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Category: Crisis Era

A Memorial Day that will go down in infamy

A Memorial Day that will go down in infamy

Memorial Day 2020 will be remembered as the day America blew off the experts and partied with the coronavirus. Reading the news articles about how crowds gathered at beaches and parks, ignoring the social distancing recommendations of the CDC, I can’t help but notice the irony. Memorial Day was instituted as a holiday to honor those who have died performing their civic duty. And America chose to celebrate it by ignoring civic duty altogether.

Maybe it’s just that the definition of civic duty has changed. After all, the President told us just after 9/11 to do our duty by going shopping. As citizen-consumers of the neo-liberal market state, it is our responsibility to sustain economic activity at all costs, even if the cost is the lives of those vulnerable to a contagious new virus.

This could be seen as a consequence of the failure of leadership at the Federal level, with the current President actually touting conspiracy theories. It’s a crying shame that partisanship has split the country to the point that it determines what facts you believe. I get that it’s hard to know what’s really going on, given that even the experts on disease control can only make a best assessment based on limited data. But would it really have been so hard to just enjoy this weekend from home?

Next Memorial Day should be dedicated to those who are now going to die because so many people chose to ignore social distancing and spread SARS-COV-2. Next Memorial Day should honor those who did their duty for freedom, by suffering and dying of COVID-19, thanks to this weekend’s hordes of the irresponsible and ignorant.

Beachgoers on Memorial Day in Port Aransas, Texas
Just Call Me A Zoomer

Just Call Me A Zoomer

It’s been six weeks in lockdown. Except for cashiers at the grocery store and a few curbside pickups of take out food, I haven’t interacted face-to-face in real life with anyone other than family. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t socialized. Like many of us shuttered in at home, I have videoconferenced – both for business and pleasure – using the software that has suddenly taken over our lives: Zoom.

So far I’ve attended a couple of hangouts with old friends, one of which was a surprise birthday party. I’ve been to happy hours with my work colleagues – and yes, we are welcome to have a drink. It’s nice to see the faces of my coworkers after a week of working online from home. I’ve also particicpated in a couple of script-readings for the eldest son’s script analysis class (put together by his attentive mother), including one where we were Zoombombed by professional actors.

Ok, we weren’t really Zoombombed, because the participants were invited. Ok, at work we actually use different software. I just mean to stick a label on this phenomenon where our socializing has abruptly moved into the digital space, as the Internet proceeds to the next phase of its complete takeover of our lives. We’re all Zoomers now.

It’s been fun figuring out the finer points of Zoom. Gallery view is best for a general conversation, but active speaker is good for the script reading. If you have a lot of participants, you can scroll through them to catch late arrivals, and make sure they get welcomed. And don’t forget about the chat option!

I do find that an online video hangout satisfies the need for social interaction. It feels like a change of scenery, and it alleviates the cabin fever. Good thing, because we don’t want this Sim’s mood to drop too low. Now if I could just get my virtual background to work…

Everything changed so fast

Everything changed so fast

Time moves fast in a Crisis.

I remember back when 2019 was coming to an end, and everyone on social media was posting retrospectives of the 2010s. There was this exciting sense of being there for the end of an era. I even participated by Tweeting a list of my favorite streaming shows, since I saw the rise of streaming on-demand television as the decade’s big story in the media and entertainment space.

When 2020 began, I had plans already lined up to hit the many travel destinations I like to visit periodically. I don’t know why, but I felt this compulsion to do it all as soon as I could. It was like I wanted to start the new decade right.

I went down to North Carolina, where I used to live, and attended a gaming convention with my BFF. That was in January. In February, we went to Washington, D.C. and visited my mother and sister. We also went to New York and saw two shows, as well her best friend from high school days. By then, the novel coronavirus was in the headlines.

At the very end of the month, I went down to Virginia to play Magic: The Gathering with old friends that I have been playing with since the 1990s. It was a fun get together after a year apart. We were making jokes about the coronavirus.

As March began, I looked forward to the high school theater season starting up, since my BFF and I attend performances as part of the Philadelphia Independence Awards. By then, the severity of the novel coronavirus contagion was becoming apparent. There was talk of shutdowns. The company where I work had a WFH day as a drill.

We ended up seeing one Independence Award show, and it was a dress rehearsal because the actual performances were cancelled. The last large gathering we attended was a funeral. We thought about maybe not going, but we wanted to pay our respects to a friend who had died tragically at too young an age. The funeral was attended by hundreds of people.

Since then we’ve been in lockdown, only leaving the house for grocery runs, or to go on walks in the neighborhood. Everyone at my office is working from home. I know that I am very lucky to have that opportunity, because many others are out of work and with no prospects.

All that travel and activity in the recent past seems like it might have been too risky. Especially the trip to New York. We actually came down with colds when we got back from there. Did we have it? I don’t think so, but we can’t be sure.

What now? The future looks ominous. I had all these ideas for blog posts lined up, but now they don’t seem relevant. Everything changed so fast. I’m glad I got all that travelling in at the start of the year, since it looks like that might be the last of it for the year. Personal, private life will be slower for awhile, even as events in the outside world move faster and faster.

Exactly what you’d expect in a Crisis Era.

Silent of the Week: Anthony Fauci

Silent of the Week: Anthony Fauci

My most recent Silent of the Week posts featured Democratic politicians, as the two stories that dominated the beginning of the year were impeachment and the Democratic primaries. That’s all on the wayside now, with the COVID-19 pandemic taking over news feeds. The crisis has thrust numerous leaders into the limelight, with some reputations faring well, and others not so well.

Most of these leaders are Boomers or Gen-Xers, but there is one notable member of the Silent Generation who is in the limelight now. That would be Anthony Fauci (b. 1940), director of the NIAID and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

A highly credentialed physician and immunologist, Fauci has had a long career in the Federal government. He has been at the forefront of government policy and research involving epidemics, such as HIV/AIDS and Ebola, as well as bioterrorism. He has been in his current role as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since the 1980s, serving under many Presidential administrations.

A long and distinguished career as a specialist mark him as a member of his generation, whose legacies include expertise and working within the system. Another legacy of his generation is acting as a tempering influence on the volatile personalities of the Boomers who came after them. And boy does he have that work cut out for him now, as evidenced by a recent meme of him face palming during a task force press conference.

For giving us hope that there is at least someone intelligent with expertise working within the White House in this most desperate time, and for valiantly continuing his long service under this most feckless of administrations, I name Anthony Fauci my Silent of the Week.

A Book about a Crisis Era

A Book about a Crisis Era

Some time ago I started reading Citizens, by Simon Schama. I finally finished it and posted a review on Goodreads, as part of my reading challenge. Here is the review reproduced for this blog, as well as some additional thoughts on what lessons the French Revolution might have for our own time.

First, the review.

At 875 pages (not counting the bibliography and index), Simon Schama’s Citizens looks like a formidable work to tackle. But his eloquent prose and touching, personal approach to history make for an easy read. There is certainly enough to write about the French Revolution to fill 875 pages, covering the span of time from the Revolution’s origins in the Enlightenment Era, up to the dramatic events of Thermidor and the fall of Robespierre. I enjoyed it all; this book is, as they say, a real page-turner.

In his narrative, Schama focuses on the individuals whose stories comprise the overarching epic of France’s transformation from floundering Monarchy to militant Republic. These are his titular citizens, and theirs is a shared journey through the gates of history, in which their identities shift from that of their prescribed roles in the old regime, to that of free and equal members of a common fraternity, devoted to the fatherland. And woe to those whose devotion was found insufficient, as conflict and violence swept through French society like wildfire.

The brutality of the violence and the fervor of the mobs which challenged the authority of every French government of the period, monarchical and Republican alike, is the most startling aspect of the Revolution. Schama disavows the idea that this was class warfare brought about by the disaffection of France’s poor and underprivileged. Not that there were no disaffections; these were famously written down in the lists of grievances presented to the King at the fateful convening of the Estates-General. But the impetus for change came from all levels of society. Many aristocrats and episcopalians were pushing for reform; for a Constitutional Monarchy in line with the ideals of the Age of Reason and the Rights of Man, inspired by philosphers like Thomas Paine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They did not anticipate that in a few short years their King would be dead and they would be fleeing the Terror of the radical Republicans.

Schama’s narrative shows a society consumed by a kind of madness for a new political identity and national rebirth. The French Revolution wasn’t a mechanical process of adjustment to modernity, driven by material circumstances. It was a conscious, creative effort of the human spirit. Material circumstances merely limited the scope of the change that Revolution could effect, particularly in economic conditions. And it was the limits of the human psyche itself that prevented the rapid succession of governments from ever establishing political order, without ultimately resorting to totalitarianism and mass murder, in an awful premonition of the horrors to come in a later century.

In this fascinating story of a nation’s struggle to redefine itself, we can detect lessons for our own time. In particular, the saga of the French Revolution warns of the dangers of partisanship, extremism, and the demand for ideological purity – all of which can sweep through a people like a tidal force, and drag them toward an unavoidable fate. It’s a warning we should well heed today.

Now for some additional thoughts on parallels between the French Revolution and our times.

There are two obvious rhymes between our time and that distant time in French history. One is the effects of extreme partisanship – how it creates an unbridgeable gap between the two sides, limiting people’s thinking to conform with their particular partisan view (we call it the “echo chamber” today), and how it completely disempowers political moderates (good luck, Joe Biden). The other effect, related to the first, is how easily misinformation spreads. The rumors that spread through French society, causing massive fear and anxiety, way back in the late 1700s, are no different than the “fake news” of today. As they say, the first casualty of war is truth.

As for the terrifying levels of violence, mentioned in the review, I will say that it is my great hope that we are past that. It was a more violent time back then. Life was cheap. But certainly there are violent, extremist elements in our society today, lurking in the background like the spectre of dangers past. And we are in dangerous times.

We are in a Crisis Era, like the one that France was in during the Revolution. Our society will – indeed, must – transform, just as France’s did, though it will not be the same kind of transformation. We have a mature Republic, not one that is or has just been formed, and though it is straining, it is still intact. Now we are in a great test to see if our institutions can adapt to the challenges of the 21st century – if we can muster our own spirit to face the great difficulties ahead.

It was fun while it lasted

It was fun while it lasted

With the outbreak of novel coronavirus COVID-19 shocking markets and threatening supply chains, it seems like we might finally have hit the crisis moment that breaks the old order for good. I don’t think any bailouts can help us now.

Of all generations, Generation X is the least well positioned for it. Silents and Boomers are on their way out and will witness the end in their final years. Millennials are still young and have enough time to bounce back. But Gen X will watch their 401Ks evaporate along with any possible opportunity to recover in time for their elder years, which will be spent in poverty.

At least, that aligns with one prediction from Strauss & Howe generations theory, which I can’t help but mull over as I watch the headlines.

Review: Heroes of the Fourth Turning

Review: Heroes of the Fourth Turning

I have been a student and fan of the Fourth Turning theory for over a quarter of a century. Imagine my surprise and delight when I learned that a play which incorporates the theory is running off-Broadway. It’s called Heroes of the Fourth Turning, written by Will Arbery and directed by Danya Taymor. I got a ticket for it as soon as I could, and luckily my BFF was able to come along as well. It’s premiering at Playwrights Horizons, which is basically a development house supporting playwrights and producing new works.

Since I am so interested in the aforementioned theory, I wanted to review not so much the play itself as how it presents and incorporates the Fourth Turning concept. So I will be looking at the play through a soda straw, so to speak. But I will start with a brief summary review from a general perspective.

The play we saw is an excellent production. It’s well written, well directed and well acted. It has one long act, entirely set on the back porch of a house in Wyoming, on a very specific night in the year 2017. It has great tech too, with the set design and dark lighting pulling you into a setting that seems very real.

There are only five characters, and the premise of the play is that four of them are from the same college class and are reuniting seven years after graduation. Their dialogue establishes their characters, the tensions between them, and reveals secrets from their past – good dramatic stuff. The fifth character is their former teacher/mentor, who arrives later in the play to add a little generational conflict.

The Fourth Turning idea comes into the script because one of the Millennial graduates is familiar with the theory. She explains it in detail in an animated monologue, which absolutely amazed me to behold, seeing as I’ve been interested in generational theory for so long. I certainly never expected to see it explained one day on stage in New York City.

Now this character knows about the theory thanks to Steve Bannon, which is possibly how many people first encountered it back in 2017. And she’s interested in Bannon’s ideas because she is a conservative Catholic and a Trump supporter. In fact, the college the four graduates attended is a conservative Catholic institution – so the play ends up being a kind of exposé of the Red State perspective. We can see why it is set in Wyoming.

The director’s notes mention that the play is meant to shine light on how people on this side of the political spectrum think, but not necessarily to empathize with them. Judging from their reactions, the audience did not approve of the characters’ beliefs at all (at least that was my impression). The conservative stances on abortion and LBGTQ seemed particularly upsetting. Of course, this is not surprising coming from an audience in New York. The promotional material makes a point about how this show is giving a perspective not usually presented to theater audiences.

The playwright, Will Arbery, actually comes from a conservative, Catholic background himself (though he makes clear in his notes in the program that he voted for Obama), which I guess is why he was motivated to write about the subject of conservative thought. It’s kind of a weird twist of fate that the Fourth Turning theory is associated popularly with the political right, seeing as it could just as easily be applied in a story about supporters of Bernie Sanders.

It’s understandable why a theory about a cyclic return to civic renewal would appeal to a minority group of beleaguered traditionalists. Kudos to Will Arbery for making that connection. He also incorporates the idea of different generations – one of the graduates is a Gen Xer, since he is ten years older than the others, who are Millennials, while the professor is a Boomer who was a Goldwater girl, like Hillary Clinton. It’s the Millennials who are ostensibly the Heroes of the play’s title, and whether or not they are ready for the challenge of the Fourth Turning is for you to decide.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a brilliant play. If you are interested in what a play could have to say about generational theory, or what it could reveal about conservative politics in the Trump era, or just want some good character drama, it is worth seeing. You’ll have to hurry, though – it’s only up through November 17. I hope it finds another venue because it is a wonderful work and very pertinent to our time.

A Commute in America

A Commute in America

Pictured above is St. Paul’s, a 150 year old Catholic church located in Wilmington, Delaware. I used to drive past it every day on my commute to work. Between the exit ramp off the highway and the commuter lot in the commercial district where I worked there were a few blocks of gritty urban neighborhood to drive through, with this church planted in the midst of it, like a watchtower, or a fortress. This quick drive by provided a glimpse of a world unlike either the one I had just left at home, or the one I was traveling to at work.

There might be someone at the bottom of the ramp, begging with a cardboard sign, despite the posted warning of a fine for solicitation. A homeless person might be visible camped under the highway overpass (just to the left in that picture) – a figure seated amidst a jumble of bags and tarps, maybe with a shopping cart. Just down the street from the church there was a ministry which one must assume served food, given that there would sometimes be a long line of people at the door.

This was America, or a part of it anyway. These were Americans, of all colors and ages, though it seemed they were disproportionately older. But maybe I was just seeing the ones like me. Wondering if I could handle being my age – early fifties – but impoverished, desperate for a handout. And then I would park my car in the lot, and get on the shuttle bus that drove me to the office, and the bus would be full of people who were mostly young and mostly Asian. I would feel conspicuously out of place, a middle-aged white guy who was apparently on a different path in life than most other middle-aged white guys.

Of course, in the Asian countries my coworkers were from, there are teeming masses of poor people – people even poorer than the ones whose world I briefly became a part of during my commute to Wilmington. I just didn’t see them, because they were not the ones granted visas to come to the United States and work cushy tech jobs. And of course there are plenty of Americans my age prospering as well as I am, or better. I just happen to be in a field – finance tech, data warehousing – whose workforce is primarily Indian. India has reaped the reward for educating so many of its youth in the field of information technology.

The United States, meanwhile, is going to bring back manufacturing using trade wars. And tighten its grip on fossil fuel extraction. As far as I can tell, that is the current strategy for expanding economic opportunity for its citizens, which is the role of government in this new age of neoliberalism. I wonder, though, what kind of opportunity will be provided for the poor people of Wilmington.

Some voters thought Trump was going to bring an end to neoliberalism, except he’s a charlatan – a crook and a liar. How could they not see that? I wonder if any of the people I passed on my commute even vote at all. If not, as seems likely, then they get no representation in government anyway. How will any opportunity be created for them in this age of the market state?

Joe Biden for President, I guess.

Boomers Invented the Internet, but…

Boomers Invented the Internet, but…

As we all know, it was a Baby Boomer who invented the Internet. Al Gore, to be precise. Ha ha, I jest. But in all seriousness, it actually was a Boomer who invented the World Wide Web. Well, an Englishman the same age as the American Boomer generation. That was when the Internet skyrocketed into public awareness and use (it had been around for decades already in academia and government) and the Boomer generation was still relatively young, and was involved in the grunt work of technology research and development.

Now it’s younger generations who are on the leading edge of technology development and the Boomer pioneers are for the most part resting on their laurels. Steve Jobs has been deified and Bill Gates is busy spending his billions on humanitarian projects. Meanwhile, the Millennial generation has taken over Internet culture and formed a hivemind that is whimsical and heartwarming (doggy memes, anyone?), and also unforgiving in its enforcement of social norms (fear the hashtag). Generation X has been ghosted, and Boomers? – well, their cultural reputation on the Internet has not survived in very good shape.

For proof of this last assertion, all you have to do is get on Facebook and join “a group where we all pretend to be boomers.” It’s easy to do, trust me – I applied and got accepted right away. Here you will encounter the Millennial stereotype of what a Baby Boomer is – basically an old white Christian who supports President Trump, is hopelessly out of touch with modern values and, on top of that, embarrassingly clueless about how the Internet works. Boomers are always posting “MAGA” and “God bless America,” misinterpreting what they see younger people doing online, and going to church and to potlucks.

As for posting memes, well Boomers probably shouldn’t even try. Their memes are dated in style, atrocious in design, and express antiquated values. They should just stick to GIFs of the minions from Despicable Me, inexplicably a Boomer obsession. The idea of a Boomer meme is something you will also find on the subreddit TheRightCantMeme, where a lame meme by the political right is implicitly associated with the Boomer generation.

This stereotyping, of course, is unfair to the legions of Boomers who are on the political left. Not to mention those who are very savvy to the ways of the Internet. Perhaps these Boomers are not on Facebook so much; my guess is they are on Twitter instead. But this association, by a younger generation, between the Baby Boomers and the reactionary politics of Trump supporters (who are not all Baby Boomers, is my point) clearly marks the Boomer outlook as a fading thing of the past. The Internet – and thank you for it, Mr. Gore – belongs to a new generation.

Entering a New Political Era

Entering a New Political Era

I’m reading the Federalist on my old timey Kindle. 😀

I’ve been reading the Federalist papers and while I certainly agree that they are an intellectual treasure and a great achievement of the American generation of the Revolutionary period, I often find the arguments weak. Hamilton in particular is prone to argument from incredulity (“nobody could possibly believe that…”) and a special brand of argumentum ad populum (“any intelligent person could see that…”). Now obviously there’s considerable risk in establishing a Constitution more or less from scratch, and despite the best efforts of the founders to find precedents they had to make important choices about the structure of the government without being able to predict the eventual consequences. As Machiavelli put it, there is nothing more difficult to plan than the creation of a new system. In their pamphlets, Hamilton et alia were just trying to pummel their opponents into submission with repeated assertions that their system was as good as it could get – as anyone could plainly see.

One of the most important trains of argument in the Federalist papers relates to separation of powers and checks and balances. These are foundational principles of government going back to the classical ancients whom the founders admired so much, as articulated by the influential Enlightenment era philosophe Montesquieu. One such check, of course, is the legislature’s power of impeachment – hugely important for restraining the much feared threat of a tyrannical executive. As ancient Republican Rome had rejected Kings, so would the new American Republic.

The other great fear expressed in the Federalist papers is that of faction – the natural tendency of men to form groups based on mutual interest and then, in Hamilton’s phrase, use “cabal and intrigue” to manipulate the system in their favor. Vesting the power of choosing representation in the people would – as anyone could plainly see – prevent such factions from working against the interests of the public, at least for very long.

So you can imagine that reading the Federalist in these times has been painful, as I’ve watched the chief executive abuse his powers, enabled by partisanship within a party that has lost its integrity, but nonetheless has popular support despite its many policies that work against the people. A chief executive who is, apparently, untouchable. Hamilton, I imagine, would be flabbergasted. No one could possibly believe that the legislature would tolerate a charlatan in the highest executive office who intrigues with foreign powers, he might have written. Yet here we are.

Or have been, I add, hopefully. With the House finally opening an impeachment inquiry into the President, I can see that there’s still life left in this old Constitution of ours. The fact that the Senate voted unanimously for the release of the whisteblower complaint means that Congress has at least a little integrity left. So maybe, just maybe, we have entered a new chapter in the saga of our ongoing Constitutional crisis – a turning point which will decide if We the People still retain our sovereignty.