Category Archives: Democracy

About That Bat-Signal

“Where Is Barack Obama?” New York Magazine wants us to know that we should want to know.

Apparently people are unhappy that the 44th president seems to have ghosted himself from public life right when we’re entering months of nail-biting over the midterm elections.

One thing the cover article showed me is that the baseline cliché of every superhero franchise has thoroughly colonized the American psyche. Commissioner Gordon is flashing the bat-signal to no avail. And he’s doing so just as DC restaurants (and their patrons) are confronting/harassing/shunning members of the Trump White House.

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Déjà vu

I was recently trying to condense the cache of papers I’ve saved through the years and came across an entire issue of Harper’s Magazine from November 1990.

I remembered why I saved that issue. I was young and visiting Paris on my own, during La Crise du golfe. I had brought books to read, and I bought the International Herald Tribune daily for news about the situation in the Gulf. But Harper’s was lighter to carry around, and besides that, it had become a sense of home—a manifestation of the America I wanted to believe was true, especially then. I had the magazine with me when I ate alone in restaurants and cafés.

I think the reason I kept that issue was less its value as travel memento than the impact of an essay by Lewis Lapham, the publisher at the time. Lapham could be an annoyance in his vitriolic monthly columns. Yes, yes, you’d say. But what are we going to do about it? I’d start a column but often had to stop when his too-clever-by-half putdowns got in the way of his message.

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Paper Chase

In a pithy irony within our golden age of irony, state election officials around the country are seizing on a voting strategy that a few years ago would have seemed unthinkable: paper ballots.

We know that Russia will try to influence the 2018 elections, whether through the primaries that begin this month or the November midterms. In their quest to undermine American democracy, they’ll use the tried-and-true method—spreading misinformation using social media platforms—and give hacking into electronic voting systems another crack. They may have other things up their sleeves, but unless Robert Mueller announces more indictments, such things will probably go under the radar.

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Ghost Stories

After a series of FBI raids in the summer of 2010, federal prosecutors accused eleven people of being part of a Russian spy ring, living under false names and deep cover in Manhattan and Yonkers; Montclair, New Jersey; Arlington, Virginia; and Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a slow-cooking scheme to penetrate America’s elite “policy-making circles.”

The event ricocheted around popular culture for quite a while, inspiring the FX series The Americans and catapulting to stardom the Sex and the City spy, Anna Chapman, back in the motherland.

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The United States of Belleville

Back in December 2016, the gilt lobby of Trump Tower became the visual center of American power. Cameras followed the comings and goings of mostly middle-aged and older men amid a large plainclothes security detail.

These images stuck with me for a reason: the men in Donald Trump’s orbit—longtime cronies, legal counsel, crony-legal counsel hybrids, and of course the Secret Service and ancillary bodyguards—wore overcoats. And not just any overcoats but overcoats with the look of the early nineties—long, wide shoulders, ill-fitting by design. Klatches of these coats seemed to linger in every alcove, and even civilian journalists in their North Face jackets couldn’t dilute the mood.

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Elephant in the Room

Always a strange day for Republicans—their guy, their origin story, and yet they can’t in good party conscience quote much of anything Abraham Lincoln said without violating the Fox Code.

Three strands of Lincoln rhetoric would run afoul of Fox and Friends: his subject matter (the oppression of black Americans and a strong federal government), his skill at massaging words into compassion triggers for doing the right thing, and his refusal to demonize the opposition.

It is difficult to square Lincoln’s prosaic transfiguration of words on a page with a Republican president who gets an oral versus written daily intelligence briefing—or with the prune face of Mitch McConnell, where hopeful words die like sparrows smacking into the windows of the old Javits Center.

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Unmasking

“The past is a tabula rasa,” Henri Cartier-Bresson said. “But it usually comes back like a burp.” For several weeks straight, America has belched Watergate.

It was always there as the teachable moment, as the far stake bearing the red flag for comparisons of corruption. But now it lives in the media as an interactive timeline, allowing us to match yesteryear’s high crime or obstruction to today’s analog.

Watergate’s precipitating event—the DNC break-in—pales in comparison to possible collusion with the Russians. But a more disturbing disconnect between then and now is our loss of a common vocabulary to talk about democratic values.

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Our Hardy Moment

If November 8, 2016, presented rational-minded Americans with their greatest fear, November 9th gave them ample opportunity to imprint to memory a metaphor for the shock of recognition. Mine that day was Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”—63 million people lining up with a stone in their hand.

Political analysts have struggled since the election to make a rational story out of irrational behavior, but it’s been hard for anyone to reconcile the choice of possible annihilation over whatever Trump supporters consider the status quo. They tell the camera “He will create jobs,” but that’s just code for “He will create chaos.” I can picture alumni of the pumped-up MAGA crowds welcoming a Trump world like Slim Pickens riding the nuclear bomb in Dr. Strangelove. But what about Hillary Clinton’s “everyday Americans,” the less zealous voters who tipped the scales for Trump? I keep picturing them standing in their everyday homes, lighting and flicking match after match just to see what might happen. This seems to capture both the boredom of waiting for white people’s change and the primitive urge to torch the village starting where you live.

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