When “Mangle,” the seventh in a series on the 2020 pandemic, came out in December, I declared it the last with a proviso: “If a surprising new development were to pop up—say a coup or martial law or a tripling of the COVID-19 death rate—I could always extend the series on that angle later.” The coup and the tripling of the death rate happened, and the martial law idea got a thorough airing through the aegis of Sidney Powell and Michael Flynn’s advocacy at a raucous White House meeting on December 18th; President Trump wasn’t opposed. So there we have the trifecta. “Bingo!” Wouldn’t you agree that three of the four major pandemics—COVID-19, the Trump scourge, and the white supremacist rage—had monster breakouts in the winter and spring? Planetary degradation, the fourth, was already at warp speed before New Year’s Day. So, there are many “angles” to write about in the confluence.
January 6 trumped all. A violent insurrection breached the walls of the United States Capitol while Congress was in session counting electoral college votes for President. The insurrectionists were rally goers invited and incited specifically for the occasion by President Trump. For his crime, Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives a week later and convicted by 56 Senators. Forty-three Republican Senators broke their oath of office by voting “not guilty” on an open and shut case, as if they were pawns in a soviet era show trial.
January 6, 2021 now joins bombings of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and of the Pentagon and Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 as days to be remembered in infamy.
The invasion of the Capitol may turn out to be one of the most photographed events in history. Walls exploded with selfies. Cameras were everywhere. Videos and images speeded off into the ether at the speed of light. Insurrectionists proudly posted images and conversed with people back home even as windows were broken and the police were attacked. The President, back at The White House after stoking up the crowd, watched the insurrection on television with reported delight until incessant phone calls from the scene interrupted his reverie.
Revisionist accounts of January 6 are likely to evolve indefinitely. The Kennedy assassination, in comparison, may come to seem under-analyzed. Zapruder like videos will probably pop up at various strategic times for decades. Every participant will have his or her own story to tell. Books will be legion. Meaning will change as memories are freshly represented
One shouldn’t be surprised at anything. Whose to say that Christ won’t be spotted in the crowd by QAnon folk! The ‘Second Coming’ may have been underway for all we know and eventually include Donald Trump’s reascension to the national throne.
Since the event, Trump spin masters have been spooling out revisionist histories du jour that would recast the failed coup as a protest rally spoiled by random rowdies, Antifa, and “deep state” saboteurs. By June, Republicans had nothing more to say—much less investigate—about the events of January 6th. Trump the serial fabulist, freshly emboldened by the staying power of his past lies, is predicting a return to the presidency in August, or if not exactly then, late summer!
There’s a cruel story of a young man who after spending hours figuring out how to boost himself over a tall construction fence found himself upon unexpected success in free fall four stories above the ground plunging to his doom. Surprise!
This experience seems to be broadly applicable to the chums who participated in the Capitol insurrection. At some point—moments, hours, days, years later—every provocateur, participant, and citizen viewer freezes in amazement: all these random seditionists are in free fall. Democracy is too. How did that happen? What was my part? I thought I was one of the good guys!
Over 500 insurrectionists have been identified and indicted thus far. Hundreds more are expected. The projected total of miscreants is 800. The insurgents sit in jail cells waiting court action. I imagine them berating themselves. What the hell happened? “I’m a peace-loving, law and order kind of guy, a patriot protecting my country. I was only following the commands of my President and Commander-in-Chief. Why do people treat me like some Benedict Arnold? I’m a veteran. I revere the police. How did I get suspended in free fall four stories off the ground?”
On the Other Hand
The rioters were so self-satisfied and so proud to be involved. They posed, bragged of their exploits, claimed historical achievements, and stole mementos to bring home. No one was hiding! They claimed patriotism, love of country, divine direction, and presidential guidance. The election had been stolen from their leader and they were warriors for justice. They accused Vice-President Pence, random legislators, and the Capitol police of being “traitors,” spat out racial epithets, and fought the police. A confederate flag was seen. People died. A policeman was killed.
True, these clownish compeers appeared bumbling and inept, strangely reminiscent of the keystone cops of yore, lounging in the speaker’s office, dressed up as shamans, and pretending to preside over the Senate. Mostly, they mimicked their leader, Donald J. Trump, whose habit it is to tell the world what atrocious thing he is about to do, and then do it half-ass, so amateurishly as to render the show risible. The Bible photo-op fiasco is the iconic example.
What did Trump and his warriors intend to do on January 6th? What did Trump actually want to have happen that day? No authoritative source has flushed out the action, the main events, the chapters and the ending of the Capitol caper story. Republican partisans don’t want to find out; they have nixed an official investigation. So, we can only speculate.
What are the Odds?
What do you think of the following scenario? How long or short are the odds that this was the intended and hoped for outcome? Let your imagination construct the scene.
Eight hundred insurgents successfully pierce the perimeter of the Capitol complex on January 6 and find their way into House and Senate chambers and into the Speaker’s office. Calls are heard to hang the Vice-President and assassinate the Speaker of the House. A noose is prepared and displayed. A shot is heard. An insurrectionist is killed. A policeman dies. The House and Senate are in session. News of the incursion forces them to stop counting the electoral college votes for President that would have certified Joseph Biden as the 46th President of the United States. The legislators are whisked away to safety elsewhere in the building.
The insurgents subsequently gain secure control of the Capitol complex, establish a perimeter, are reinforced by fresh volunteers, and take prisoners. The prisoners are to be used as shields and bargaining chips. In the melee, the Vice-President and Speaker of the House are killed, as is Senator Charles Grassley.
The insurrectionists, chanting “Stop the Steal,”confiscate and destroy the vote boxes, ending the counting of electoral college votes, They demand a new election that the people can trust and urge President Trump to remain in office and superintend such an election. They want Mr. Biden arrested for his complicity in election fraud.
The Capitol is surrounded by troops and police. Martial law is imposed. Troops retake the Capitol the next day and arrest the insurrectionists. President Trump stays in office and consults with Congressional leaders as to when the new election should be held and how it should be administrated. Joseph Biden protests from an unknown location that he is the rightful President of the United States and demands that President Trump leave the office by noon on January 20th. Trump doesn’t; he remains as the avowed president.
Can we agree that the odds on a scenario like this are above zero?
A monster looms. The outgoing President of the United States attempted by sustained plotting, lying, insurrection, and other assorted crimes to remain in office after electoral defeat, to pull off a coup. He found willing enablers in governors’ mansions, attorney generals’ offices, the House of Representatives, and the Senate. One hundred and forty-seven Representatives, including fourteen Senators—in personal danger themselves during the insurrection—nevertheless voted later that evening to prevent certification of the electoral college results. Several were subsequently implicated directly in the planning and abetting of the insurrection. They advanced “The Big Lie” and the “Stop the Steal” ruse. All voted against the establishment of an independent 9/11 type commission to investigate the matter and determine what happened.
Despite the unconstitutionality and criminality of his actions, Trump continues as the sole leader of the Republican Party and the party remains competitive. It could win governorships, state legislatures, and majorities in both houses of Congress in the 2022 election. Their brazen priority is to rewrite state election laws in order to restrict African-American votes and steal upcoming elections.
The Republican party, strictly speaking, is no longer a political party with distinct wings and shades of opinion. Most principled conservatives exited the party when Trump became its leader. The Republican Party is now a personality cult. No moderates or independents are welcome. It has no policies, program, or agenda other than to please Trump. His aim is to punish enemies, reward friends, and return to the White House.
Bad temper and deep resentment, the detritus of losers, give the Republican party its characteristic tone. White superiority, spiced with misogyny and a fear of strangers, inform its core beliefs. The party has turned into a stalking monster that steals elections and threatens democracy.
I’ve been waiting for a well-researched exposition of “cancel culture.” There must be good examples in higher education to justify the deep grievance Republicans avow. If the crimes are real, I, as a career academic and lifelong civil libertarian, could be expected to concur. If universities are into curtailing free speech, count me as a critic.
But in the meantime, elsewhere, the Republican Party has happily reinvented itself as the majordomo of cancel culture. They want to cancel any and all inconvenient history. They dismiss the heritage of slavery, refuse the charge of institutional racism, trumpet Trump’s lie of a stolen election, absolve him of his crimes, reframe January 6th as an Antifa event and random tourist mishap, resist the establishment of an independent commission, and rid themselves of Liz Cheney for the crime of truth-telling. They defile democracy and de-legitimize the voter and the election. They cancel their image as the party of Lincoln. They cancel their previous deeply-held policy positions.
Shortly after President Trump took office in 2017, I inquired of a Trump voter why she had voted for him? Insulted, she reversed the question: “Why do you think?” “Racism,” I ventured a guess. She was doubly insulted. I apologized.
But three years later, as candidate Trump was dog-whistling the Proud Boys and refusing to denounce white supremacy, she changed her mind. She wouldn’t be voting for him again. “You were right,” she said, “racism and white supremacy are what he’s about!” Do you agree?
Without the right to vote, there is no democracy. The higher the percent of citizens who have the right, the greater the chances of democratic outcomes. Every adult citizen should have the franchise. Because the influence of government is great, weighty, and continuous, I’d also grant the right to vote to sixteen year olds.
I’m an unabashed advocate for democracy over other forms of government despite Plato’s well-reasoned counter argument (essentially that weird personality cults of would-be autocrats like Trump are sure to pop up from time to time) and despite the actual stupidity, ignorance, arrogance, and immorality with which many voters defile their vote. Nevertheless, your right to vote is absolute; use it as you will; it’s your call; I’m glad you and I have the right.
Still, It’s unconscionable that the Republican Party would systematically craft and unilaterally pass devilish legislation to retard and nullify African-American votes in scores of states across the country. And why is the Roberts Court choosing to nullify the effects of the Voting Rights Act of 1965? After all the blood spent on the passage and implementation of the 15th and 19th amendments, how dare these scoundrels defile the sacred right to vote? Does it not cheapen and delegitimate my vote if I use it to restrict yours? Wouldn’t it be better to register all entitled voters and have parties compete for votes with programs that address their needs?
I must have been asleep, like Rip Van Winkle, when the brouhaha about vaccines hit the television screens. Before the coronavirus pandemic, I had heard that an anti-vaccine movement had allowed a measles breakout here and there. That was all I knew about vaccine resistance.
I personally thought vaccines were great and couldn’t wait for ones to control COVID. My wife Beverly, who has a compromised immune system, and I, both age 84, had taken to calling the anticipated vaccines “liquid gold.” We waited patiently for our turn in the call up line. Neighbors, early registrants, drove thirty miles through a Maine snow storm to get their first shots. Friends in Florida travelled fifty miles to get theirs in a parking lot line, as if gassing up or picking up a burger. We were at the site fifteen minutes early when our time came on February 2nd, 2021, and there again in a freezing wind a month later for a second shot of the Pfizer vaccine. We were thrilled. We had had twenty to thirty shots in our arms over the years, and this topped them all save the Salk vaccine for polio in the 1950s. We celebrated and marveled at the incredible achievements of the government and of the scientists.
What then is all this refusal about? How did the vaccine get mixed up with crazy politics and religion? Where is this idea or religious liberty coming from? Why so much fear, ignorance, misinformation, irresponsibility, spite, and self-defeating behavior? In a society that praises itself on its thoughtful, independent citizens, why are so many smart people unwilling to research the topic, find the answers, protect others, and do the right thing? How did we get in an anti-vaccine war? Ditto on masks!
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), issued its annual report in August. Summarizing the report for The Washington Post, reporter Tik Root conveys its essence in five key quotes:
- ’It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.’
- ’The last decade was more likely than not warmer than any multi-centennial period after the Last Interglacial, roughly 125,000 years ago.’
- ’Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.’
- ’With further global warming, every region is projected to increasingly experience concurrent and multiple changes in climatic impact-drivers.’
- ’Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.’
In other words, global climate change is accelerating and getting the better of us. The situation is worse than we thought.
Another report in August says that the fire raging in Siberia in a region “about the size of Argentina” is burning an area greater than the fires going on simultaneously in Greece, Turkey, Italy, the United States, and Canada combined. 2021 is expected to surpass 2011 as Russia’s worst fire year. High temperatures, drought, and high winds correlated with global warming are the presumed explanation.
Further north in Siberia, it is reported that an area of the permafrost is melting at such a fast rate as to constitute a “methane time bomb.” Massive amounts of methane may soon be released into the atmosphere. Methane is “a potent greenhouse gas with considerably more warming power than carbon dioxide.”
Polar Portal, a Danish Internet site run by Arctic climate researchers, reports that Greenland’s enormous ice sheet had just undergone a “massive melting event;” “enough ice vanishing in a single day to cover the whole of Florida in two inches of water.” “Since July 27, roughly 9.37 billion tons of ice has been lost per day— twice the normal average in Greenland during summer.”
The Washington Post, with Sarah Kaplan reporting on August fifth, reveals that scientists are deeply concerned about the weakening of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation system (AMOC) in the Atlantic Ocean that “transports warm, salty water from the tropics to northern Europe and then sends colder water back south along the ocean floor.” This threat too is due to global warming. “Researchers who study ancient climate change have . . . uncovered evidence that the AMOC can turn off abruptly, causing wild temperature swings and other dramatic shifts in global weather systems. A worrying prospect is raised “that this critical aquatic “conveyor belt” could be close to collapse.”
That’s some of the striking nature news from Planet Woebegone this summer, straight talk from nature.
More straight talk from nature. As of the end of August, 217.8 million cases of infection and 4.5 million deaths have been attributed to COVID-19. New event counts average 642,733 infections and 9,539 deaths a day. Comparable figures for the United States are 39.3 million cases, with 640,478 deaths, overall, and 160,041 new cases and 1,346 death per day. While global figures appear to be trending down at the moment and U.S. rates up, the emergence and surge of the Delta variant is of special concern. It is probable that 700,000 Americans will die of the disease before year’s end,
Several facts stick out as notable from our experience with the coronavirus thus far:
- We have not yet been willing to conceive of the phenomena as a natural event of a virus attacking a species; we prefer to presume human agency, political treachery, and to hold human agents responsible.
- We have not yet treated the virus as a global happening—a pandemic— but rather insisted on seeing it as a series of linked local and national epidemics.
- We have interwoven the coronavirus story with a good deal of magical, religious, and conspiratorial thinking rather than attack the pandemic head on as a scientific and public health problem.
- We have not yet organized a planet-focused strategy but rather emphasized national and local strategies.
- We have not yet trusted scientists and public health professionals to counter the disease. We have insisted that scientists produce efficacious and effective vaccines and medicines, ASAP. Amazingly, science has done exactly that while undergoing sustained attack by politicians who prefer religious and magical rituals over science!
In other words, we’ve been stupid as a species, and because of this COVID 19 has an unnecessarily bright future. The virus is going to hang around a very long time. More contagious and deadly variants will surely arise and establish themselves.
The virus is only doing what all forms of life do, “evolve.” That which works better in extending life (in this case the life of a virus)‚ dominates over earlier, less robust variants. The results of the pandemic will be ever more devastating if we continue to act as if we are special beings outside and above nature, nature’s master. We are not. As with global warming, nature talks straight. Nature rules.
Tower of Babel
In comparison with the straight talk of nature, adults communicate relatively poorly. Public discourse in our country seems to have reached an unhinged, whacky quality. Everyone desperately wants to get across their point of view—the “honest to God Truth” so to speak—to everyone else. Everyone’s right. Everyone’s wrong. I’m right, so how do I get you to change your mind?
It’s a fools errand, of course, to try to change another’s mind, but it might be useful to consider the difficulty of the problem and to consider the worst and best practices available.
When people seek to convince each other to act a certain way, they typically employ a small set of poor stratagems. Popular approaches include:
- Tell them what you want and, if you’ve got the power, punish them into compliance.
- Tell them what you want and, if you control the resources, bribe them into compliance.
- Tell them what you want with fervor, so that they know you really mean it and would fight over it, if necessary. Intimidate them.
- Repeat yourself incessantly. Argue. Wear them down.
- Remind them of what their parents, relatives, and other forebears would have wanted and expected. Make them feel guilty.
- Debase their conduct by showing how it violates the community’s sacred moral code. Shame them.
- Invoke God and religion. Throw doubt on your opponents chances for entrance to heaven. Remind them of hell. Scare them.
- Point out the contradictions and inconsistencies in their thoughts. Make them feel stupid.
- Convince them that your view fits an ideal vision of the future. Make them feel dirty and cheap.
Some people, perhaps a majority, employ these negative, dehumanizing strategies exclusively. When these fail, as they usually do, it’s good to know that better—if less spectacular—approaches are available. One could:
- Approach people kindly, with respect, and as equals.
- Ask helpful questions and listen patiently. Have a pleasant, leisurely conversation.
- Aim to clarify the context and situation; gain understanding.
- Gather relevant facts and cases; consider the evidence.
- Help the person identify options and make choices; Support their choices.
- Help the person overcome barriers.
In brief, mutual respect, conversation, facts, reasoning, and evidence help people make up their own minds. People thereby understand themselves and their circumstances better, and make good choices. People can’t be forced into compliance. It’s enough to be a resource, co-learner, and friend.
At the moment, we seem to be under the sway of lousy habits of communication, indeed mired in bad story telling. History feels too dangerous to face and admit straight up, and fiction fails to inform or make for sustainable reality. Telling truth from lies has become a challenge for everyone.
Kurt Anderson, the author of Fantasyland, a book that captures the zeitgeist of our times better than most and amazingly well, estimates the percentage of fact- and evidence-based thinkers (critical thinkers, reasonable people) at about 15 percent of the adult population. The other 85 percent are likely to employ the debasing stratagems discredited above. We see and hear the failing results of those stratagems all around us everyday. It’s Babel out there, is it not? The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. It is never too late to talk to each other with respect.
Giving closure to these analyses, I offer the following conclusions:
It would be wise of us to think of ourselves as fundamentally a species fighting for survival rather than as supernaturally-guided heroes destined to become masters of the universe. Under current assumptions, we appear to devolving toward extinction fast.
It would be wise for us to focus on the planet as a whole as our prime object of attention; our technologies, interactions, impacts, and problems are all global. Nation-states can’t be expected to succeed with local assumptions. Global institutions are needed as fast as good ones can be conceived and established.
It would be wise of us to bet our future on science and on the wisdom of the humanities, using the collective knowledge of human experience throughout time. Supernatural forces can’t be depended upon forever without evidence.
It would be wise to examine closely our protective structures and systems; they are shaking and wobbling. Nations, governments, economies, democracies, health systems, climate, cultures, and lives are in disequilibrium. We are ahead of ourselves, and behind. The pandemic is a symbol and a cause. Climate change offers daily proof. Refugee movements are a sign. Our self-caused problems are speeding up and getting ahead of us. It’s hot and getting hotter. Waves of all kinds—water, earth, fire, and sand—are expanding in amplitude. New variants of the virus are on the horizon. Politics is sluggish, shrill, stupid, silly, and violent. Lives are out of whack.
The hydra-headed monster of nativism, misogyny, white supremacy, fascism, demagoguery, and autocracy is loose on the prairie, locus-like, rampaging and ravishing the land, across multiple continents, exacerbating disequilibrium everywhere.
Defending democracy, preserving and extending the vote, encouraging good government, passing the Biden infrastructure packages, doing good science, and effective public health systems should be top priorities for the immediate future.
We must never forget, even for a moment, that staggering numbers of atomic doomsday machines are still waiting in silos ready for launch. We must dedicate ourselves to their reduction and destruction. They are not a solution to anything.
Calm down everyone. Keep your sanity, humor, and good sense. Keep doing the good work. Don’t let yourself devolve into a monster out of fear, jealousy, hate, foolish pride and spite. Be humble. Love life. Help each other.
Will Callender, Jr. ©
September 7, 2021
Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good