Fate's Blueprint: The New Populism

For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. – T.S. Eliot

They will call it “the new Populism”, comparing Sanders in the early 2000s to Nebraska’s own William Jennings Bryan a century earlier. Bryan was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1896, with his surprise nomination bringing many of his “Populist Party” supporters flooding into the ranks of the Democratic party. Bryan’s nomination was in fact a populist repudiation of incumbent Grover Cleveland and his “Bourbon Democrats” (i.e., the business-allied Democratic establishment). 

Of course, Bryan lost to Republican William McKinley in 1896, but he had become well-known nationally as a fiery public orator, galvanizing his followers with his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, and pretty much inventing the extended cross-country stumping tour (which Teddy Roosevelt copied, Truman also exploited to great effect with his “whistle stop” tour, and which right-wing populist Donald Trump has effectively adopted as his “permanent campaign” approach to the presidency). 

The Democrats put Bryan up against McKinley again in 1900, believing their anti-imperialism stance would galvanize his populist following. And Bryan lost again. 

But by 1904, progressive Republican Theodore Roosevelt had been in office a few years (after McKinley’s 1901 assassination), and with his support for anti-trust activism and widespread reforms he beat the Democrats’ new “Hail Mary” conservative nominee (Alton Parker) handily, thus rehabilitating Bryan’s stature among Democrats. Because by this time, the national popular  opinion had swung toward Bryan’s/Roosevelt’s ideas, such that after the 1904 election both parties were embracing the progressive reforms that had been championed by Bryan and his populist zealots for years. (In fact Bryan was once again the Democratic presidential candidate in 1908.) 

As usual, I think history has a lesson for us here – and it’s echoed in the words of T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets, in a line I recently heard quoted by a brilliant man and poet at the University of Nebraska commencement. “For us,” Eliot wrote, “there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” With this quote, the speaker was telling the new graduates that unlike in our favorite movie endings, the good will not always be ultimately ascendant or triumphant. But that is not our shame, nor is it even our defeat. As individuals we are not responsible for the broad shapes that form the contours of the tides of history; we are not responsible for the victories of the undeserving. Rather, it is our sole responsibility to TRY on behalf of the greater good—here and now. 

Because sometimes, false prophets and immoral agendas will command the world’s stage despite the efforts of good people to contain them. Power is their only goal, so these people will then do whatever it takes, regardless of law or morality, to consolidate and cement their gains. They will then try to convince us morally inclined nobodies that there’s no use resisting their power, that we are impotent and alone in the dark, that we have lost and they have won. But there is no victory more fleeting than political victory. Immoral times produce their inevitable disastrous outcomes, yes, and then it is left to us morally inclined nobodies to pick up the pieces. But whatever the outcome this time, we will know that we, as individuals of conscience, did what we could to try to make the world a better place for all. That is our only responsibility. 

Our lives and our worth are not defined by the era we live in, they are defined by how we live in our era. Like a batter at the plate or a pitcher on the mound, or a poet with his pen: whether we are successful or not, the job is always the same. To try. 

What Gun? What Smoke? What Democracy?

The foulest stench in this age of open-air corruption is emanating from the barrel of the smoking gun now lying on the hearing room floor—lying there smoking. Whether the president* used the gun to “shoot someone on Fifth Avenue” or to strong-arm a foreign government to do his political bidding, it will continue to lie there smoking. And his corrupt lieutenants in the White House, in Congress, on Fox “News”, and elsewhere will continue to refuse to see the gun, the smoke, the body, or anything at all except Democrats with “Trump derangement syndrome” trying to “undo an election”.

As I wrote in my letter to the Omaha World-Herald the other day, we can no longer pretend that what’s happening in Washington has anything to do with government of, for, or by the people. It is not about the law, about wrong or right, or about the Constitution or its provisions. It is a power struggle for control of a bloated federal government as cash machine and grantor of immunity from oversight. It is a contest of strength, of will, and of solidarity among a corrupt minority who has – by dint of a quirky and outmoded college of so-called electors (read: not voters) – captured the federal government under the borrowed auspices of a formerly legitimate political party (auspices now unnecessary and abandoned). The Republican Party is now a bizarre coalition, a party of alliance between the white Christian fool and the calculating oligarch. It is the Southern/Midwestern bulk of fake grievance-touting nationalists nostalgic for “white America” wielded as a deaf and dumb electoral cudgel—expertly wielded by an amoral billionaire minority in pursuit of their narrow corporate-friendly agenda of wealth redistribution and regulatory impunity. It is this coalition versus the Constitution, its laws, and the paltry few who are left to defend them.

Who are these paltry few? They are a slight majority of Democrats in the House – a little better than one half of one branch of the government’s three imposing loci of undeserved and unearned power. The other half of the House and the entire Senate is controlled by the smirking Cosa Nostra occupying the White House, such that most of Congress now consists of nothing more than amoral sycophants, lying hypocrites who desperately want to not see the smoking gun that right now—this morning—lies smoking on the floor of the hearing room.

They refuse to see the dying body politic as its life blood oozes out onto the chamber floor. They will surreptitiously wipe the blood from their shoes, blank the image out from their visual field, replace it with a jury-rigged fantasy of liberal overreach and disaffection, of a party out of power trying to “steal” an election (which they actually won, but never mind). They must claim these lies as sacred truth, as they stand over the lifeless body of America, lest they find themselves the focus of what one commentator recently described as the “unblinking eye of Mordor,” the short-spanned but witheringly focused attention of the insane narcissist Twitter bot, the aspiring despot at the helm of a so-called Republic, a man [sic] whose one unimpeachable talent is to harangue and intimidate any milquetoast “leaders” of the Republican party into utter pants-peeing submission and supplication should they dare to step even slightly out of line.

The other two power centers, the executive and the Supreme [sic] Court, are now dominated by white nationalist ideologues (in the case of the former) and corporate toadies (the black-robed latter). The executive is a would-be mobster and autocrat (and the people who voted for him have always known this and have always approved). Enough said. The Supreme [sic] Court is neither supreme nor an actual court, as its politicized “gang of 5” merely shape their “decisions” (ha ha) to the current needs of the executive and the corporate/Wall Street titans who put him in office and them in their big chairs. They are not a court at all but an imposing, marble-walled, high-talking rubber stamp. The Justices are, as the president and his minions have always dreamed, finally and unequivocally irrelevant. This was supposedly the historical “worst fear” of the Justices—to be roped into the wolverine den of bare-knuckle politics and, thus, to be subjugated to its carnivorous appetites. But it’s what happened. I guess they’re not as independent—and certainly not as clever–as they thought they were. (This doesn’t count Justices “I like beer” Kavanaugh or “Merrick Garland who now?” Gorsuch. They were Trumpers anyway, they have no reason to be proud, so they knew the score—and their place—coming in. Call them “the future” of the debased court.)

I would say (as I have said since 2016) “This is what you’re up against, America”. But America is no longer up against anything. America is dead, shot dead by an amoral idiot whose cultist followers and fearful boot-lickers love (or fear) his amoral idiocy. Out of phony patriotism or very real terror, they will defend him against all comers (looking at you, rule of law). America’s ‘leaders’ are now analogous to Caesar’s assassins, who for their own reasons have decided that they will, all together now, insert their blades into the panicked flesh of America, let out its blood, and be finally rid of their formerly towering but now vulnerable nemesis: the people’s democracy and America’s laws and democratic institutions.  

The Purpose of Arms

I believe modern militaries have one traditional purpose (to resist foreign invaders) that is largely outmoded among so-called superpowers, and three more relevant modern purposes:

  1. to frighten the vast populations of the modern superpower/nation state into submission and apathy by virtue of the vast killing power of the superpower’s weaponry
  2. to intimidate lower-GDP nation states with less weaponry into doing the will of the regional or global superpower; and
  3. to, via occasionally hot or persistently warm ‘brush wars’ conducted in underdeveloped proxy nations, efficiently destroy excess military-industrial complex hardware and/or gain access to resources (oil) in order to stimulate new production and economic growth among favored constituents and industries.

The rest is hogwash.

How Do You Like Your Blue Eyed Boy Mr. Death?

(Reposted from icky Facebook)

Regarding Pete Ricketts, our bloodthirsty “Catholic” governor, and his pious [sic] God the Father Joe Ricketts: you both can feel good today about having put to death a helpless prisoner of the state for no reason other than that you desperately wanted to. You did it despite a legislative veto override by usurping the legislature’s constitutional authority to make law. You spent hundreds of thousands of dollars – of your own money and ours – to do it.

You did it despite the courts ordering you to divulge the source of your illegally obtained drugs, an order you never obeyed because it would have legitimized the lawsuits brought against you by the drug companies you stole your death drugs from. You broke the law to do it. You admitted the drugs you are using were improperly (and incompetently) stored at room temperature and may be corrupted – you did it anyway.

You did it despite your faith’s universal condemnation of the death penalty – in all cases – calling this church doctrine “the pope’s opinion,” which you somehow “respect” but ignore, thus demonstrating your defiance of your faith’s commandments when they do not fit your agenda. In fact, you did it despite your membership in a diocese group that pledges fealty to the pope’s teachings (time to resign from that one). You did it despite the last-minute pleadings of your Bishops, your Priests, your Sisters – despite the desperate pleadings of some 600 clergy, in fact, comprising the bulk of the Catholic faith community in Nebraska. You did it despite pleas from tens of thousands of ordinary Nebraskans.

You did it despite the academic community having soundly debunked your garbage theories on “deterrence,” which you know have always been garbage theories.

You have no reasoning to stand on. You are not reasonable.

In the end, you did it for one selfish reason: to demonstrate that you arbitrarily wield the power of life and death over us powerless peasants. And you believe if you can hold that terrible power over us, you hold complete power over us. You can kill the state’s prisoners—or not kill them—for your sport, for now, and that probably feels like the ultimate power, like the power of God. But we all know how history ultimately treats would-be tyrants who ignore their conscience, abuse their powers and defy the law they were elected to uphold. It’s too late for justice – vengeance has owned the day. But I believe that one day, justice will be served.

And you won’t like how that feels.

End the Charade

It’s time for journalists to stop pretending the president doesn’t know what he’s doing – that his egregious policies are somehow “blunders” or based on a faulty understanding of how the world works.

That’s a cop-out. I don’t believe that. I think the president knows exactly what he’s doing: he’s weakening this nation economically (stupid tariffs) and in the eyes of its allies (stupid NATO belligerence), and undermining the rule of law (attacks on the Justice Dept.) all while cozying up to dictators (Kim, Putin, Xi)  with whom he identifies and shares values like strength and dominance over enemies (so many enemies). The president is not “ignorant” about democratic traditions and principles (like telling the truth or not enriching oneself via federal office, for example). No, he is simply antagonistic towards them. Whether this is based on learning, persuasion or his famous “instincts” does not matter. He is the anti-American president and he’s not shy about that. His supporters rejoice when he pardons criminals like Joe Arpaio and the insurrectionist ranchers. They don’t like the government, and neither does he.

Instead of “explaining” to the president how his policies threaten the very core of this society, journalists should start asking WHY the president and his allies in Congress are taking positions and implementing policies that threaten this society. The question they must answer: Why are you hurting your own society?

  • We have a trade war with zero stated goals or expected outcomes. Why? Why have a trade war and not say what you want? Vague accusations of “unfairness” are not something the Chinese can work with, especially when the stick (tariffs) is wielded before even attempting the carrot (negotiations). For that matter, there are no established lines of communication or designated teams on either the US or Chinese  side dedicated to negotiations from here on – all we have is the war. For what reason do you start a trade war – one that is sure to damage your own economy – when you have no stated demands which, if met by China, would end the war? One answer: the president is simply doing what he can, with the tools he has, to cripple the American economy.
  • We have repeated accusations that NATO countries aren’t “paying their fair share” – likening the countries of Europe to Trump’s deadbeat apartment tenants in Queens. Over and over, the president repeats the lie that NATO countries are “delinquent” when they are no such thing. The 2% GDP defense spending goal was just that – a goal. Not a commitment, not enforceable by any means, and most certainly not an amount “owed” to the president or anyone else. The 2% goal was a shared policy goal among sovereign democracies, not a “promise” to the United States. Why do we allow the president to keep pretending he does not know this?  It’s a simple thing to learn, and for my part I don’t believe he does NOT know this. He is simply using this lie as an excuse to do the dirty work of tearing down a post-WW2 alliance that has kept Europe (and America) protected from Russian expansionist policies for decades. He is actively weakening the alliance for no reason that could possibly help America or Western societies in general. Why? And who DOES it help when NATO is weakened?
  • As for the Justice Department – is America ready to concede that our own Justice Department is a secret society of Hillary worshipers and Deep State luminaries who “really” run the department for the sole purpose of continuing Obama-era policies and de-legitimizing the icky Republican president for purely partisan reasons? After firing FBI director James Comey for the stated reason that he was “thinking about the Russia investigation” (this is obstruction of justice, for those interested), the president has proceeded on a “witch hunt” of his own, transforming an obedient, feckless Congress into his own personal Spanish Inquisition bent on prosecuting a “corrupt” Justice Department. Yes, as the Mueller investigation racks up confessions, indictments and guilty pleas from the president’s campaign staff, the Justice Department overseeing that investigation is all of a sudden a quagmire of corruption and lies requiring Congress to intervene and “fix” it. That’s right. The president and his crew, under multiple investigations which have turned up multiple instances of criminal wrongdoing threatening the very existence of this nation –they are the ones being persecuted. It is the Justice Department and the FBI that are now criminal, because of course in this scenario, where they are piling up the evidence against you – they have to be. This is what’s known in lawyer circles as “putting the police on trial.” When your client is obviously guilty, you find a way of making the police look even more guilty by virtue of the methods they used to uncover and prosecute your wrongdoing. And abuse of power, you know, is much more serious an offense than – what – having a conversation or two with some Russian friends who just want to help both nations break through this silly Crimea annexation sanctions business and start making deals? And when you have a devoted throng of willfully ignorant followers in Congress and at your endless “love me” rallies (who hate your new enemies as much as you do, they just need you to point them out), it’s even easier to make the prosecution of your illegal behavior look like a partisan smear job. But again, it is incumbent on us to ask: Why destroy the American public’s faith in its institutions devoted to the rule of law just to provide cover to a president whose campaign for office was a hotbed of criminal traitorous activity, a man who lies to the American public every single day and will continue doing so? How is that a trade-off that ‘s good for the nation? Or if it’s not good for this nation, who IS it good for?

 

Life in Thin Air

I realize the Squid has been a boring series of political screeds of late, for the most part. I can’t help it. I feel like an invisible Thomas Paine, distributing my pamphlets to an invisible New England. I suppose a lot of us invisible types feel that way. (When everyone has a megaphone, all we hear is a big noise.)

But in America there still exists, for now, a place called RMNP – Rocky Mountain National Park. The family and I recently scootered up there, to a great little rented house right off the main drag in Estes Park, CO. That might seem odd, but this wasn’t our first Estes Park rodeo (they have those too),  and we’ve learned the reason downtown is downtown is that it’s the middle of everything. Being smack in the middle of downtown means you are smack in the middle of everywhere you want to go. What’s more, even with a crass commercial “strip” 100 feet from our door (and down the mountain), if we look any other direction we see – you guessed it – mountains. “Slanty living,” I call it, where there’s nowhere to set your water bottle or your camera bag down because the ground is just not flat anywhere. It’s the same in downtown Estes as it is everywhere else (except the golf course).

I love Estes Park not just for its scenic beauty, but also for its built-in mid-century kitschiness. It’s a compact little vision of what American vacationing was always meant to look like: beautiful views, fresh mountain air and sun, shady RV parks, ice cream and taffy, Indian jewelry, and mini golf. Lots of mini golf. We even took the tram up the mountain this time, something we’ve never bothered to check out on earlier trips. It was fantastic. Very trammy, just like you’d expect. 

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But getting up into the park, into the real mountain air – that is the reason you go. It’s materially different, a different feeling altogether than walking around at sea level, buying gum or waiting for a bus or something. You are acutely aware of every moment – every breath, really – because the air is not giving it up for free, the oxygen. You have to work for it. And if you do you get that new energy that will take you up one more vertical foot, or yard. But it’s not unpleasant (for me, though it can be for some) to work for it. To greedily gulp up the mostly-nitrogen air to capture  those few precious oxygen molecules a lungfull offers. It’s a challenge. And the light – the light seems to be somehow unbowed from the atmosphere up there – pure, brilliant – razor sharp, enough to cut through what haze there might be, the misty mountain mornings, within an hour or so. (From our vantage just above the city, our cabin’s big front window captured the whole “bowl” of downtown Estes, and in the mornings sometimes the clouds were lying down on the mountaintops, a misty blanket. It burned off by 10 or so, replaced with that big smiling sun that, as bright as it shines, can be a devil to locate among all those pointy peaks. They shadow one another, or the cloud shadows roam across their glowing granite rock faces and clingy pines.)

And the water – of course all the water up there is snowmelt, erstwhile ice racing down the mountains on all sides to find its new level. Such a hurry! Over polished boulders and rotting aspens and pines, fish flipped out by anglers where it runs smoother on the levels. Crystal clear, but foaming and bubbling too, mountain champagne – you want to stoop by the bank, cup a hand and drink its coldness (but you don’t). Here you can find a peaceful wood at the Wild Basin – near the foot of Long’s Peak, a few yards from that pond where we saw a young moose at play in the still water –a peaceful place that is not peaceful at all, as you step into the woods and feel the momentum of the river crashing over huge rocks and coming together in that unmistakable sound of rushing water gone mad with flight, obstacles be damned. Subtle at first, like a highway in the distance, when you arrive it’s a jet engine next to your ear, yet it’s peaceful noise, nature’s noise, with just you, your family, the rocks and the water and the trees, those immortal sentinels. A kind of cacophonous silence, a blaring quiet. It’s other-worldly, because usually we don’t get to live in this other world – the real world. Usually we’re stuck in the rough copy we made.

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We won’t make a habit of future trips to the Rocky Mountains, it would not be fair to those who suffer from the altitudes. But I at least will probably need to find my way back a few more times, for the refresh. I have an inner, insistent need now, at this part of life, to find such soul-enriching places and promptly suck up the enrichment they offer. My soul depletes—especially during this tragic moment my country endures, when we continue to phone in our former lives in a kind of embarrassed, resigned dull dread while we wait for the other shoe to drop. And the one after that.

The canyons of Utah proved to be such a place (but also high in the sky, a bit ironic for canyons). So too the canyons of Chicago or New York – electric cities– where the thrill to the soul is more man-made but no less evocative of that unnamed thing—the essence of life—the thing that escapes our book of days and visits us only when we set it aside for a respite, a rest, a difference. Such moments, we think – the fleeting moments, almost invisible as if glimpsed out of the corner of our soul’s eye—such moments are a brief delve into what our world was meant to be for us, before we lost our way: bright, electric, alive, immediate, moving—moving—never at rest, but always at peace with its wild self.

 

 

 

 

Post-Politics

I was just watching the end of a concert by a favorite band, The XX. It was sort of an epiphany – you’d have to see the concert, but it is simply a show full of love. These kids love one another (I’ve seen them in interviews) and I believe they love their fans for giving them a voice. And their fans love them.

It used to be you could just assume folks put love in the “plus” column, unless they’re jerks. But need I tell you? Jerks are on the rise.

And not just love. Everything that goes into it, into art, into soulful expression – into taking that risk of putting yourself out there, in whatever form, to affirm that love is good, to make yourself vulnerable to ridicule by expressing admiration for warm emotions, for friendship and respect. For honor, which is based on honesty, and truth, which is required for honesty.

It appears you risk being some kind of snowflake. Be that as it may, it’s a risk the vast majority of us are still willing to take. Only a few have found this time to be an apt opportunity to reveal an inner, coarser self, one that had heretofore been kept under wraps.

But they are a noisy few!

What my eyes and ears tell me, though, when witnessing an XX concert or a flood of “mad” emojis under a Pence speech, is that they are few in number compared to those who simply want to live and let live. The problem? Of course, it’s simple – though relatively rare, white Christian nationalism is now concentrated in the political class, more specifically the Republican party. This is having, for some, a legitimizing effect on what would have been scandalous behavior not ten years ago.

I mean, remember when you could get impeached for lying about a blow job?

When the governor of Nebraska goes into open battle with public higher education and Planned Parenthood, going so far as to call Nebraska a “pro-life” state (where he is dying to execute his prisoners, but never mind) – this reveals a deeper corrosion that preceded the president’s slimy rise to power. Ditto Walker, Brownback, Christie, Sessions, Bannon, Miller. They were waiting for him as one awaits a savior.

And the Joe Blows out there, with the aid of Facebook, are ascendant in their new nastiness, their on-script, imagination-free on line bullying and harassment.  Feeling their new “legitimacy” [sic] and testing out those “button-pushing” words!

I was never able to imagine how the right-wing political class would normalize Trump. I thought it impossible. And I was right – the man refuses to even pretend to be civilized. But I was forgetting that for a significant minority, it was not necessary to normalize the president’s boorish behavior.

To them, he was already normal.

In this, I believe many of us are “post-political,” in that we know we are members of a sane, rational majority. But we have little representation in the central government or in our region, both of which are seas of deepest, now-darkest red. Our leaders are leaders in name only. They are sectarians. They don’t identify with us, they don’t represent us, and they don’t want to. We are sailing different seas, every day. Our paths do not cross. Or if they do, it is to oppose each other’s ideas.

They are becoming to me as I already am to them – irrelevant.