Category Archives: Democracy

Odio, ergo sum

In a speech at Notre Dame Law School last October, William Barr, the U.S. Attorney General and Donald Trump’s current Oddjob, made clear that his conservative Catholicism and definition of democracy were one and the same. Like Republican fundamentalists since Newt Gingrich’s reign, Barr decried “moral relativism” as the cause of every social ill, insisting that the Constitution’s framers believed that “free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people.”

When I read this, I thought how each side of the political divide preaches not just to the choir but to its most baroque-motet-y part—in Barr’s case, the Opus Dei fold of Gregory IX fanboys. But I also wondered if Barr had any desire to convert freethinkers to his cause. Because if he did, the way in was through hate.

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The Tripping Point

A recent House Financial Services Committee hearing provided Americans a brief moment of clarity in regard to both Mark Zuckerberg and our nation’s cultural quagmire. As the Facebook founder answered questions about political advertising and his proposed cryptocurrency, a Congressman’s comparison of Zuckerberg to Donald Trump provoked a reaction that went viral.

Zuckerberg’s physical façade is a billboard when it comes to communicating this important point: rarely has he had to put up with anything that’s made him squirm. His forehead, in particular, suggests the Great White Plains of upper-middle-class access to things like high-performance front-load washers. Whatever nasty CSI was unfolding among the world’s demimonde, Mark Zuckerberg—just laundered and encased by central air—continued clacking code on a taut keyboard.

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Pluto’s Helmet

Since the installation of a man who wants to be a 1989 version of emperor, I’ve thought quite a bit about Greek and Roman mythology. Given their rampant violence, misogyny, and injustice, these stories are fading fast from our common culture even though violence, misogyny, and injustice are not. When I learned a few of the stories in high school, autocracy was something that happened in olden times or else in bad countries. I wondered how these freakish, depraved gods could inspire awe when people had to have considered them jerks. But with the odious corporality of Donald Trump, America has been given a refresher course in unchecked and unrestrainable force—the basis of all mythology.

I am now willing to consider the malevolence of Trump and his cronies as mythic. This is not to give any individual actor (least of all the toddler-in-chief) classical stature as antagonist; they are contemptibly and irredeemably shills. Whereas Nixon’s conspirators got the Shakespeare treatment during Watergate, Trump’s flunkies cannot break the cartoon barrier. The obsequiously manic Guiliani getting wound up by Laura Ingraham is like Slim Pickens riding the Strangelove bomb. Barr alternates between Droopy Dog catatonia and—because of those glasses—Blue Meanie Chief. The entire cabinet you imagine as Minions ready to spring from inside Melania’s red trees.

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Earth Dog, Justice Warrior

On February 5 the world rings in the Chinese Lunar New Year of Earth Pig and says goodbye to that of Earth Dog. The Spinner of the Years stops toiling for no one, but I must admit I will miss the reign of Earth Dog.

I will miss Earth Dog because of the prediction that came with her: “corruption is rooted out, tyranny and oppression overturned, and justice prevails.”

Who could argue with justice prevailing? We know the familiar Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “Let us realize [that] the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The words are nice, but is there such a thing as a “moral universe”? (If the universe was moral, why wouldn’t justice be pre-installed?) I’m afraid Dr. King was letting us down easy. No one wants to hear that the people who go without or take the hits to build an endowment are often not the ones reaping its dividends.

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We Are Unblessed

I keep hearing and reading two phrases in regard to the twin conflagrations consuming ever more real estate on the home pages of the New York Times and Washington Post: “It will get ugly” and “We are fucked.”

The first fire is the coordinate effects of Bob Woodward’s new book and the anonymous Times op-ed by a senior White House official; the second, the Senate’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Though we longed for the implosion of Donald Trump, we didn’t want the implosion of our republic to go with it. “It will get ugly” owing to the unhinged chief executive but more so to the void of democracy known as Republicans—this lockstep conglomerate of testosterone who will devastate the country with their minority rule until either January 2, 2019, or forever.

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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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