Step Right Up

In the wake of revelations that Donald Trump told Bob Woodward that he, Trump, had deliberately misled the American people about the dangers of Covid-19, White House officials reportedly are scrambling to assign blame. Aides are pointing fingers at each other, asking whose stupid idea it was to have Trump talk to Woodward in the first place.

The truth is, they couldn’t have stopped him.

Once upon a time I was a criminal prosecutor. It occasionally happened that I would find myself in trial on a case that looked far better on paper than it did when testimony was given in open court. Many was the time when I said, “Your Honor, the People rest,” and thought to myself, This case is a piece of crap. I’m gonna lose. Then the defendant would take the stand and lose the case right back to me. He’d say things that proved his guilt, or were so terrible that they made the jurors want to convict him as fast as they could. I’d win. Afterward, I’d think, Why did the defense put on a case at all? Why didn’t the attorney just rest right after I rested, and then argue to the jury that I hadn’t proved much of anything—certainly not enough to send a person to prison?

It took me a while to figure it out. The answer was that the defendant wanted to testify. Crooks tend to be people who have spent their lives pulling a fast one on family, friends, and acquaintances. They peddle bullshit, and over the course of time they hone their craft to the point that they think they will always be able to bullshit their way out of trouble. Then they get to court and it doesn’t work on strangers, and off to prison they go.

Their attorneys let them do this because it’s less hassle. If the attorney keeps the defendant off the stand and the jury convicts, the defendant is mad at his lawyer. If the defendant testifies and convinces the jury to convict him, he has no one to blame but himself. The attorney got paid up front, so who cares? Let the clown testify and convict himself.

Now think about how many decades Donald Trump has been peddling bullshit.

Trump is P.T. Barnum. He doesn’t worry about whether what he says is true. He is only concerned with whether what he says is useful. Life is all about—and only about—making a buck. If saying a thing makes him a buck, it’s right to say that thing. He thinks all the handwringing over the falsity of his statements is funny. He thinks you’re a loser and a sucker for thinking truth matters.

Trump thinks (wrongly) that his utilitarian view of language serves him well because he thinks (wrongly) that he is a successful businessman, and that lying has been one of the engines of his (illusory) success. So why wouldn’t he talk to Woodward? Trump didn’t talk to him for his last book, Fear: Trump in the White House, and the result was an unflattering portrait. Not this time. No sirree. This time, Trump the con artist was going to bullshit Woodward into writing a paean to the greatest President ever to appear under the Big Top.

No one in Trump’s orbit was ever going to stop him. It would be an affront to Trump’s ego to suggest that he couldn’t put one over on Woodward. Affronts to this President’s ego are not well-received. Why put your head on that chopping block? Let the clown testify and convict himself.

It is mildly interesting, I suppose, to wonder whether Trump understands the mistake he made. Does he know how badly he screwed up, or is he confused about all the fuss? If it’s the latter, he has come to believe his own bullshit. If it’s the former, he will never admit it. Either way, we can expect him to lash out soon at some unrelated target in an attempt to change the subject. The key to sleight of hand, after all, is to distract the mark while the con takes place just out of view. Come one, come all: the circus is in town.

Kaep was Right. He’s Still Right.

This is the state of our country: According to CNN, there are as many National Guard members activated in the U.S. right now as there are active duty troops in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Maybe, just maybe, Colin Kaepernick had something to say that the country should have been willing to hear. Maybe, just maybe, if he hadn’t been run out of town we wouldn’t be where we are now.

Denial, goes the old saying, is a river in Egypt. Except that it isn’t a river at all. It’s the road that runs straight to hell, and we’re awfully far down that road. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to turn around.

The Speech That Should Be

“My fellow Americans:

“On this Memorial Day we remember the many thousands of American men and women who answered the call of their country and gave their lives to preserve and defend the greatest experiment in self-government the world has ever known. We recall and honor their ultimate sacrifice, and as we do so we cannot help but also recall the sacrifices made on the home front by those who were not directly engaged on the front lines, but who nevertheless felt themselves part of a great struggle in which they were called upon to do everything in their power to support the men and women fighting on the field of battle.

“Today we are engaged in another great struggle that tests our character as a nation and as a people. Our adversary does not hate us—for it is not human—and thus it cannot be made to abandon hatred or change its ways. It has no flesh and no face, and thus does not care how similar are the pigments of our skins or the features of our faces. It does not think, and thus cannot be deterred by any rational calculation. The adversary we face today exploits a fundamental characteristic of the human condition—our need for the company and society of other human beings. That need makes us vulnerable to a virus that exploits our social nature to propagate and to kill its hosts.

“It is precisely because we are being attacked at a point of such vulnerability that we must now summon a strength and unity that eludes us in happier, more pacific times. For this virus can only be defeated if we have the strength to persevere in the measures necessary to allow our front-line health care workers to do their jobs without being overwhelmed with new patients. It can only be defeated if we act with the unity of purpose that ensures we Americans not only keep ourselves safe, but that we protect the safety of our neighbors and our communities, as well. It can only be defeated if we understand that we all stand together or we all fall separately.

“Whatever differences we have in happier times do not matter now. Those differences are a luxury of sorts. A people secure in their health and wellbeing may squabble over economic policy or public morality. But a people engaged in a life or death struggle must be singularly focused on survival—their own, that of their neighbors, and that of their larger communities. When the battle for survival is won, we may indulge our grievances and resume our arguments. But for now, we must give meaning and effect to the name our founders gave us. We must be the United States of America.

“Memorial Day calls upon us to remember that our wars were most often fought by people who were not professional soldiers. Often they were not volunteers. Yet, in every conflict, they summoned the courage to overcome the hardships they were called upon to endure, and to surmount the challenges they faced. Not for one moment do I doubt the courage and dedication of our health-care workers who serve on the front lines of our current struggle day in and day out. Often they do so at the cost of their own wellbeing—sometimes at the cost of their lives. Yet they do not falter.

“Americans on the home front have always rallied to support those on the front lines. We have sacrificed our creature comforts and conveniences so that resources could be dedicated to the fight. We have done without because we knew the sacrifice was temporary—but also because we knew that success was vital.

“It is no less vital now. Americans are no less dedicated to victory and no less committed to the proposition that a free and fractious people will close ranks and stand as one when a threat appears from over the horizon. We may gripe about our desire for a haircut, or a manicure, or an evening out. But we know that these are small sacrifices to make so that weary doctors and nurses can end their shifts and return to their families. We may complain about having to wear a face mask, but we know that it is far easier to do so than to keep our national economy closed. We know that we can do these things for each other and for our nation. We know that when we tell our children about the Pandemic of 2020, we want to be able to tell them we did our part.

“I believe in the resolve and compassion of the American people. I believe that as our health care professionals and our state leaders decide how much we can reopen our country, and how fast, we will listen carefully. Together, we will ensure that all are safe and prosperous. Together, we will win this struggle and emerge stronger than before. On this Memorial Day, let us consecrate the sacrifices made by those whom we honor today by rededicating ourselves to the American experiment with a renewed spirit of national purpose and an unflinching commitment to this common cause. Thank you.”

Terms of Use

Finally, I am reading Leaves of Grass. I am not skimming it to find some pretty lines to recite for company. No, I am reading the full work because the twilight of the American experiment seems like a good time to pause and reflect upon the meaning and nobility of that experiment. One could just as easily read Condorcet, or the Federalist Papers, but Leaves of Grass better suits my present mood. If the philosophers of the Enlightenment were the brains of our crumbling project, Whitman was and is its heart. In the sadness of the present historical moment, I find myself more in need of solace than intellectual reinvigoration.

Yesterday, I came upon the poem, For You O Democracy:

Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,

I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,

I will make divine magnetic lands,

With the love of comrades,

With the life-long love of comrades.

I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,

I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,

By the love of comrades,

By the manly love of comrades.

For you these from me, O Democracy, to serve you ma femme!

For you, for you I am trilling these songs.

I read and re-read the poem. I thought: If only these words, and nothing more, were the terms of use of Facebook, and all social media. Imagine that you could not post opinions without asking yourself whether your writing promotes the indissolubility of your community, or its dissolution. Imagine that you required of yourself that your writings help make the human race the most splendid the sun ever shone upon. Imagine that before you hit “Post,” you had to explain—if only to yourself—how you intended to make divine with the love of comrades these magnetic lands. Imagine that these terms of use were enforced only by conscience, and that this was enough. Perhaps then we would stop cutting down the trees along the riverbanks in order to provide a clear line of sight for our weapons of mass dysfunction. Perhaps then we would throw our arms around each other’s necks, instead of each other’s throats. Perhaps, like Whitman, we could know ourselves as manly comrades and as ma femme, simultaneously and without contradiction.

It’s a pretty thought.

The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street, Again

In the 1950’s, as Senator Joe McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt degraded the nation’s political culture and terrorized the entertainment industry, a young writer made a breakthrough with his award-winning play, “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” He began to receive offers to write novels, screenplays, and television shows. But he frequently found himself being censored by sponsors who were loathe to back any work that might invite scrutiny from Washington. Eventually, Rod Serling realized that the only way he could say what he wanted to say was through the indirection and metaphor afforded by the genre of science fiction. Although some of the episodes of the show he created, The Twilight Zone, are pure sci-fi, many others are thinly-veiled political statements. Some are direct shots at Joe McCarthy.

In The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, the residents of Maple Street see a light in the sky that looks like a spaceship. They gather in the street to speculate about what they just saw. The more they talk, the more they reinforce each other’s fears. Someone raises the possibility that aliens have come to invade Earth. The power to the neighborhood fails inexplicably. One resident can’t start his car, then the car starts by itself. Terror overtakes the neighbors. Someone suggests that the aliens must have a spy who told them that Maple Street would be a good place to begin their invasion. In a flash, the neighbors turn on each other violently, and Maple Street descends into chaos.

It doesn’t end the way you’d think. The light really was a spaceship. Aliens really are planning to invade. They’ve been standing on a hill outside town, playing with the power and preying on people’s fear. This is how they will conquer Earth without firing a shot: they will turn the humans against each other and watch while we destroy ourselves.

Today, the monsters are returning. Not to Maple Street, but to our new virtual neighborhood: social media.

In 2020, I’m supporting Senator Amy Klobuchar for President. The reasons don’t matter for purposes of this post. The point is that as a supporter of Sen. Klobuchar, I get her Facebook posts in my feed. A few I read, most I glance at, some I ignore. Regardless of the subject matter, however, the comment threads are uniformly terrifying.

Today Sen. Klobuchar posted a story about a staffer of hers receiving a fellowship, and offering her congratulations. As you might expect, the comments section went right off the rails. One Jeff Ritzko responded, “Remember 9/11.” Huh? What does that have to do with the post? It gets much worse. Regina Massini said, “I SEE YOU’RE A LYING DEM-O-RAT WHOSE [sic] ON THE SIDE OF THE MUSLIMS[.]” The all-caps are all hers; everyone knows you’re more persuasive when you shout. The award for Most Deranged Comment of The Day, however, goes to one Mark Flesberg, who writes, “OMAR MARRIED HER BROTHER. AMY SUPPORTS HAMAS BEHIND CLOSED DOORS. TODAY’S DEMS ARE A RADICAL BUNCH. #OBAMUNISM”

At this point, you’re probably reaching for the Tums. What the hell is wrong with this country that people think these things? How did their perspective become so distorted that they’re perfectly comfortable spouting lunatic ideas in public?

Put down the Tums. Breathe. It isn’t as bad as all that. Or maybe it’s worse.

Jeff Ritzko’s Facebook profile shows no activity since 2012. It’s been dormant for seven years. It has no pictures of him. It lists no family or personal information. The chances are very good that either the profile is fake, or it’s a dormant profile that has been hijacked by domestic or foreign trolls.

Regina Massini’s Facebook profile consists entirely of a cover photo and one picture of a document or web page from 2018. The profile lists no friends, no location information, and has no original content. Yet suddenly she’s active in political discussions on Facebook. The chances of her being a real person are low.

Mark Flesberg sounds like the neighbor you shoo your kids away from because you’re pretty sure he’s unhinged and you don’t know what he might do. Except that Mr. Flesberg probably isn’t your neighbor, because he probably isn’t real. His profile has no pictures of himself, and lists no friends. There is no identifiable personal information. The most recent activity is one picture in 2018 and one picture in 2016. And now he’s suddenly active in the threads of a politician whom he opposes? Doubtful.

But wait, you say: perhaps these people just have their privacy settings turned up to eleven. Well, I’ve seen real profiles like that. You can still see profile pictures that show the same person in different settings. You can still see activity. You can still see original content, not just reposted memes or forwarded stories from biased sources on the lunatic fringe. The profiles I’m flagging have none of the hallmarks of authenticity.

Think about it, folks: if you support a candidate, you might follow that candidate’s activities. You might comment on them from time to time. But starting arguments with people whom you will never convince of anything by making inflammatory comments on the threads of candidates whom you oppose is a total waste of time. Sane people don’t waste their time like that.

The point isn’t that the political right is nuts, because this isn’t a right-wing phenomenon. Quite the contrary. Russian trolls are on every side of every argument. Their purpose is not to convince you of any particular thing. Their purpose is to convince you only that they are your neighbor—and to make you angry. Their purpose is to drive a wedge between you and the people with whom you share your community, your city, your state, and your country. In this way will we become too divided to act purposefully as a nation. In this way will we destroy ourselves from within, just like the residents of Maple Street.

The measure of how effective these trolls are is that it takes extreme effort and supreme self-control not to be drawn into arguing with them. The argument is what they want. They feed on anger. Irrational argument turns political adversaries into enemies, and enemies fight to kill.

The United States has the strongest military on the planet, and it isn’t close. We are unconquerable from without. Any country that seeks to do us harm must weaken us from within. It must make us so distrustful of our leaders, our institutions and each other that we refuse to believe that existential threats are real. It must paralyze us into inaction by distracting us with internecine battles. Right now, the Russians are doing a pretty good job of that.

The enemies of this country are real. They do not live on your block. They do not vote for the party you don’t belong to. They are standing on their hills outside our borders, playing with our emotions and preying on our fear.