, with all the wisdom of hindsight, it may turn out that Putin was not, after all, the monster who damaged human civilization the most. Trump is not done yet.

Libertarianism: a crazy idea?

June 4, 2022

I’ve always considered myself basically libertarian. Recently I read Libertarianism: A Primer, by David Boaz. Published in 1997 — it might seem an artifact from a distant past.

And Boaz starts off saying libertarianism is (was) resonating with more and more people. But lately, it’s mostly become a dark perversion of itself, the word “freedom” fetishized by a deranged political right that no longer even believes in democracy. Their idea of “freedom” is to refuse mask wearing and vaccination, and allowing anyone to buy military assault weapons.

Actually violating libertarianism’s core idea of freedom to act as one chooses — provided no one else is harmed. Today’s vocal “freedom” lovers exposing others to potential infection (and shooting) certainly harms them.

Libertarianism assumes we have natural rights to “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” Where do they come from? The Declaration of Independence said the “creator.” But nonesuch exists. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously called the idea of natural rights “nonsense on stilts.”

But imagine a world with just one person, John. Obviously John is free to act as he pleases. Then Sue shows up. By what right could Sue interfere with John’s liberty? That is the real question posed by the concept of natural rights. Not what’s the basis for John’s rights, but rather what’s the basis for anyone trumping them? If John’s rights are somehow debatable, surely that’s more true of a right to negate them. And this is always the issue regarding natural rights — not what justifies them, but what can justify their denial.

Boaz stressed the centrality of property rights. All liberty really equates to the right to own and enjoy the use of property. Without that, there isn’t much of anything you can freely do; making freedom meaningless.

Proudhon declared “property is theft,” and some indeed deem the whole idea of property problematic because some have more and others less. Romanticizing an imagined utopia where there is no “property” and everything is shared in common. A friend of mine thinks the solution to inequality and poverty is simple, with no need for economic growth. Humanity as a whole has enough wealth. Just (!) distribute it more equally.

But recall John and Sue. Similarly, the issue isn’t John’s right to his property, but the right of anyone else — Sue, the government, “society” — to dispossess John and grab control of his property.

Some (like my friend) do try to justify that by invoking some supposed greater good. Perhaps even John’s own good. But consider the arrogance of thinking you know what’s best for other people. Libertarianism is a stance of humility vis-a-vis other people. Unlike the “nanny state,” libertarians recognize that people differ in their wants and needs and what serves them; of which they themselves are the best judges. Furthermore, when government involves itself in so many matters, putting them all in the public square, that’s a recipe for conflict. A public square so thick with issues is a key cause of our political polarization.

Boaz argues that much government activity exceeds enumerated constitutional powers. He omits mention of the power to regulate interstate commerce, which has been interpreted quite broadly to cover all that. But anyhow, hasn’t this horse long ago left the barn? Making Boaz’s libertarianism seem a quaint if not irrelevant idea?

And government’s growth wasn’t usurpation. Voters have mostly welcomed government action, sold as improving lives and preventing harms. Even under Reagan and Thatcher, governments actually grew.

True, eliminating this or that government program or regulatory scheme would always harm some people. A full libertarian rollback would entail much harm. But — that harm would be dwarfed by the benefits in terms of greater overall societal wealth, enjoyed by most citizens. Simply put, less restriction on economic activity means more scope for wealth creation. But that foregone boon is invisible to the public when thinking about government activity.

Here’s a small example. Governments require licenses for innumerable professions, not just doctors and lawyers, but hairdressers, real estate agents, interior decorators, cosmetologists, and a zillion others. Sure, all justified to protect the public, and without licensing there would be horror stories. But the true main impetus for such licensing is that those professions want to stifle competition, and enlist government to do it for them. Eliminating the licensing would open up vast opportunities for more people to earn money and innovate to provide services to consumers, who would benefit from wider choices and lower prices. All that would far outweigh the occasional horror stories.

And here’s a bigger case in point: drug prohibition. Does it prevent harms from drug use? Maybe the tiniest bit. But even if it stopped all drug use, that benefit would still be dwarfed by the vast incalculable harm drug prohibition visits upon society. All the lives destroyed by incarceration, neighborhoods shattered by violence, all the corruption. America’s drug war creates murderous criminality in other countries too (a big cause of our immigration problems).

Imagine if we just stopped making drugs illegal. All those harms would go away. That would be a libertarian approach. Maybe not so crazy after all.

Replacement Theory — Let’s Do It

May 20, 2022

The “Great Replacement Theory” is yet one more thing making Republicans the Party of Crazy. A recent poll showed a third of Americans are drinking this Kool-Aid.

Believing there’s some kind of plot (yes, it’s a conspiracy theory) by Democrats to achieve their Satanic aims by replacing white voters with obedient non-white outsiders imported for just that purpose. Jews are (surprise) a part of it. Remember the torchlit chant, “Jews will not replace us” at Charlottesville?

As if Democrats could possibly control the immigration process as imagined, or new citizens’ voting choices. Let alone somehow substitute them for white voters. It’s idiotic.

Fox’s *ucker Carlson is a big promoter of Replacement Theory. Many prominent Republicans too, notably the vile Congresswoman Stefanik, who has tweeted such garbage. Yet America seems likely to hand these creeps control of Congress.

They arguably bear some responsibility for the Buffalo shootings, Replacement Theory being a key motivator for the gunman. White supremacy the core of his belief system. Holding whites biologically superior, as against other, lesser, degraded ethnicities, whose ascendance threatens civilization itself. The threat acute because they’re actively working to “replace” whites.

And Republicans increasingly legitimate violence for political ends, January 6 only the most prominent illustration. A recent analysis identified about 450 U.S. killings by political extremists in the last decade. Those by right-wingers around 20 times more than by leftists. And about half by white supremacists.

In school I thought I’d learned that Southern whites had lost the Civil War. I was ignorant of their subsequent Jim Crow terrorism to enforce white supremacy nevertheless. Then in the ’60s that too would be defeated. Or so we thought. Like some evil beast refusing to be killed, white supremacy has again recrudesced. Let us finally purge this sickness for good, fulfilling the promise of America’s universal ideals.

What the Buffalo shooter actually proved is that he himself, and his kind, are the degraded inferior creatures. Swallowing stupid nonsense is surely a sign of inferiority. Only pathetic fools would take Carlson seriously.

Or believe the world’s biggest liar’s biggest lie that he “won” the 2020 election. Or that Democrats, who want to curb America’s out-of-control gun violence, are “soft on crime” — not Republicans who spout “law and order” but oppose all gun control and excuse the January 6 lawlessness. And so forth. (I won’t go into supernatural delusions.)

Compared to these whacko white Americans, it’s Blacks who are the superior race. They certainly mostly show it, living in noble equanimity with whites despite the centuries of shit they’ve endured at their hands. I keep quoting activist Kimberley Jones that we’re lucky Blacks seek only equality, not revenge.

And immigrants? Trump said, “they don’t send us their best.” What an ass. As if other countries send immigrants. People who come are those with the pluck and drive to face all the challenges of uprooting themselves, seeking better lives. Obviously also superior people who improve the quality of our population.

So, as for replacement, let’s do it. Dump Americans fouled up by white supremacy and replacement theory and worshipping the rottenest of characters. Replace them with nonwhites and immigrants and this will be a better country.

Michelle Obama’s memoir, “Becoming”

May 5, 2022

As is typical for me with such books, I was far more engaged with the story of Michelle Obama’s early life, when she was an ordinary normal person, than with the too-familiar chronicle of her time in the spotlight.

Particularly striking was the portrayal of her mother during Michelle’s childhood, living in a tiny apartment with limited income (and a husband succumbing to illness); and eternal diligent frugality, endeavoring mightily so the family could have decent lives. For all the challenges, she managed it very well. We can fail to appreciate what a blessing even such modestly lived lives entail — the great achievement of modern civilization. And reading this understatedly heroic account of Michelle Obama’s mother in her thirties, I was cognizant this woman did wind up living in the White House.

One shocker: On page 307 Michelle explains that though residing there rent-free, they had to cover all other living expenses. “We got an itemized bill each month for every food item and roll of toilet paper.” They were charged for every guest staying overnight or sharing a meal. And since of course the White House upheld world-class standards, it was not cheap. A person of modest means, if elected president, could not afford it. This should be changed.

Michelle writes about her campaigning in Iowa during its 2008 presidential primary. Her first real taste of personal politicking. Constantly asked: how odd does it feel for a Harvard-educated Chicago Black woman talking to roomfuls of mostly white Iowans? She “bristled because the question was so antithetical to what I was experiencing and what the people I was meeting seemed to be experiencing, too.” Not racial or cultural tension but shared commonalities. She’d started out believing a Black man could not be elected president, but changed her opinion.

Reading this account, I had to remind myself it was just fourteen years ago. But it feels like she’s writing about a different planet. Sure, we had hot issues, conflicts, divisions. Yet we were a positive thinking nation of goodwill, civility, decency, even open-mindedness. Of sanity. Back then, I’d never have imagined how a single rotten person could wreck so much of that.

I recall commentator Van Jones querying, “When do the antibodies kick in?” It turns out our national immune system, protecting our civic health (as illustrated in Becoming), was compromised, perhaps ripe for the infection. We managed to survive it — barely—for the moment. Whether we ever recover to full health remains very doubtful.

I did not vote for Obama. I was proud to vote for John McCain. Remember his beautifully gracious concession speech? But there were tears in my eyes too when Obama’s victory was declared and the TV showed a middle-aged Chicago Black woman jumping up and down shouting, “God bless America! God bless America!”

Well, there is no God. We’re on our own. For two centuries the better angels of our nature were advancing. Now they’re battered, bruised, bloodied.

Hell of a Book

April 28, 2022

Hell of a Book — that’s the title — by Jason Mott — is actually two different novels coexisting uneasily within one cover.

One is a semi-comical first-person account of the author/narrator’s book tour. He’s Black, but that seems only incidental. There’s a segment with a grotesque caricature of his “media trainer” discussing the imperative to avoid making this a “race book,” about the Black experience.

The other interwoven novel is a race book, about the Black experience.

Does this taco-and-spaghetti combo work? I’m not sure. The race book centers upon a kid who strove for literal invisibility as a way to stay safe. His father became victim of a particularly senseless police shooting. The kid himself is later shot too, and shows up in the author tour book — as a ghost haunting the protagonist.

However, while the two seem clearly the same kid, there’s never any line drawn between the dual father-and-son shootings. Not even by the kid’s widowed mother. I found this puzzling and unsettling.

Elements that might be called magical realism are somewhat accounted for by the author/narrator saying often that he has a “condition,” which is an overactive imagination, so he can’t always tell what’s real or not. This produces much tongue-in-cheekiness, mixing David Foster Wallace style satire and self-parody, and a dollop of Hunter Thompson Fear and Loathing, with what are also actually some pretty heavy reflections, even philosophical ones. Yet much is also keystone cops type stuff. Leaving me unsure how to take the whole thing.

One scene on an airplane has the author asked to sign a book for a fellow passenger. Who turns out to be — or appears to be — the film actor Nicholas Cage. “Oh please,” I said to myself, bracing for more slapstick. And then . . . from Cage’s mouth spill all sorts of surreal and thought-provoking profundities. It’s that kind of book.

For most of it, we understand that the novel we’re reading differs from the protagonist’s eponymous one. It seems its narrator was really bugged by something, which propelled the writing, and which his novel is about. That’s left vague until near the end it’s finally revealed to be his mother’s death. This too I found somewhat disorienting, because the novel in my hands still seemed mainly about racial injustice. The mother’s death (from a stroke), however it may have affected her son (not evident, through most of the text), didn’t have much to do with anything, in terms of this book’s contents.

And meantime, the silliness eventually ceasing, the race book takes over, with the tone become all serious. Overly so, I’d say; even maudlin, oppressive. Long before the end, I’d gotten the point, and had had enough. Though the book tour crashes and burns, the race book’s last few dozen pages, rather than building to a climax, add nothing.

There’s much about “the talk,” that Black parents must give their children, and all that sort of thing. Sorry if that sounds supercilious. I myself have railed about police violence, and the whole larger issue of how non-whites fit in America. But as far as books are concerned, it’s been done. A lot. Ta-Nehisi Coates and so forth. Maybe it’s fair to say there can’t be enough books of that kind. But the problem for an author is how to write one that’s not just yet another in a long parade of such race books. Mott tackles that problem in an idiosyncratic way. Leavening the unavoidable tendentiousness with flakier fare. Again, I’m not sure it works.

And forgive me for this too. I am indeed fully cognizant of what non-white Americans endure. But this book reads, to me, like it’s set in some dichotomous, literally segregated alternate reality where suffering and injustice are experienced solely by non-whites. With no recognition that these are human universals. That white lives . . . .