Thoughts On: “How Democracies Die”

I instinctually avoided this book until I could arrive at my own conclusions. Once I posted “The End of America,” I dove into this frightening little tome. The credits are funny. The authors are academics who thank their editor for stopping them from sounding like the college professors they are. I think the editor mostly won that battle. The book is readable and in sections feels like the scariest thriller you have ever picked up. It is important to keep telling oneself that they wrote this book after Trump won and published in 2018. Even these prescient authors could not expect what would happen next.

The first surprise was the about 50 pages that relate the history of political and social polarization in America. I have studied and written about the topic since I saw the Reagan revolution up close in DC in 1980. If you genuinely want to understand the deep roots of our current crisis, that history alone makes the book worth the price. They rightly trace our current divide to two pieces of legislation that began to right the greatest American flaw: The 1964 Civil Rights Act and The Voting Rights Act of 1965. That legislation flipped the South from Democrat to Republican and turned Black voters into Democrats thus turning the party into an urban entity. Add the politics of the Vietnam War and the lasting division of the two parties was set in stone.

The authors compare America to several countries that have slipped into authoritarian regimes. They don’t merely focus on Germany of the 1930s. They spend most of their time with Central and South America. Yes, it is now simple to compare us to the classic “banana republic.” There is a predictable pattern to how democracies fail. In a clear 4-part chart, the authors create check boxes for authoritarianism. 1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game. 2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents. 3. Toleration or encouragement of violence. 4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. If that list didn’t put a chill down your spine, then you are not paying attention.

History tells us that democracies rarely die in a single dramatic event. More likely, is the relentless erosion of norms. Our constitution has always depended on unwritten rules, what the authors call “guardrails,” that act as the glue to keep the system running. How many times have you heard the media say, “Trump is defying all norms?” Authoritarians save the direct assault on the written constitution for last. First comes the erosion of the rules that make government work. And the most important, maybe final assault: removing public faith in the results of elections. Remember, they wrote this in 2018. The authors still believed, or hoped, that we could keep this last boundary intact. They were wrong.

One guardrail is the actions of the political parties. They assumed that, given history, the Republicans would eventually turn on Trump and reject the path to authoritarian government. What we know now is that Republicans looked down into the abyss and said, “Okay, that’s fine by me.” Democrats do not have a partner to stop the end of democracy. They have a dedicated foe.

While the book captures the importance of the right-wing media sphere in keeping the Republican base angry, it completely miss the power of the internet and social media. I made this the core of my previous essay. Remarkably, these academics seemed to miss this one as Trump’s Twitter was raging for years before he was elected. A piece struck me this week in the Oregonian about the “Greater Idaho” movement to divide Oregon by ideology. Even in that article people were quoted as saying the real problem was when folks went home and spent the night staring at  Facebook groups and YouTube videos. We are sealed into thought worlds now.

This is an important book. If you love America, it is a frightening book. But if you are already concerned, knowing what exactly to look for is essential. What is happening now for most Americans is the classic frog boil. Raise the temperature of the pot slowly enough and lull the frog to death.

The book ends with 3 possible outcomes. I am not sure I completely agree, but I think they could have nailed the possibilities. First, Trump fails and is rejected. We know this is not the case. With a willing Republican party, one with a goal of a permanent minority rule, Trump is mostly unscathed. Second, Trump and the Republican win outright. They take congress again and Trump runs and wins a second term. If that happens, it is game over. However, I don’t think they go far enough here. The mini-Trumps waiting in the wings are smarter and more committed to the cause of authoritarianism that Trump. As bad as he is, we escape some of the worst outcomes because he is lazy and a narcissist. The next Trumpist won’t have those flaws. Finally, we live in a democracy without guardrails. The tribal warfare of the polarized parties and electorate is relentless. We bounce from one set of governing principles to another. The frog boil.

How Democracies Die tries to end with some encouragement. It makes a call to restore the norms, our essential guardrails. They call on Democrats to deal with the economic inequity to regain the trust of part of white, blue collar America. Biden was seen with a dogeared copy of this book. He gets it. They caution against doing what many Democrats want now and be just as evil and tough as McConnell and his henchmen. History tells us that road only hardens the opposition. Get rid of the filibuster now and when the power flips, it’s game over. I wondered if the authors had painted themselves into a logical corner and realized that they had no way out. My take is that we have one shot. Republicans continue to build structural ways to maintain power at the state level. Democrats lost the last election. That’s right. Biden’s victory was lipstick on a pig, as was the victory of 2 senators in Georgia. Don’t be fooled. Voter suppression can be defeated. Hard to vote still means that everyone can vote. The only way to give our democracy a fighting chance is to crush the Republicans at the polls in 2020 and 2022. Top to bottom, from the local school board to the White House. Democrats need to be ruthless in ignoring all distractions. They are not good at this. To save our democracy, they have to stop playing internal games and focus only on those actions that lead to total electoral victory. In this, they must become Republican-like. To govern, first win.

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The End of America

I doubt that the middle can hold. Circumstances the founders could not have expected are unleashed and what we know of as America hangs by a precarious thread.

The founders knew this form of government was an unlikely concoction. In fact, they collectively had a deep fear of democracy. Historically, attempts to form democratic governments had been unmitigated failures. The Roman Republic was their worst case. So, James Madison, and he was the primary author, created a constitution that explicitly seeks to parcel out power via interlocking checks and balances. It is a bit of a kludge that has mostly served us well. While it didn’t fix everything immediately, slavery and women voting for example, it was constructed in a way that even those onerous flaws were mitigated. We move toward justice.

Our democratic republic is like a steady middle infielder who never bats above.245. (Of course, a baseball metaphor) Such a player is essential because they grind out at bats with the occasional home-run and play defense that consistently saves runs. Any given day, they can dazzle, but most are the core of any excellent team. I think the problem with current perception about America is that we expect it to be a phenom, the star. Kind of silly that. The founders were audacious, but they weren’t idiots.

There is an old word at the core of Madison’s assumptions: comity. Here’s one definition: a state or atmosphere of harmony or mutual civility and respect. America was playing hardball, 2-party politics as early as 1800. Vicious attacks and outrageous claims were in newspapers and pamphlets. Still, when the dust settled, even the worst political enemies shared a baseline loyalty to the system, Enlightenment liberalism, and most importantly, the constitution. Differences existed under a single name: American. I have studied political polarization for decades and have remained an optimist about the resilience of the American experiment, but now I must admit that I may have been wrong.

The Internet is killing us. I was one of the earliest adopters of internet. A bit of a nerd, I was part of a small group who hacked our ancestral home PCs to behave like the UNIX systems in universities. After days of tinkering with an unbelievably slow modem, I recall the rush of seeing my screen slowly paint a web page from Switzerland. I yelled for Sally to come look. “Look… Look I am in Switzerland now!!” To which I believe she responded, “I don’t know what that means.” We few nerds rambled on endlessly about sewing the world together over one big internet. Veterans of dial up Bulletin Board Systems, we already understood virtual communities, but this was going to be different, free, universal. We were fools.

I am now sure the single most important factor in the coming dissolution of our republic is the internet. Social media is a collection of isolated cells of festering malice. We don’t use the tool to expand our personal universe and challenge our own assumptions. No, aided by the social media companies and malign actors (are those the same) people gather to confirm what they believe. “Believe” is the key word. The internet has vast wells of empirical knowledge, but our current internet exists to aggregate misinformation and support new religiosity. To believe is to commit to articles of faith. On the right, that is the cult of Donald Trump. Remarkably, Evangelical Christians have found in this swindler a new messiah. On the left, as critical theory has exploded into universities, what has emerged under the label “woke” is a secular religion where founding beliefs can’t be questioned. Both extremes define heretics then hunt them down on the internet, and increasingly, with violence on our streets. What both share is the resolute rejection of the single most important characteristic of our founding, the emergence of the independent, liberal human.

Quoting Andrew Sullivan:

The genius of liberalism in unleashing human freedom and the human mind changed us more in centuries than we had changed in hundreds of millennia. And at its core, there is the model of the single, interchangeable, equal citizen, using reason to deliberate the common good with fellow citizens. No ultimate authority; just inquiry and provisional truth. No final answer: an endless conversation. No single power, but many in competition.

Simply, the internet has made us all more stupid. Social media exists in the world of primal stimulation. The best way to keep your eyeballs on the screen is to tell you what you want to hear and poke at the basest emotion: anger. Love can motivate, anger keeps us clicking and clicks are money. The economic incentive of the internet alone is enough to dismantle over 200 years of comity.

The current version of the Republican party sprang to life in about 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. The Democratic party was the midwife of that birth. Reagan Democrats. That’s what we called those blue-collar voters who abandoned the Democratic party. The welfare state wasn’t helping them and all those promises of the Great Society had left them behind. Democrats abandoned God and started building ideological bastions in the big cities. Smart Republican operatives immediately understood the new game. Democrats, as usual, not so much. The victim and anger machine cranked into high-gear. AM radio, Rush Limbaugh and soon Fox News, took up the message. And election after election, Republicans pumped up the rubes in time to vote. Make no mistake, the smart Republicans always saw those would become Trump voters as rubes. Both parties looked down on them but the Republicans believed they could manage the mob with inter-splicing red meat issues like guns and abortion. But like the day that the Frankenstein monster left the lab, there came a point where the monster was hungry and angry at both parties. Toss in a black president to externalize white race anxiety and soon the call was, Fuck them all!!! And Trump responded, “Yea, fuck them all!” To fight Trump, the always clueless Democrats sent forth one of the most hated politicians in history. The coronation of Hillary became a revolution. Only Trump could embody the race fear of the mob so completely. At last, someone had their backs. And here we are.

I was waiting for a single event before I came to this horrifying conclusion. It wasn’t the January 6, 2021 insurrection. That one didn’t surprise me. They had telegraphed the attack for months. No, the single event that has now confirmed, for me, the unraveling of our democratic republic was today’s vote by the Republicans in the senate to kill the January 6 Commission. It is the refined essential oil of everything that has preceded it. Recall that the Republican votes in the 2 impeachments were couched in process. Those were not up and down votes on the core of the matter. There were long arguments about “jurisdiction” and “standing.” Republicans stood behind those thin ramparts. This time it was different. This time they had been personal witnesses to the crimes. They had run for their lives. This time the vote was achingly simple: Truth or Lie.

The audacity of the vote against the Commission was pure and clarifying. This was a vote to secure and maintain power. They didn’t hide the fact. Senator McConnell, who will be seen as the most powerful politician of the first part of the 21st Century, told us, told his caucus, told anyone who was listen. This vote was about the 2022 midterms and taking back the House and Senate. Truth sought by a majority of Americans would be an impediment to regaining full control of Congress. Truth would upset Trump, and more importantly, Trump is the essential filter through which almost all money for the Republican Party flows. Small donations from Trumpists are the lifeblood of the party now. McConnell, offended that he may have been on January 6, is above all the perfect transactional manager of power. I admire his singular focus, like I admire the ruthlessness of the Roman Emperors. He understands the inherent weaknesses of the Democratic leadership and is running the country as the minority leader of the Senate. It is a monumental accomplishment.

Here is what you are not hearing in the media now. So, what is the Republican plan? Trump lost them the Congress and the White House. Why stick with him? Democracies die when a minority party takes power and governs beyond the will of the majority of the governed. Almost nothing in the thin agenda of Republicans has majority support. They know they are a demographically shrinking and localized party now. It is only getting worse. But they also understand the greatest flaw of Madison’s design is that he never completely considered a threat to the nation would originate from within. His mechanisms to balance power assumed comity, the ultimate allegiance to the experiment itself, over the narrow interests of a single group or party. Madison didn’t know about how tight information bubbles, impermeable to facts or reason, could be wrapped around a motivated minority of Americans. Madison and the founders wrote about their fear of the tyranny of the majority. It never occurred to them that there could be a tyranny of the minority.

The Republicans are moving to rewire the voting process. Their greatest success in 2020 and 2021 has been to convince a minority that elections are all corrupt. Do you think that should a Democrat be elected president in 2024 that a Republican majority in Congress would affirm that election? When Putin injected himself to get Trump elected in 2016, he did not know how he was setting the predicate for Americas to destroy their own Republic.

I am bereft of optimism now. Sedition, and this is what is happening, requires ruthless toughness from an opposition to suppress it. Democrats have much of their own party who explicitly reject the American experiment as an existing failure. The progressive left are ambivalent about the current threat. They naively, arrogantly, believe they have a better way. But, have you ever asked a woke advocate what system lives at the end of their deconstruction rainbow? They don’t have a clue.

Fools like Manchin are still looking for 10 good Republicans. Oh stop. Do you think that once in power McConnell would hesitate to kill the filibuster? He baited the Democrats to remove the filibuster for court nominees and they fell for it. The right now controls the courts.

To paraphrase Orwell, the most important thing is to see what is right in front of one’s eyes. Don’t rationalize. Don’t equivocate. The Republican party is now a populist, authoritarian, minority power regime in waiting. With the Commission vote, they admitted it. We are on the edge of a battle over power that could become a real civil war. At the very least, this moment is as close to the bombing of Fort Sumter by Confederate cannons as we have been since that day. The evil is clear. All the authoritarians need is complacency and distraction for them to complete their quest. I fear we have gone too far; the impediments are too institutionalized for the middle to hold.

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The Colonization Game

After the 21st time I saw “land back” spray painted on buildings and toppled monuments in Portland, I mused on this popular notion of rethinking colonization. There are folks who are now decolonizing almost everything. Decolonize mathematics. Decolonize science. I have spent much of my life studying history both on my own and in various university settings. Of course, I understand the human catastrophes that can occur when one culture with advanced technology meets another who may be sociologically and spiritually sophisticated but haven’t turned the corner to develop contemporary technology. (News flash: Tech wins.) Look at the number of science fiction stories based on advanced aliens showing up on earth to herd and eat the backward humans with a fine chianti. But, as I studied the current advocates of critical theory views of colonization, it occurred to me that there are gaping holes in their premise. As is often case: time and context. So, let’s try something different, an idea that I, a retired dude in the wind with no need to please an employer, can do with abandon. Let’s build the Colonization Game. I will base this on what I think I know. I am not citing sources… okay.

In the dusty past of my undergraduate years, the sociology department did a two-day exercise called: Simulated Society. Scattered around an academic building, we gave teams the basics of an imagined world. They then had to grow their society and interact with the other societies (folks in other rooms) in increasingly stressful circumstances. The controller of the scenarios was a skinny, bearded, acid infused, speed freak, Dead Head, senior who was wound way too tight. He, of course, anointed himself “God.” (BTW he never completed his senior project after a psychotic break while staying awake for 5 days on speed. But I think that makes the “God” name even more apt.) Still, he probably ended up making a pile of dough and is currently ensconced in a luxurious condo on a golf course in Florida.

Baring the chaos of speed and acid, what if we were to design a college class where the students divided into competing groups of colonizers from about the 14th to 18th centuries? Then we put them in imaginary sail boats and have them set off for Africa and the Americas. Much of the term would have to be spent setting the historical context of both the existing cultures of the target lands and the full range of historical characteristics of the soon to be colonizers. The game would require the students to make all choices based solely on the moral, ethical, economic, political, scientific and religious knowledge of the empires they represent. Monarchies of various flavors were universal. The guiding question is: If colonization is de facto evil, then students, given the historical context, what would you do differently? No cheating. No 21st century knowledge allowed. When you stepped ashore, what would you do?

I have concluded that the most important missing part of the current critique of colonization is religion. Pick a tribe. Islam, Christianity, even animistic belief systems, religion is both an essential motivating factor and provides the basis on which colonists would judge the (shall we call them natives?). Native, as in native to a place and time. Religions, in part, exist to define the other. Heathens or infidels, anyone who was not associated with the dominant religion was, by definition, inferior. A native could only hope to attain any status by submission and conversion. Their existing religious beliefs? Meaningless. That’s the context. Much is made in the 21st century that natives, either as individuals or communities, were not seen as human. Yes! Students, your only choice in the Colonialization Game is to see every native person you meet as inferior, if not evil, as they do not understand monotheism. Much colonial brutality begins in religion.

It is easy to forget that all life in those historical periods was short and brutal. Even in their countries of origin, other believers were subject to institutional dehumanization. It was common to punish humans in the most grotesque ways. Boiling alive, skinning alive, impalement, slow death by dismemberment. In the old-world, life was cheap, and the degradation of humans was a happy public spectacle. Even before they set foot on the boats, the intrepid explorers were a scary bunch. However, based our understanding of native cultures so where the peoples on other continents. Human sacrifice was a common activity. As was conquest and slavery. The game would teach students to let go of the native paradise myth. Alas, humans were human everywhere.

What of disease? Both in the old and new worlds, no one understood how disease worked. Cures comprised incantations, herbs, and bleeding out the evil. Often in the discussion of colonization, a key point is the genocide of the natives. But we now understand that the death of native civilizations was first, and foremost, an accident of biology followed by conscious destruction. Native Americans were already dying in plagues before the first Europeans set foot on the now eastern American coast. Northern east coast tribes were exposed to fatal diseases that worked down from current day Canada. Disease essentially eliminated the Caribbean natives. But this was always going to be the case… right? At some point, immune cultures were going to travel and meet immunocompromised people. Plague was always coming. It was just a matter of when. The natives had a good run, 10,000+ years, but their immune systems were a ticking death clock. Students, how do you as a colonizer deal with disease and the sudden disappearance of the native population? Remember, wars back home in your Europe are expensive and your charter, your sworn holy duty, is to ship back anything of value that will keep your monarch afloat in the many European wars. Given your job, your religion, and the disappearing labor pools, what do you do?

Well, slavery, of course. Students let’s consider that at this moment on the planet there are about 40 million slaves and indentured servants. Our collective ability to look away from that data is remarkable and consistent. It’s a practice virtually eliminated in the former colonial powers. Now the centers are in Northern Africa, the Middle East, Indian sub-continent, and Asia. Slavery was, and is, a labor multiplier. Conquest always had as a benefit, free labor. Water-powered mills were function specific. Before the invention of the steam engine, there was no way to concentrate labor except slaves in concert with draft animals. (Disclaimer: Slavery always bad.)

In the Americas, slavery was common. Our Pacific Northwest tribes had slaves along the Willamette. They disfigured the slave bodies so there would be no confusion as to the person’s status. The Native Americans who were marched east on the Trail of Tears took their black slaves with them. Only recently have those descendants in Oklahoma resolved legal claims to the wealth that tribal leaders tried to take away from them. Besides working any diseased survivors to death, the economic imperative of the colonizers was to replace that labor, thus the slave trade with Africa. The slave trade was well established in Africa before colonization. In fact, Europeans quickly learned that the most effective way to collect humans was to use the existing human trafficking system. So, imaginary Conquistadors and Virginia settlers, with the tools and morals of the time, what do you do about slavery? Was there any chance that a higher, or different morality, could have affected such well-established economic practices?

Few intellectual exercises are more flaccid than applying 21st century morals and ethics to the past. To be sure, one can draw winding and direct lines from the processes of colonization to the current world. Exploring the discrete outcomes is a useful endeavor. However, painting the world with the banner of all colonialization bad is not a useful path. It’s a meat cleaver when a scalpel needed. And, if one insists on applying the label of colonization then I think there is an obligation to broaden the lens and recognize the commonality of the practice. Humans have always expanded geographically and politically. There is nothing unique about the European experience. Spend some time looking at empires, the Romans, the Greeks, the Ottomans, the Visigoths, the Egyptians, the Carthaginians, Imperial China, and you will discover patterns in the application of power that are not unique to any culture or time. Colonization is an inevitable and natural human social process.

I believe the Colonization Game would challenge students in 2 ways. First, it would force them to reckon with progress. Cultural encounters are often defined by technical advantages. The power of the Roman army was its ability to build roads and military tactics based on the short sword and shield. Arguably, their invention of concrete was a pillar of their empire. It is most useful to examine the juncture of technology and cultural clashes beyond implying those who possess the advanced technology are morally bankrupt.

The second challenge would be for students to grapple with colonialization as a natural human process. Yes, I am going there. As I have played the game with myself; I have discovered that in context what happened was always going to happen. I can’t account for individual cruelties. If anyone has an idea how to do that, then let me know because there is genocide and organized rape happening today in northern Africa. We saw the same in the break-up of Yugoslavia in Europe just miles from the great European capitols of the world. And that was an event with direct connections to the Muslim colonization of parts of Eastern Europe. To dehumanize the Bosnian Muslims, the Serbs called them “Turks.” All colonization echoes.

Waving the flag of “colonialization” in our current context is rarely helpful. I think it feels good for some. It’s a rhetorical tactic with some effect. The problem is that it also seems that making colonialization the enabling narrative is another way to stay stuck. We have gained much in western Enlightenment. Most importantly, empowering the individual over the tribe. We need better enriching and layering of all historical narratives. We need more history, not less.

The process of cultural expansion is often brutal and murderous. Try this thought experiment. If the Aztecs, at the height of their civilization, had discovered metal forging, shipbuilding, the chemistry of gunpowder, and used their considerable understanding of the heavens to fill those ships and sail to Europe, would we have had the colonization in reverse? If they could have been expansionist, why would the outcome have been any different?

            It turns out that the Colonization Game is about empathy. What? To truly understand history, one needs to empathize with both the conquered and the conqueror. Embrace their collective ignorance, the limits of their times. That’s a tough one, but humans are resoundingly confusing. We should overlay more complexity on geopolitics. I think the Colonization Game would help us better understand that complexity by forcing students to spend some time in the boots and boats of the explorers.

As usual, I welcome dissenting views.

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Finding Your Team

I have tried to isolate the first moment I knew I was going to stand in the middle of life. There had to be something profound in my life that left me so suspicious of seeming consensus, of being a follower. What gear in this clock of my mind so intently refuses to join anyone or anything without asking: Why? Surely, it was be a far simpler, cleaner path to follow along. All one has to do is find a crowd, step into the middle of it and walk or think or emote. Gangs exist for a reason. There is enormous power and validation in knowing that the person to each compass direction around you are your unwavering peers. I imagine how my body and mind would finally fully relax if I just stopped asking questions, accepted, bathed in the soothing pond of unrippled confirmation bias. Surely, there has to be an easier way to live.

One day, while watching a crew lay a new concrete, I was enjoying the well-oiled team. Every member of the crew knew where to be at the right time. And each person knew where not to be lest they create a minute diversion from the job at hand. When you watch such a crew, it is easy to see the leader, and tumble down the hierarchy of experience. Here, as is often true with construction crews here, the only language spoken was Spanish. Most remarkable, as a cement truck slurried its load at the feet of the patron, el jefe, the boss, was how little talking occurred at all. I could not even discern gestures exchanged except with the youngest member of the team who had the least important tasks but whose actual job was to watch and learn. The most important task, the micro leveling of the final surface to follow a slopping line, was the single hands-on task of the leader. When he pulled up his rubber boots and stepped into the unformed concrete, everyone else existed only to expect his needs. It was that crew that flipped open a long ignored synaptic connection to my first memory of being both a leader and in the middle.

Second grade, 1962. I had been daydreaming when the class left the room for an assembly. I liked assemblies, the breaks in the day’s rhythm, the white noise of a couple hundred children murmuring in the high ceilinged multi-purpose room. But this day, as I walked out the door, I did not know we were going to an assembly. I thought it was time for recess, maybe lunch. I jumped out of the line from the sidewalk to the grass and yelled, “ALL MY MEN!” I waved my hand in the air above my head in a circle so that my men knew to gather around me. But no one else moved. Instead, all the children started laughing, some pointing at me. The teacher simply shook her head and pointed me back in line. Sheepishly, I obeyed.

What in the world was that outburst all about?

Lunchtime playgrounds evolve their activities. The Lord of the Flies world of early 1960s boys would be utterly unrecognizable to any current child or teacher. It was the heart of the cold war. Several times a year, bells rang, and we pushed our desks together in an ersatz shelter. Huddled underneath the desks, we practiced what we were told was an earthquake drill. Fair enough, the San Andreas fault was visible a few miles away. But children across the country knew different. We were assuming the position to take when warned the Russian nuclear missiles were inbound. The apocalypse was on its way. Maybe it will surprise some that active shooter drills always existed. Ours were merely bigger guns. Still, the offhand references to the cold war were everywhere. Even my small town had mostly useless fall-out shelters. And, from the veterans of WWII or Korean or Viet Nam among us to the young men leaving for basic training, war was an easy theme to grasp.

Our little boy war happened daily on the lunchtime playground. Battle strategy (god only knows) was planned on the shorter breaks. It went like this. Boys would divide up into two large groups at opposite ends of the playground. We didn’t have defined fields, just a large expanse of lumpy, patchy grass. The two armies, yes, that is what we called them, formed around two opposing leaders. (For anyone dying to put this strangeness in a pointless 21st century context, the school was about half Latino and well blended. Race on that playground wasn’t a thing.) Leaders were always the most promising athletes, and as I recall, the correlation between athlete and bully was very close. After much whooping and hollering, the two amassed armies ran toward each other to do battle. Worried teachers, whoever was stuck with playground duty, watched at a distance, though blown whistles were rare. What happened in the battle was oddly non-violent. Oh, there was some bumping and pushing, but kids didn’t get hurt. Most of the duels were entirely imaginary. At some point, getting tired and close to the bell, one side declared victory with a chorus of yelling and arm waving. The winner seemed to be determined by which leader had the most followers. Yea, it turned into a popularity contest. For the teachers, this expunging was so much little boy energy was a blessing for the afternoon classes. Girls? I was a little boy and didn’t notice or care but they seemed to own the area around the parallel bars.

I was part of an army, but I didn’t like it. I suppose this is the nature, not nurture, part. I wanted to lead but wasn’t popular or athletic. But I had discovered the Civil War and was captivated by the stories of the cavalry troops who moved independently of the enormous armies raiding and constantly on the move. I decided that what I needed was my little army, one that could swing the battle. This seems like bizarrely sophisticated thinking for a second grader, but there it is. I started with my closest friends and carved the outcasts from the larger armies. Twenty-five, or slightly more, boys. I would rally them at the Juniper bushes at the back of the playground to watch the battle unfold and decide who we would rush to join. Yea, we were the cavalry arriving to save the day. I may have named the little band of rebels, but those synapses are not available.

My life now as a centrist, a sort of iconoclast, formed on that playground. I was both a leader and a politician. I had to recruit other boys to a non-mainstream cause. Mostly, I think there are people who are inspired by a simple thing. They don’t want to be them. Pick the them. The leaders of the two armies came to me, wanting to form an alliance. I don’t think I ever did that because it would have violated the essential nature of our little band. From that young age, I had an innate desire to stand in the middle, create a different path and make the case to others that ours was the rational choice. Don’t follow the assumed leaders and lend your energy to tipping the balance to something you have observed and consider right.

I don’t understand why I was that little boy, who was inherently suspicious of default paths, those routes with the least resistance. But, over my life, that desire has proven to be my most consistent philosophical and political identifier. I proudly started voting at 18 and only a few of my choices came from the two parties. I fear dogma more than the little chaos of assembling independent opinions. Extremism, when applied to anything but baseball, is abhorrent. In a time dominated by the consolidation under orthodoxy, I am resolutely heterodox. What could have been more fitting than my choice to focus my graduate work on social and political polarization?

The middle way can be lonely. Generally, people pick a side and stay there. I dip into writers and thinkers on both sides of our current political dilemma and do so with a mostly open mind. (When I tell people here that I also watch FoxNews, they often say, “Oh, I can’t do that.”) People don’t like to have core beliefs questioned, so my love of the word ‘why’ can get me into trouble. Still, I am glad that seeing that crew working concrete broke loose a memory of a little boy raider and his band of outcasts. When it gets windy above, in the swaying branches, knowing the depth of one’s roots is mighty reassuring.

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Finding an Old Friend in My Car’s Trunk

There is one book I own that has never been on my bookshelf. Since 1984, it has been under the seat or in the trunk of every vehicle I have owned. In sequence, that includes: Toyota Pickup, Toyota Camry, Ford Ranger pickup, VW Passat, Honda CRV, Mini Cooper S, BMW 2 Series and my current VW GTI. (Clearly, I moved on from practical to happy cars after the Honda.) Every time I bought a new car, I dutifully moved the book to the new vehicle. It is worn, pages brittle and yellowed. I recall crushing it once sliding my seat forward. At some point, it got a little wet. Maybe because it was stored close to the rear hatch of the Mini Cooper, notorious for dumping water inside when opened. At some point, I think soon after I bought the tome; I read some of the essays. I don’t remember doing that but there are my typical vertical pencil marks in the margins. There is one note too “wcw.” That is not cryptic at to me. It means that a sentence reminded me of the poet William Carlos Williams. What in the world was the book doing in all those cars, and why has it made an appearance now?

For a few decades, I read little fiction or poetry. I think I decided that reality was strange enough, so why read things people made up. My academic writing, a memoir, dozens of essays and my newest book, a collection of essays, firmly entrenched me in reality. But I threw some internal switch after publishing the essay collection. You see, my first foray as a writer, decades ago was almost entirely focused on short stories and poetry. When I got a big career, I stopped writing those forms and mostly journaled. Three months ago, maybe because our real world is so vexing, I moved back to fiction. I knew I needed to break the linearity of my nonfiction mind, so I dove into Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and old science fiction by Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick. I read the freestyle prose of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. It worked. Short stories now appear on my computer screen. Each one a muscle building experiment in style. Now, I spend my time making up worlds and attempting to report out what I find.

This all led me back to where I started as a writer. Way back in the previous century, I was taken with the work of Raymond Carver. I absorbed all of his works, short stories and poetry. His minimalist style grabbed me by the throat. His stories are like prose poetry about genuine people. The works are sad and vexing in that they leave you to fill in the picture he has sketched for you. My most common reaction to reading his work is to finish and say, “but…but…but…” because he did not tie up all the loose ends, much like life. With all the boldness of youth, I tried to write his style resulting in horrid experiments. Only now do I understand one must have enough scars and still oozing wounds in the psyche to mine the minimalist form.

Sometime in 1984, I bought his book, “Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories.” I have a vague memory of taking the new book to the coast for the weekend, just me and my epileptic Labrador. I read a few pieces, but it was the decision I made when I got home that is most curious. I didn’t take the book up to my apartment and finish it. I shoved it under the seat of my Toyota pickup where it became a car book. I actually know why I did that. Living with panic disorder litters one’s life with protecting talisman. One thing I most feared was being stuck somewhere, in snarled traffic or just broke down. Safety was all about my ability to move freely. I told myself that if that ever happened, my cars would always have a book I could read to distract and calm myself. The little paperback with a tattered cover was my mental escape hatch. Complex and absurd reasoning is something we all do to get through our days. For me, this idea made good sense.

It’s not surprising that when I returned to writing short stories I would return to my most loved mentor, Carver. He died suddenly at age 50 in 1988. I remember the shock. I have much of his small canon on my shelves and have reread most of those books. Looking for more Carver, in the early morning hours a couple nights ago, I paged through his publication list and there was “Fires” the book that had been my travelling companion for decades. I dressed, went outside and opened the hatch of the GTI. Buried next to the spare tire was an old friend. Reading it now, what had I forgotten is that the first essay is Carver explaining “why minimalism.” I got a shiver as he opened a small window into his mind.

There’s a notion, to which I generally don’t subscribe, that things appear in your life just when you need them. I have missed to many needed things in moments past to give that idea much purchase. Still, this book has been there all along and only came to mind when I needed, or was ready, for it. A guy has to wonder, but when I have what I need from this book, it is going right back into the car where it belongs.

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Christmas — Ego Te Absolvo

The bar is too high for a single day. No day should ever have such demanding intentions thrown upon it. Humans should never rely on any day, by its title, to change so much in their lives. Year after year, the crap shoot of daily existence demands we halt and pledge fidelity to an idea surrounding one day a year. No, it’s too much. Doomed at its inception in Christianity, the day of the return of the sun, not son, was better left to its pagan rituals and meaning, divorced of the syrupy incantations of Victorian writers setting impossible standards for the behavior of mere mortals with our stumbling about and thick minds conjuring up emotional connections that don’t exist in any world but that single day. Let’s just drop it and try to find meaning in every other day. Let’s leave this poor winter day alone to fend for itself. It has been, and will forever be, safer without us.

On this day, I vow to set the day free and let it return to its symbolism of pagan hope for the return on the sun. I will universalize the day and unfetter it from the chains of family expectation and conjured emotions of closeness and brotherhood. Let it be special only in its scientific significance. Be gone personal and collective rituals. Death to nostalgia with its icy fingers perpetually grasping at the throat of the moment to drag it into the past. Drop the shopping and gathering and the perpetual wasteland of how things once were and should be. I absolve myself of all previous thoughts, expectations, and sins. My self-directive is to hijack from the social milieu only the compassionate and fun bits so they can take residence in any other day of the year. I will have a hundred returns of the sun so that when the anointed day arrives, I have fulfilled all the expectations in advance and am psychologically and emotionally a free man, someone who, having engaged, is free to disengage and observe others flitting about to achieve what I have already done.

Mine is not so much a war on Christmas as giving absolution to the day, in a very Catholic sense. One day, I forgive you for all the broken promises and overwrought dreams. I forgive you for the expectations you can never meet. Where there was once an anvil weight on your shoulders, I grant you the power to toss the burden aside and leap with unfettered joy if you so desire. And should you desire to pull in your minutes in deep despair, there will be no judgement. Christmas day. You are forever free. Be whatever you want to be. And thanks for the extra minutes of sunshine.

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Faint Echoes of Pearl Harbor

How Pearl Harbor Shaped the Modern World - The New York Times
NY Times

Before I went outside to rake the last of the fallen leaves, I heard a little story about Pearl Harbor Day. As is often the case, as I pulled the leaves to the street, I mused about what I know about that day 79 years ago today. Oh, I have read many articles and tomes about World War II history but what did I know first-hand.

If you yell into the right canyon, the echo of your voice comes back, loud at first, then more faintly until it disappears. Today we live in a world of barely perceptible echoes of the Pearl Harbor attack. In fact, there may be a couple of new generations who have no idea why we consider this anniversary at all. When I was young, the echo was that first loud return. Men and women who responded to Pearl Harbor surrounded me. Both of my grandpas were in combat. Walls and mantles of the homes of my friends were dotted with mementoes of the war. Still, I can’t imagine any of the men I knew ever willingly calling themselves “the greatest generation.” They did their service and came home to make a new world. Remembering their war was mostly reserved for the clubby bastions of Elk’s halls and VFW bars… if they said anything at all.

For three years during college, I had a summer job in the sprawling warehouse of our valley irrigation district. I was the oddity, the college kid who showed up every summer. The work was dull, but the warehouse was air-conditioned, so I did what I was told to stay out of the desert heat. It was there that I heard a loud echo of Pearl Harbor.

One veteran on the crew was a gruff Texan named Joe Smith. If there was anyone who inhabited that so American name, it was Joe. Short, shaved head with an aging body that was once completely one muscle, Joe was a guy who hovered on the edge of anger every minute of his life. No telling where that enormous chip on his shoulder originated, but we all learned that Joe didn’t have a brain wired for kidding. When he was confused, he turned red and puffed his chest, ready for action. I learned a lot about how not to spend my life from Joe. He could take the smallest, mindless task and stretch it to fill a day. One day, I saw him spending hours standing at a workbench honing the edges of a stack of machetes that the field workers used to clear small irrigation ditches. I had done that entire job in about an hour before. I cautiously approached Joe at the bench and remarked.

“Hey Joe, how are you doing today. Getting a good edge on those machetes?”

Barely looking up, Joe turned his head and replied, “Make’n eight boy—make’n eight.”

With that, he turned back to his work. I had nothing more to say and walked away, sure that I never wanted to be that guy, the sad soul who treated a job as nothing more than a time marker in eight-hour increments. Not all work is noble, a good thing to learn early.

My first year in the job, the manager and the foreman were both war veterans who were very proud of their service. The big boss, Charlie, always wore a white shirt and dress pants. He had been a pilot. Bob, the foreman, had a light grey uniform that showed his rank.  All us workers had dark grey uniforms. Bob’s voice was so quiet, almost shy, that we had to pay close attention when he spoke. For hours each day, Charlie and Bob would be down in the office, doing something. We workers were never sure. Bob appeared and walked the floor. A tall man, I was pretty sure that in his youth his nickname had to be Slim. To me, he appeared to be a bit lazy, but his encyclopedic recall of every part in the warehouse was vital. When the buzzer went off and we went up to the counter to meet the field workers who needed a part, even the most obscure one, Bob knew exactly what they meant and where to find it.

Charlie mostly made appearances at our shared lunch time near the foreman’s desk in the warehouse. He pulled out a chair and faced us, regaling us with profane tales from his sex life and dirty jokes. The warehouse was a men’s club, and no perversity was off limits. Charlie had once been a traveling salesman and fancied himself a woman’s man. Wizened, with irregular features, I couldn’t squint my eyes enough to figure out what any woman had ever seen in him.

My second summer, there was someone new in the warehouse who also wore the light grey uniform of power. Sam Hirakata had taken over one desk in the office next to Bob. I liked him immediately. Unlike everyone else, he was interested in what I was studying at school and seemed to respect that I worked several jobs every summer to help pay my way. Very quickly, when he was on the floor, we gravitated toward each other. Sam had owned a small grocery store for many years but needed to have a job now that had medical benefits.  His kids were not interested in the family business, so he had closed shop and come to work at the water district. This was the last act of his work life. Sam’s family had once been farmers in the valley, with extensive holdings. His war was very different. Second generation Japanese American, nisei, Pearl Harbor meant that his family had been deported to the interior and interned for the duration, their lands given up and sold for pennies on the dollar to Caucasian owners, ironically, Armenian immigrants. His family spent the war in camp outside the tiny town of Poston, Arizona. The highway marking the Japanese exclusion zone ran in front of the camp. Funny thing about his telling me these stories. I didn’t detect any bitterness. I found that strange as I would have harbored a Joe Smith size chip on my shoulder.

There was new tension in the warehouse. Away from everyone, at what he now considered his bench, Joe engaged in passive aggressive rants, always in a lowered voice about the “Jap” being a boss now. Oh, he would do what he was told and screw on a public smile, toothy false flag, but he was not happy. The genuine change was in Bob. He had always assumed that he was next in line for Charlie’s job, a wish and assumption that he had nurtured for over a decade. Now, his lifetime goal was in doubt. He had become almost robotic in his job. Sam was attuned to Bob’s reaction. He tried to maneuver around it. He didn’t react to the slight affronts, and too strident questioning about his decisions. Sometimes, when Bob was sloughing off his anger with Sam in the area, Sam would quickly catch my eye.

One time, when we were alone in the office, he said, “Jim, I have seen this many times before. It is better to just do my job and let go.”

My last summer in the warehouse, everything had changed. Charlie was gone. Bob was gone. Joe was gone. Sam now had the white shirt and grey pants. The workers seemed happy about the change. Sam came up from the office regularly and even pitched in at the counter when we got slammed with requests. Sam seemed thrilled to have me back and gave me a good firm handshake the first time I came up from the locker room.

One day, I asked one of the old timers, the guy who drove the loader in the pipe yard, what happened. He took off his hard hat and shook his head.

“It wasn’t good,” he said, looking at the floor, “Bob blew up.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I don’t know if you heard this, but Bob had a pretty bad time in the Marines. I didn’t serve but I guess because I am about his age, he told me about it.”

“I knew he was there, but I never asked,” I replied.

“Yea, when they announced that Sam was taking over, Bob stood up in front of everyone and yelled that he would never work for a dirty Jap. Then he quit.”

            My last summer there was a good one, mostly because I knew I wasn’t coming back. I worked hard and tried not to be so much the annoying college kid that I was the first two summers. Sam and I talked often. His kids had gone to college, and he loved to talk about them and ask me questions about what I wanted to do after I graduated. Sam never mentioned how Bob left. It seemed like he had built a special box for anything related to the war, a place he stored the anger and the slights. When he talked about Bob at all, it was kindness. Knowing the truth, I thought that remarkable.

The leaves are all raked and the garden tools stored in the garage for winter. Another season come and gone. I think I am that second echo now, the one that is a little fainter but clear still. Anyhow, that’s what it feels like on this Pearl Harbor day.


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When Essays Become a Book

For some time now, I have not written many essays on this site . Now you get to know why. I have been using the COVID-19 quarantine to write a new book composed of 24 essays. It was the years of writing here that gave me the confidence to move forward with the book. In a handful of cases, the book includes essays that began as thoughts right here on No Clock. Now I have given them them time to grow and evolve. For the readers here, I think it only fair that you have a sample from the new book. I hope you will take a chance on the new collection. I believe it is my full expression of what is possible with the essay form. Every essay has a single word title. I call this one Waiting.

Find the book at http://www.jimblackwoodjr.com

Everything looks the same. The trees. The sky. The streets. The houses. The stores. Color hasn’t changed. The greens are still green. The grey skies still feel dreary. The sun is still warm. People move the same. Dogs still bark. Now, if in those first few moments of the day, stirring from my pillow, I could only remember what day it was.

I have read about times past when events had conspired to turn the world on its head. Wars, earthquakes, plagues, tsunamis. Twirling a pencil in my fingers, I wondered how I would behave in such disasters. Would I rise to the occasion, be brave for myself and others? Would events conspire to overwhelm me? How would I prepare for the unknowable? Would I survive? Every world changing crisis I studied required greatness in leadership and steadfastness in the people who endured the disruption to daily life for weeks, months, and years. What I had not anticipated was that my test, a test for the entire world, would mostly be about waiting.

My fascination with the coronavirus began with the earliest reports out of China. I poked around the internet for reports. Central China seemed very far away and what was happening there seemed unique. Millions of people isolated in Wuhan by a military cordon. Hospitals appearing almost overnight. Stories of confusion and courage. And … the masks. In every report, every picture people were in masks, from a simple face covering to elaborate virus blocking rigs. Where did they get all of those masks so fast?

It is easy to watch a disaster at a distance. Truth be told, at a distance is almost always how most of us experience a disaster. We are all crisis voyeurs. Oh, we text the right numbers to send money, are sad at the stories of individual loss, happy at the stories of courage and persistence, but mostly, if we pay attention at all, another person’s crisis is simply how we fill a few minutes a day. I am more than guilty. I love to watch hurricanes come onshore on cable news to see those little funnel maps of where the hurricane may land. I stay up late to heckle the silly reporters who stand in the wind and the rain when they could have just as easily stepped behind the protection of a wall. I watch the aftermath, all that water, boats, and people in hip waders. For a couple of days, I am a hurricane response expert.

Something about watching Wuhan lock down and all those people in masks struck me as different. In early February, well before most people were paying attention, I ordered face masks. I felt a little silly and when they arrived slid them into a drawer thinking they would be a curious artifact. My wife, always the ‘big one’ earthquake prepper, said that unknown to me, she had put a few masks in our earthquake kit years ago. At least with her, I felt less like an alarmist goofball. We made one last unmasked trip to the grocery store to buy things we never buy: powdered milk, a stack of chicken soup cans, powdered Gatorade, saltine crackers for when the bread disappeared off shelves, and toilet paper. We didn’t need the toilet paper but the crowd on that aisle inspired a little panic. Already, for a few in the checkout line, there was a palpable sense of caution. When people are not sure what to do, they still do something. Then the virus did what millions of people do every day; it flew around the world.

I started waiting. I knew it was coming. There was no way to know what that would mean, but I was so convinced this event would be important that on Leap Day, February 29, I started an pandemic blog. (Of course, I did.) That rhyme in old The Knack song, “My Sharona,” was stuck in my head so I called it My Corona Log: People Pandemics Politics. Even then, with a sense of irony, I grabbed a dust mask from my toolbox, pulled a black hoodie over my head, cinched the mask to my face, and had my wife take a picture of me in front of my computer. (I couldn’t wait to get the mask off as it was so uncomfortable. Ignorance was still bliss.) Now I had a banner page for the new website. I was in a mask. Another silly artifact, I thought, as I made the site live. I would wait with everyone else … on the internet.

Most sane people limit their doses of bad news. It’s too upsetting. I become a sponge, taking in all the information I can find in a futile attempt to manage my anxiety with knowledge. People tell me, “Oh, that would depress me.” It doesn’t bring me down. The more I know the easier it is to become an observer, create a space between me and what is going on around me. The observer then becomes the communicator, as I write my way through things. While most people were still unaware, I was searching the internet for epidemiologists and clinicians. I read papers where I was lucky to understand every fourth sentence. I looked at models. Now everyone looks at models. Like my hurricane expertise, I became the worst sort of dilettante, an internet virus expert. You know those people, right? Yeah, I was that insufferable guy. Still, the actual virus was beyond arm’s length. It was somewhere else. But I knew it was coming.

When the quarantine finally came, I was relieved. This was the only way we were going to keep our hospitals from being overrun. For days I had been yelling at my television screen for governors to act fast. When our governor did finally lock us down, I felt like a winner for about five minutes before I thought, “what now?” I had been waiting for the virus to get here, waiting for the government to act, waiting for the states to all lock down. I realized that what I had actually been wishing for was more waiting.

Once I walk out the door of my home, everything I do requires waiting. I wait until I think the lines at the grocery store will be social distanced and shorter. Before I get out of my car, I wait to put on my mask. I reach into my pocket and press the button to open the truck lock, so I don’t have touch my keys when I get back to the car. Once in the store, I look down aisles and wait patiently for the other shoppers to clear the space in front of what I need. Every step I take is a calculation of how to maintain my safe distance. The simplest acts now require a slow-motion ballet. Once home, the refrigerated goods have to be cleaned on the back porch. Dry goods wait for a day in the garage. The Cheerios detox cheerlessly.

A walk to the park is almost exactly the same as it ever was, which makes it all the stranger when I see someone in the distance about to meet me at the same street corner. When our individual radars ping each other a new waiting negotiation begins. Who will take the intersection first? Who will pause or slow down or speed up? Maybe a quick nod. And then, negotiation complete, space defined. As our safety bubbles touch, if we are maskless, we offer flat-mouthed smiles under quick eye connections. When we have masks, then every bit of humanity has to be communicated with the eyes alone. But that’s fine. Humans adapt surprisingly fast from reading an entire face to reading the eyes alone. The flat smile muscles move the eyes enough so that we both know what we just did.

Underlying the newly elaborate ballet of the now mind-numbingly repeated cycle of daily life is the big wait. Consciously and unconsciously, we are waiting to get sick. Spring pollen, the scratchy cough of allergies take on a new meaning. Cough. Is this it? What is the quality of that cough? Dry cough? Did I cough like this last allergy season? Hand to face. Am I warm? What was the last time I came into contact with someone or something that may have had the virus? How many days? Four or five? As a nervous person, a practicing hypochondriac, I have always been a highly tuned body monitor. But now, with each possible COVID-19 symptom, I run an overused check list. I am waiting to get sick.

When the waves of illness hit hardest in Italy, I read how people there lived with COVID-19. I wondered how they knew when to go to the hospital. Hospitals now seemed like dangerous places to be avoided until the last, maybe the actual last, minute. Everywhere I looked people talked about oxygen in the blood. Don’t let it get below 95 percent. Not completely sure what that meant, I joined millions of people looking on the internet for a pulse oximeter. Herd fear. I finally found one at an inflated price and ordered it. It, too, waits in a drawer. Chicken soup and a pulse oximeter. What a strange crisis.

If I am not waiting to get sick, then I am waiting for those I love to succumb to the illness. Greetings, almost always electronic these days, have subtly moved from to “hello” to “feeling okay?” There is an old Chinese greeting of “have you eaten today?” I wonder if this will go on long enough to change how we greet one another. I actually like the idea of saying hello by asking about someone’s health. It seems both more intimate and, well, too intimate.

Our home has become Upstairs/Downstairs. Eight years younger, my wife is not retired. A couple of years into my retirement I had built a happy collection of patterns around my passions. Write, think, play with the dogs, baseball in the summer, live music in small clubs, and film study (well … beer, pizza, and a movie) at my favorite non-profit theater. Very rapidly, we had to convert our upstairs space into a home office for my wife. We retire to our levels during the day, meeting in the kitchen for coffee or lunch. The two dogs divide their loyalties up and down the stairs based on mysterious factors that only clarify with the crinkle of a potato chip bag. Of all my happiest out-of-home diversions, only gardening still exists.

My wife’s work hours have been reduced and we both wait to see if her job survives. This means that, like millions of Americans, we are waiting to see what our financial future becomes. We have worked hard and have some means. Many in the grip of the COVID-19 economic meltdown are far worse off. I think about my barber and my favorite bartender. We used to give money to a collection of good causes. Now Sally and I divert our gifts to food banks and small businesses we love. There is some satisfaction in that effort. However, while we wait for financial clarity, too many people are waiting to see when they will once again have a job, a business, a place to live, a bag of groceries to survive another week. We will have to figure out the virus before we restore the economy. I wonder, are we now waiting for another Great Depression?

In my international disaster playbook was the emergence of a great, unifying national leader. As if there was a cosmic waiting room filled with the right people, I was thinking that folks like Churchill or Roosevelt or Lincoln were always going to show up right when we needed them. Those are leaders who faced years long crises and found a way to motivate their populations by neatly layering hope and fear in a way that engendered a spirit of ‘we are all in this together.’ If any situation was ready-made for such a leader, it is COVID-19. The pandemic knows no ethnicity or philosophical boundaries. In its relentless spread, this is the great egalitarian crisis. Boy, was I wrong. This one was a gimme and yet here we are still waiting for a national plan and … what’s that called … a president.

I suppose in a world where everything is outsourced from dinner to your Uber ride to see Aunt Jean, I should have known that this president would outsource responding to a pandemic to fifty governors with disparate understandings of their role and completely different constituencies. Of course, that makes perfect sense. I remember a time when in order to go in and out of California every car was stopped at the border for the ominous question, “Are you carrying fruits or vegetables?” Stutter when saying “no” and you got the finger, the point to the canopy where the car was dismantled looking for a scary contraband orange or apple. The border agents were looking for bugs. Now at national borders and state lines we recreate the border bug hunts. To move about the country and the world, now we wait.

On a daily basis, unless you are Woody Allen, it is possible to not think about death. If you are more religious, you get to visit death more regularly as one of the big reasons to have religion at all. Of course, everyone gets to know the death of others and grieve. But think about it; beyond those times, we get off pretty easy. We get large blocks of time where we don’t even think about our demise. It’s kind of nice. Well … not anymore. There on the right of almost every cable channel screen are two counters. At the top we have the ‘Damn, that’s a huge number of sick people’ tally and below we see dead people. Most alarming is that between the morning shows and the nightly news both counters are spinning up. So now, turn on the news and you get a relentless reminder that the most fundamental human problem underlies the pandemic. We are waiting to die. And, to double down on the terror, we now all know that once sick, we die alone. No family. No friends. Overworked strangers, each one living in peril, in masks, who hope you are not their future, too. Oh, and those funeral plans, all neatly written down or told with solemnity to family; forget about it. Body out the door to the freezer trailer and maybe a Zoom grief session. But those, too, will have to wait until everyone can get connected to the internet.

Some of us are going to be waiting for a long time. I am a guy in his 60s with a family history of heart disease. In fact, about seventy million people in America are over 60, in the cohort of folks for whom COVID-19 is exceedingly dangerous. Those immortal young people are learning lessons, too. Anxious to party as things reopened, they went too far and now line up for ICU beds. The virus doesn’t count birthdays. It doesn’t care if you are bored. But for us older folks to return to slices of normal we wait for a vaccine. Old enough to recall how a sugar cube once cured polio, we are relegated to the role of observers. Every day we will look at what used to be the mindless actions of life and ask ourselves, “Is it safe?” And, as a guy whose greatest joys were settling into a seat with popcorn at a movie and pressing up front to get a closer look at the band at a club show, I can’t begin to think when I will be at either of those places once more. I have no choice but to wait.

All this waiting is not the crisis I had planned on. It feels like a growing series of incomplete acts. Spring without a beer at a game. Friday at the movies without the actual movie theater. A cocktail and dinner with friends without the friends. If we do nothing as well as we possibly can, the reward is that nothing happens. Oh, like many, I try to take solace that it’s the waiting that saves other people’s lives. I am willing to outwait many people. Most of the things I miss the most are things I can actually live without. Too many people have had their waiting ended with a zipped-up body bag. There are doctors and nurses who wait for a moment away from the beeping life support machines. For a guy notorious for his impatience, learning to wait isn’t such an awful thing. But truth be told, I can’t wait for this to be over.

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Time to Ask. Why Are We Still Marching?

I was channel surfing local Portland news last night watching the protest and the riot. They were happening at the same time on different streets. The protest left downtown and ended up where it started, Revolution Hall in inner SE. There were still thousands of people listening to the presumed leaders. Finally, I heard one young man with a bullhorn say, “We will be back tomorrow?” As I watched the cheering crowd, I said out loud, “Why?”

I like to ask “why.” It’s the hard question, the one that gets you to philosophy, purpose and outcomes. The brutal murder of George Floyd has presented America our oldest and most important question, “Why has America never fully addressed the deal with the devil it made to shunt aside slavery at its founding?” Intellectually, I understand why the founders punted on that one. It was the only route to unify and separate from the shackles of a monarchy. The men who lead our rebellion made a choice to break one set of shackles while keeping another. I think their’s was a reasonable, if immoral, choice given the times. The nation almost buckled during a civil war fought over slavery. And still, there was George Floyd, and too many others, dying because we have yet to figure out how to address the results of the awful founding compromise.

The vortex that concentrated all the factors that led to the world-wide protests is spinning faster and faster. We had 3 months of kinetic human energy stored by the Covid-19 lock down. There are two new generations raised on a steady diet of social justice narratives. For the first time, we can see injustice 24 hours a day because it can’t hide from ubiquitous cell phone cameras. This means that everyone who pays attention can call out 100 George Floyds. And, for so many people around the world, the grinding injustice of Trump and everyone around him has taken us to the breaking point. I get it.  I really do. How long can people scream alone in the dark at the forces of evil? Eventually, the magnetic attraction, the sense of collective power, of a crowd of the like-minded, the exhausted, the angry and those seeking hope was going to bring people to the streets. My first march, in high school, was the very first Earth Day. You never forget that feeling of gathered power and no longer being alone. It is one of life’s great endorphin highs. In setting after setting, sports events, churches and choirs we seek that wonderful sensation. It is a basic human impulse.

But last night when I asked “why” another part of me was bubbling up. Maybe it’s just my particular nervous system, but I when I come down from the high, I want to know what is going to happen next. Catharsis and catalyst without action leading to permanent change is just so much wasted time and emotion. I fear that now, after a week of protest, we have reached a frightening moment where no one seems to have considered outcomes. The rhetoric about people being tired and ending systemic racism is shopworn. Anyone with a lick of knowledge of not just American history has heard that one before. The steps after the marches are mind-numbingly dull. They take place not on the streets but in conference rooms, committee rooms and in night after night of contentious public meetings. I have been part of that work. It is frustrating and at no point does one feel anything like what you feel in a crowd of thousands of people, shouting and marching.

Let me be way too white and cite Martin Luther King, but not for the reason you may think. People easily grab the inspirational King out of the air. The one who marched and spoke to large crowds. But the civil rights activists of that generation strike me most as brilliant tacticians. Every march, each speech was crafted to mobilize tangible action. Do you recall why King was killed in Memphis? He was there to support the demands of striking garbage workers. He had an outcome, a life changing one, in mind. King also knew the late-night calls, the conference rooms and private offices were where the wheels of the greatest civil rights changes in American history were set in motion. And, MLK knew he would ultimately be a failure if he didn’t work with a sometimes racist, southern president Lyndon Baines Johnson. What distinguished MLK in his work with LBJ was not purity in effort but a laser focus on life altering outcomes.

I would argue that the current marches are perilously close to being co-opted by the forces they have unleashed. Trump has seen them as an opportunity to invoke the 1968 law and order campaign of Richard Nixon. He is also bounding toward the dictatorship he craves by pulling the military into domestic affairs. I don’t think he will succeed with this new plan because he lacks the single-minded discipline of Nixon. But that doesn’t mean he won’t try. Nightly, the peaceful marches have been co-opted by 2 other forces. I got to see the mostly white anarchists up close. They have rebranded under the label Antifa but it’s the same people. They are dedicated nihilists who see the destruction of the capitalist republic as a worthy goal. Their animus towards law enforcement is genetic. The pattern is this: declare cops evil, provoke cops with direct action, declare themselves victims of cops; rinse and repeat. They are utterly predicable and don’t really give a damn about Mr. Lloyd. The other group are thoroughgoing capitalists. This second group is largely people of color who exploit the fact that the police are busy elsewhere to destroy and loot. They are organized and in it for the money. That too is a powerful motivation to an oppressed underclass. I marveled last night to see an organized gang of looters in California break into a car dealership, get the keys to all the new cars on the lot and drive off with 70 new cars. Mr. Lloyd was just an opportunity. The endless marches are increasing the symbiosis of Trump, Anarchists and Thieves. The protesters are very close to losing the narrative.

Looking out across America, I believe it is time to stop marching and start organizing. I have 5 generations of law enforcement in my family. My loyalty to the good intentions of the people who decide to take up law enforcement is unbroken. Unfortunately, what IS broken is the system cops live inside. The dichotomy is astounding. Almost everyone who takes up that profession does so because they have a powerful instinct to serve others. But once inside, the daily trauma of the job changes them. In any one week, they see more evil, neglect and societal breakdown that anyone else sees in a year. The trauma is shared. Every policy failure, each funding cut, all the bad choices of the powerful end up at the end of the line where cops are all that is left to deal with the mess. Even as a family member, I only ever got the top line of the stories from my brother. Only their peers can truly understand what they do and see. The psychological bunker, the tribe becomes the daily salvation. They become us and we become them. Good cops always know who the bad cops are but they build a system where every cop is a brother or sister and must be protected. Almost anyone in their position would do what that they are doing. Yes … you would.

What to do. We have a structural problem in Portland. The force is about 200 empty positions down. Training and community engagement won’t happen if all officers are doing is going from 911 to 911. Some here want to eliminate the police. Silly. To fix the system you have to fill out the roster and hire wisely. There needs to be time for cops to interact with the community when they are not adrenalized. There is actually a desire among law enforcement to be seen as just other humans. The phrase “community policing” has been tossed around forever. What we really need is community connection. That takes creating the time to connect. Part of that would be making it easier for cops to live in the neighborhoods they serve. A rookie with a new family can’t afford to live in Portland. We provide all sorts of carrots in public policy. Let’s bring our cops home. With all the housing needs, this may seem absurd, but think of the benefits. It would actually be cost effective.

Police chiefs need the almost unquestioned power to fire bad cops. There seems to be a good police chief in Minneapolis who immediately fired the 4 officers. Guess what? I bet the police union will fight those firings. Via contract negotiations, it is time to reign in the police unions and associations. In my old job, I was liaison to public safety. I had monthly meetings with command staff and the union representative. Part of the barrier between the public and the cops is the union’s institutional maintenance of the “thin blue line.” Bad cops are protected by unions. Good cops won’t risk being outcast if the union always comes to the rescue of bad cops. I was amazed at the immediate condemnation of the murder by the Portland Police union. That is not a normal reflex but even the union saw things were out of hand. If you want to bring the cops home, then work on the institution that builds and maintains the bunker they live in. Reign in the unions.

For activists and police both, the way to break down institutional racism and improve policing is going to be very difficult. It will require that, like MLK and LBJ, they drop what seem like fundamental values. But this is a specific problem that can be addressed. There is an abundance of magical thinking, engendered by the woke left, that what needs to happen next is the elimination of racism in America. No single moment is going to do that. No pattern of moments will do that either. Live in the world we have and chip away at its evils. One good result of the marches is a recognition, across many institutions, that we have work to do. In that, the marches have already succeeded. Protesters should take a moment and consider then consolidate their gains.

I know those “storm trooper” suits that cops wear are intimidating, but they are also protective. As someone who worried about my brother when he was on patrol, I always wanted him to come home at the end of shift. Those suits protect the cops from flying bottles and bats (like the ones thrown at them in Portland last night.) But here’s the deal, they are hot and heavy and exhausting. Locked down in City Hall during protests, I talked to cops who rotated inside to cool off and get water and food. We are making a big mistake to keep cops in a defensive posture day after day. They are on duty before the marches begin and well after they have broken up. People wear down. Imagine standing quietly, hour after hour, with people hurling verbal abuse at you. No human is designed to sustain that. I get that this is how Black people feel each day. Maybe there is an inflection point for empathy here. I am deeply afraid that with each passing day, across the country, the likelihood of even a good cop making a bad mistake increases.

I try to be heartened by the cops who are taking a knee and marching with protesters. This is not a solution, but it is an opening. When I hear radical protesters and rioters reject such acts out of hand my heart sinks. Think of the world the two sides come from and open up just a little to the courage it takes to kneel together or shake hands across a line of conflict. Posturing in the face of an opportunity will just keep us all caught in this vicious circle.

I believe it is time to stop marching and ask “why.” Discord, even righteous discord, is in time a breeding ground for evil. There are agents on the internet who are reveling in this opportunity to use us against ourselves. The extremes see dysfunction as opportunity. We are still in a pandemic. Gathering in large groups is an invitation to the virus that we can’t afford. To come out of the pandemic, and our crisis of trust, the first job is not opening the doors of businesses, no, it is to lower fear. Americans are afraid now. We have never needed each other as much as we do now. The good work of protest is done. If you ask “why” you will see that. Now the real work begins. It is far harder than walking a few miles and carrying a sign or yelling at the top of your lungs at strangers across a divide. This new work will be quiet, frustrating and demand every ounce of steadfast courage we can muster. But here’s the deal. We have no other choice.

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Portland’s Dangerous Street Plaza Idea

Alone and masked, during the lock down I have walked many of the business districts in Portland. I set out to record a history of the closing of small businesses, restaurants and bars by photographing every closed sign I could see. I now have over 500 of those pictures. The signs are heartbreaking, especially the handwritten ones that speak to customers and friends in a most personal way. Some analysts say we could lose 40% of those small businesses.  Worse yet, if we are not careful about how we reopen, a second wave could result in losing 80%.

I salute Portland city government’s effort to find ways for restaurants and bars to survive in the new world of masks and social distancing. We should explore ways to better use sidewalks and parking zones to maximize social distancing. However, under no circumstances should we create destination plazas by completely closing streets. Still deep on the midst of a pandemic such a decision would be both foolhardy and dangerous. Here’s why:

Portland knows what happens when we close streets for food and drink. The drawings provided by the advocate Zack Katz are naïve at best because they show open spaces with few people. We know better. Portlanders flock to those places, especially on lovely summer nights. Think of what you have seen when we close Mississippi Avenue or Alberta. People come in droves, walking and standing shoulder to shoulder. The city rightly cancelled Sunday Parkways to avoid such gatherings and those events cover miles. I often attend evening live music shows and visit the closed SW Ankeny St. It’s fun, drinking, eating, meandering. But it tells us what will happen if we create destination plazas throughout the city. People will gather and social distancing will be erratic at best. And, how do we enforce mask wearing when the activities revolve around eat and drinking?

Worldwide, we already have examples where cities and countries have opened up bars and restaurants then had to close them again. Science has revealed that about half of COVID-19 infections are asymptomatic. One super spreader hitting the bars in South Korea unleashed over 100 new Covid-19 cases. It will be the death knell for our local businesses if in some people’s enthusiasm to reclaim our streets a new outbreak linked to a plaza shuts down businesses again.

From around the country we have evidence of danger of mixing alcohol, food and enclosed outdoor spaces. It isn’t shocking that the people least likely to observe social distancing or masks are younger. I too was a more careless person at 25. There still prevails in America the sad notion that COVID-19 is only dangerous to old people. Sure, the deadliest outcomes skews to older people but the virus knows no age limits. Portlanders have to seriously consider who will be the biggest evening users of closed street plazas. Equity and fairness, which guides so much our policy, would say any public facility should be for everyone. But the reality is that people over 60, the obese, people with conditions like diabetes or asthma and many other Portlanders with comorbid conditions would be effectively excluded from destination plazas on closed city streets. That includes neighbors where the plazas are being considered.

When the city decides to close streets and create plazas, it is making a calculation to pick winners and losers among our small businesses. That is not the proper function of our Transportation Bureau. Good policy will put our local businesses on an equal footing and give them an equal shot to survive the crisis. A plan to use sidewalks and parking zones does that while street closures to create plazas does not. And, looking at the maps, one plan to close 28th Avenue results in a 16-block detour. Thousands of inner NE and SE residents use that street to get to Hollywood Fred Meyer. Has anyone considered the cost of making cars drive farther to shop for groceries. Seems pennywise and pound foolish. The other concept closes a direct approach to the Morrison Bridge just as people are driving more.

Finally, and sadly, there may be something else afoot here. There is a cynical political nostrum, “never waste a good crisis.” From my years in City Hall, I know that advocates are very effective at cultivating relationships with politicians and planners. The COVID-19 crisis gives a committed few an extraordinary opportunity to craft policy when everyone else is absorbed with living in the most stressful time of our lives. We are in a world where open process loving Portlanders cannot gather together to discuss, support or challenge policy initiatives. We are using Zoom to work and reach out to friends and family. Calling randomly scheduled Zoom public meetings the equivalent of a robust public process is at best a thin soup, at worst, a way to circumvent the general public altogether.

Everyone has the freedom to choose their form of transportation based on their needs, physical ability, financial means and personal philosophy. We should not be making judgements on people’s character or intentions based on how they chose to get from one place to another. I was especially concerned to see this statement in a popular bicycling advocacy blog as part of an analysis of PBOT supplied diagrams.

“The presence of drivers and their cars in this image is troubling. PBOT might underestimate how incompatible these human-centric street uses are with the presence of loud, smelly, anti-social and scary motorized vehicles are.”

Advocates will be advocates, but this is precisely the divisive characterization of people by their transportation choice that is toxic to reasoned public discourse. Someone choosing to drive somewhere is a “human-centric” use of publicly funded streets.

We have an opportunity to use public policy to help as many small businesses as possible survive. But the virus is still in charge. Since it is impossible to enforce 100% masks in an area where people are eating and drinking, it is reckless to have public policy that introduces unacceptable risk. Policy decisions that create plazas we already know attract crowds is something best left to a time when we have solved the health crisis and Portlanders can once again gather to talk about alternatives.

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