Monday Reads: Strangers in a Strange Land

Open Window, Collioure (1905) by Henri Matisse

Good Day Sky Dancers!

It is becoming more apparent every day that both the Trump Regime and the botched response to the pandemic have sent our country on a different trajectory. President Biden may try to return us to a sense of normal but there are factors and barriers–many coming from the Republican Party–that will make our new normal different from the one we had in 2016.

Our country has committed War Crimes.  I’m old enough to remember the Mỹ Lai massacre, Henry Kissinger, and then later Bush/Cheney war crimes that came before the World Court at the Hague.  There were also the Reagan/Bush atrocities in Southern and Central America.  It’s nothing new.  The previous guy seemed to find new ways to commit atrocities.  There are some new ones that were attempted outlined in a new book that I’d rather not have to read.  This is at WAPO: “New book offers fresh details about chaos, conflicts inside Trump’s pandemic response. At one point, the president mused about transferring infected American citizens in Asia to Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.”

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, as White House officials debated whether to bring infected Americans home for care, President Donald Trump suggested his own plan for where to send them, eager to suppress the numbers on U.S. soil.

“Don’t we have an island that we own?” the president reportedly asked those assembled in the Situation Room in February 2020, before the U.S. outbreak would explode. “What about Guantánamo?”

“We import goods,” Trump specified, lecturing his staff. “We are not going to import a virus.”

Aides were stunned, and when Trump brought it up a second time, they quickly scuttled the idea, worried about a backlash over quarantining American tourists on the same Caribbean base where the United States holds terrorism suspects.

Such insider conversations are among the revelations in “Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration’s Response to the Pandemic That Changed History,” a new book by Washington Post journalists Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta that captures the dysfunctional response to the unfolding pandemic.

Group X, No. 1 Altarpiece Hilma af Klint, 1915, via Guggenheim Museum, New York

There’s a lot about right now that still feels more like a banana republic than a developed nation.  However, Heather Long writes this for WAPO: “The economy isn’t going back to February 2020. Fundamental shifts have occurred. A new era has arrived of greater worker power, higher housing costs and very different ways of doing business.”  This change is welcome.

The pandemic disrupted everything, damaging some parts of the economy much more than others. But a mass vaccination effort and the virus’s steady retreat this year has allowed many businesses and communities to reopen.

What Americans are encountering, though, is almost unrecognizable from just 16 months ago. Prices are up. Housing is scarce. It takes months longer than normal to get furniture, appliances and numerous parts delivered. And there is a great dislocation between millions of unemployed workers and millions of vacant jobs.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell acknowledged all the uncertainty this week, saying that policymakers had misjudged parts of the recovery and that they aren’t certain what exactly will happen next.

“This is an extraordinarily unusual time. And we really don’t have a template or any experience of a situation like this,” Powell said Wednesday. “We have to be humble about our ability to understand the data.”

There’s dispute, among other things, about how many of these changes are temporary and how many are true fundamental shifts that will stick around for years and reshape behaviors. But many people agree, at least, the changes are proving very disruptive.

There are obvious changes, like the realization that working from home is possible for a sizable part of the labor force and the widespread adoption of online ordering for daily necessities like groceries. These will remain significant parts of work and commerce going forward. Nearly a quarter of workers are likely to work at least a day or two from home each week, the McKinsey Global Institute predicts. And e-commerce, which grew three times faster last year than in prior years, shows few signs of ebbing

Then there are new dynamics emerging as home prices soar in many parts of the country that are unaccustomed to seeing such extremes. While millions of American homeowners suddenly find themselves “house rich,” the surge in prices is exacerbating the affordability crisis as first-time buyers are getting priced out. Experts fear a rental crisis could be next.

The Chess Game, Marcel Duchamp,1910

Concerns about redistricting/gerrymandering and voter suppression continue.  This is from Politico: “How Democrats are ‘unilaterally disarming’ in the redistricting wars. Democrats have greater control of state legislatures than in the last round of redistricting but have turned over map-making powers in some states to independent commissions.”

Oregon Democrats had finally secured total control of redistricting for the first time in decades.

Then, just months before they were set to draw new maps, they gave it away.

In a surprise that left Democrats from Salem to Washington baffled and angry, the state House speaker handed the GOP an effective veto over the districts in exchange for a pledge to stop stymieing her legislative agenda with delay tactics. The reaction from some of Oregon’s Democratic House delegation was unsparing: “That was like shooting yourself in the head,” Rep. Kurt Schrader told POLITICO. Rep. Peter DeFazio seethed: “It was just an abysmally stupid move on her part.”

Yet what happened this spring in Oregon is just one example, though perhaps the most extreme one, of a larger trend vexing Democratic strategists and lawmakers focused on maximizing the party’s gains in redistricting. In key states over the past decade, Democrats have gained control of state legislatures and governorships that have long been in charge of drawing new maps — only to cede that authority, often to independent commissions tasked with drawing political boundaries free of partisan interference.

Supporters of these initiatives say it’s good governance to bar politicians from drawing districts for themselves and their party. But exasperated Democrats counter that it has left them hamstrung in the battle to hold the House, by diluting or negating their ability to gerrymander in the way Republicans plan to do in many red states. And with the House so closely divided, Democrats will need every last advantage to cling to their majority in 2022.

“We Democrats are cursed with this blindness about good government,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, a Democratic state that will nonetheless see its congressional map drawn by a newly created independent commission.

“In rabid partisan states that are controlled by Republicans, they’re carving up left and right. And we’re kind of unilaterally disarming,” Connelly conceded, before adding:“But having said that, I still come down on the side of reforming this process because it’s got to start somewhere.”

Landscape Near Cassis (Pinède à Cassis; 1907) by André Derain

Is the rise in violent crime post-pandemic standing in the way of Justice Reform?  This is from TNR and John Pfaff: “Wave of Violent Crime? An uptick in homicides across the country is getting blamed on reforms. That argument gets the data all wrong.”

Last year was a disturbingly violent one for New York City, which suffered nearly 150 more homicides and around 750 more shootings than in 2019. The killings have been heartbreaking: a man on a handball court struck by a stray bullet, a one-year-old shot at a cookout. Meanwhile, the New York Police Department was quick to blame the violence on reform efforts that it has opposed for years. Patrick Lynch, the vitriolic head of the Police Benevolent Association, the union for rank-and-file police officers, called reformers “pro-criminal advocates” who have “hijacked our city and state.” Dermot Shea, the NYPD commissioner, complained that civilian leaders were “literally cowards who won’t stand up for what is right.” Later, he insisted that the state’s recent bail reforms were driving up shootings and homicides—despite clear evidence to the contrary.

The uptick in murders is not unique to New York, nor is the attempt to exploit it to undermine reforms. Even as the pandemic lockdown helped push down many crimes, last year saw an unprecedented spike in homicides nationwide, likely more than twice the largest previous one-year rise. And given the retaliatory nature of lethal violence and the ongoing disruption from the pandemic, we should expect homicides to remain high in 2021 as well. One study in Chicago, for example, found evidence that cycles of retaliation and counterretaliation meant that a single shooting was often the root cause of three, or sometimes 60, or once almost 500 subsequent shootings over the next few years.

How to stop this wave of violence is thus one of the most important policy questions for 2021, but asking it has rarely felt more fraught. The surge in homicide comes at a moment when conventional responses to crime face more intense criticism than any time since the civil rights movements of the 1960s. Reformers and activists across the country have spent the past decade campaigning to reduce our reliance on prisons, jail, probation, and even the police. The changes we’ve seen may be less dramatic than what many advocates have hoped for, and certainly less dramatic than how many of their detractors describe them, but they both reflect and have nurtured a growing shift in popular views on crime control. Just observe how quickly calls to “defund” the police entered mainstream debates in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Considering this trend, it’s unsurprising that those who favor the status quo are trying to use the rise in homicides as grist for rolling back policies they dislike. Some residents in San Francisco, for example, are urging the recall of the city’s progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin, even though the city’s homicide rate barely budged and remains lower than that of almost any year but 2019. And the police union in Philadelphia had invoked the rise in homicides to try to unseat that city’s progressive prosecutor, Larry Krasner—although that effort fell flat, as Krasner easily won the Democratic primary in May (a victory that all but ensures his reelection in solidly Democratic Philadelphia).

To be clear, the defenders of the status quo are mistaken. Not only have reforms been less extreme than they often claim, but the rise in homicides has occurred more or less equally in places that adopted reforms and those that rejected them. And given how few places have significantly altered their approach to crime, the homicide spike by and large took place on the status quo’s watch. Those who want policy to remain more punitive are thus arguing for more of what has mostly failed us this past year, and they are trying to blame reforms that appear to be uncorrelated with the surge.

This is from E.J Dionne Jr writing for WAPO at the link above.

Concerns about crime cross party lines. In New York City, which holds its mayoral primary on Tuesday, a recent NY1/Ipsos poll of likely Democratic primary voters found that crime/public safety should be the top priority for the next mayor, listed by 46 percent. Reopening the economy and affordable housing followed well behind at 30 percent each; stopping the spread of covid-19 drew 24 percent, and battling racial injustice 20 percent.

When you talk to Democratic politicians searching for a principled path forward, one name pops up again and again. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, has both personal and political reasons to push for police reform as part of a strategy for restoring order.

“In the communities that I represent, no one wants to go back to the days of 2,000-plus homicides, which we all lived through in the midst of the crack-cocaine epidemic,” Jeffries told me. “Nobody that I know in Bedford-Stuyvesant, in East New York . . . into Coney Island, Brownsville and certainly in other traditionally African American neighborhoods across New York City wants to go back to those days or anything close to it.”
The core of his argument: “Public safety and justice in policing are not mutually exclusive. We can do both, and we must do both.”

“The fundamental objective of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is to try and shift the mind-set of policing from a warrior mentality to a guardian mentality,” said Jeffries, a champion of the bill who has endorsed police reformer Maya Wiley in the New York mayor’s race. “When members of law enforcement engage with communities of color, having adopted a warrior mentality, then some individuals they encounter tend to be viewed as enemy combatants. And when that occurs, things can go wrong, as was the case in the death of George Floyd.”

The guardian vocation that Jeffries preaches stresses community collaboration and would “lift up public safety for the good of everyone involved.”

Even though we saw a glimpse of Post World War 2 and cold war USA at the G-7 Summit, I seriously doubt we’re ever going to return to those days. Those days weren’t even halcyon for women, people of color, and the GLBT community.  We were disenfranchised and held back by systemic discrimination built into white patriarchal hegemony. It took decades just to break through some of the barriers only to find that the Republicans want to snatch them all back.  Stacking the courts is going to create a new battleground. Right-wing Extremists have already laid down their Maginot line.

Georges Braque, L’Olivier Près De L’Estaque (The Olive Tree near L’Estaque), 1906

Jack Rosen and Denver Riggleman write this Op-Ed at Newsweek: “We Need to Stop Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Online Extremism Before It Gets Violent.”

The American political system is under attack from far-right extremists and white supremacists. This battle for the democracy and diversity that define America has already spilled into violence and insurrection. It begins not in the streets but in the shadows of online chat rooms and social networking sites that spread lies and disinformation, foment anger and hatred, and coordinate dangerous action.

How our country deals with this challenge will have a direct impact on our political process, as divisive politicians like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) are actively leveraging these networks to build their political power.

It’s worth remembering that the FBI says that domestic extremism represents a worse terrorist threat to Americans than ISIS and Al Qaeda, which is why the Biden Administration’s decision to join the “Christchurch call” to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online is a good first step. Among the first targets should be the far-right social networking site called “Gab.”

Gab grew to notoriety in 2018, when the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter posted antisemitic messages there just before committing the worst killing of Jews in the history of our country. Unchecked, this platform still provides space for users to espouse and consume white nationalist, antisemitic, neo-Nazi and other extreme content.

For example, law enforcement officials have documented that the planning and rhetoric leading up to the January 6th Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol were massive mobilizing efforts and recruitment campaigns for Gab.

Yet instead of taking responsible action to tone down the dangerous content on his platform, Gab leader Andrew Torba revels in it, claiming the Constitutional right to do so.

The Constitution is not a suicide pact for American democracy.

We have the chance to form the current trajectory into something that respects our constitution, our democracy, and the idea that there is justice for all.  This is going to be difficult. It will take diligence and activism.  We sit on a turning point for climate change and using technology to provide energy and life sustainable for all life forms and the planet.  We sit on the turning point of democracy.  We must rise to the occasion.

What’s on your reading and blogging list today?