Birthday of the Plague Year (2nd edition)

And so we come to the end of another trip around the sun, this time making it 59 for me. Barring some kind of unlikely Biblical scale longevity, we’ve been playing the back nine of life for a few holes now, and have reached the strange time in my life where that unavoidable reality seems more comforting than terrifying. Maybe the endless four years of the You-Know-Who “presidency” (with a threat of more to come) will do that. Amazing what the loss of [what was left of] your country’s soul will do to your overall attitude.

Meanwhile, stuff is happening! In hobby-horse news, a GTMO detainee has prevailed in a habeas case for the first time in over a decade. This comes just as the same detainee (and another) were approved for transfer, bringing to 13 the number of men officially held at GTMO even though our government says its OK to release them. Cause for optimism, in that front. Literally 1/3 of the men at GTMO are now “cleared for release” (actual release… pending?), with 12 “eligible for [kangaroo court] military commissions” and 14 still in the “forever prisoner” category. What does this mean in the great scheme of things? Well I’ll tell you.

If we can somehow get it together and clear out and close down GTMO via some mechanism other than the natural death of the last prisoner, it will mean that our government (whichever party pulls it off) has managed to overcome the almost infinite structural obstacles to accomplishing anything constructive, particularly when there are bullshit media elements as well as presumably the Christianist elements of the military industrial complex who are standing in the way. And aside from it being morally and legally necessary to close down one of our premier symbols of “executive overreach” (by which I mean war crimes, torture, racism, etc.), it will at least take away a major “what about your red Indians” talking point by the world’s dictators, who rightly tell us to fuck off when we dare criticize their human rights records.

And the COVID-45 pandemic has exposed something that we all knew to be true, but hoped was not. And that, of course, is that the national solidarity (both for the people of the New York area and in general) that was conveniently assembled after September 11th (albeit for the purpose of coming together to wage wars against Muslim peoples), and then squandered by Dubya (who doesn’t get a pass from me as a horrible President just because he said mean things about Trump)… has now entirely dissipated. Sure, a huge coalition came together to elect Barack Obama in 2008, largely based on hatred of Dubya and his “governance,” and the fear of continuity represented by the financial crisis and just fear, as represented by Sarah Palin. Of course, despite having a huge electoral mandate and control of both houses of Congress, feckless Democratic legislators buoyed by the big-money special interests that own them (sound familiar?) sought to undermine and water down Obama’s program at every turn, resulting in a Frankenstein monster of giveaways to health insurers plus Medicaid expansion (couldn’t we have just expanded Medicaid? And maybe Medicare?). That, along with following up on the [insanely unpopular] bank bailouts initiated by Team Dubya (mainly through his Goldman Sachs guy Hank Paulson and Fed chair Ben Bernanke and chief Bernanke N.Y. lieutenant Tim Geithner), including the choice to bring Geithner himself on as SecTreas and to reappoint Bernanke, led to “the Tea Party” movement (that, and Obama being black and all). This would cost Dems the House two years into Obama’s first term (kind of like what happened to Bill Clinton before him), and eventually, Dems would also lose control of the Senate in Obama’s second term (just in time for S. Ct. Justice Antonin Scalia to die in office, allowing the Senate Republicans to block any replacement). And so, despite his own personal popularity, the unfortunate combination of the Republicans in Congress thwarting everything he did and the unpopularity of the Democratic standard-bearer in 2016 (that would be Hillary Clinton, who is also celebrating her birthday today… happy birthday, Hillary!) led to the nation’s election of Donald Trump, an utterly unqualified, mentally disturbed and not very bright “businessman” and television huckster and game show host. Which in turn led to an insanely long four years, capped by the gross mishandling of the COVID-45 pandemic, the worst public health catastrophe in a century. And the polarization that gave us Trump in the first place now seems cemented in place. We can’t even get together to save our own lives through the simple but effective acts of wearing masks, social distancing or taking a vaccine. We would rather make everything a culture wars issue. Whoever this “we” actually is.

I give you this bleak history lesson of the recent past because I fear that Comrade Karl Marx’s witticism (history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce) is looking pretty damned prescient. Our highly flawed democracy (or if you like, republic with democratic attributes) has now proven that it isn’t capable of dealing with a public health crisis (and we are coming up on 20 years of an inability to cut through political bullshit to even close a prison holding just a few dozen men). This kind of gridlock is literally the precursor of fascist dictatorship. And we have an American fascist party standing by to take over, its 6 January Reichstadt Fire event having proven an excellent dress rehearsal for the Beer Hall Putsch to come. The Trumpers augment their ever tightening grip on Republican members of Congress and governors and state legislatures. Throw in Democratic party internal grid-lock that prevents it from passing a national law to curtail Republican voter suppression and election hijacking laws, and it isn’t looking good for continued democracy in the United States.

I haven’t even begun to note the madness of disappearing Arctic sea ice, Greenland glaciers and Antarctic ice shelves, record temperatures everywhere from the Middle East to Western Canada, insane rains, droughts, storms and you name it, and the fact that greenhouse gases continue spiking upward when global political will to “do anything” about climate change is trapped in the death-grip of American capitalism and the pursuit of the next quarter’s profit numbers (we don’t “do” long term, and as a result, we may not have long term.)

All of which is to say that the passage of three-score less one years (when I came into the world in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis) has not seemed to bless us with the one thing in even shorter supply than all the resources we are burning through to keep the dying project of industrial civilization going: genuine wisdom. This would be accompanied by real perspective. We have always had income and wealth distribution issues, as well as racial justice issues. That we still do, and indeed, that they appear to be moving rapidly and dramatically in the wrong direction should not surprise anyone. At the same time, attitudes toward living with “different” people, be they of different races, religions or sexual orientations, have dramatically improved, even as divisions are played up for electoral purposes (all too often successfully). So… lots of things happening at once.

And so as I take stock here and try to ponder what I can do to try to acquire and hone my own genuine wisdom and, if possible, help others do the same, I briefly go back to one of my dear friend Candace’s favorite sayings, “hope dies last,” quoting a book title of her fellow Chicagoan, Studs Turkel. As long as we’re still here, and as long as we have self-awareness, we at least have a chance. Think about the unlikeliness of life on this planet, let alone so-called intelligent life (or our version of industrial capitalism). Even as our betters and the masters of our system steam us toward disaster, the possibility of wisdom still exists. Most people are still decent, and well-intentioned (even if our overall system is neither, and incentivizes the worst in all of us). Say what you will, but this is cause for at least some hope.

And, hopefully, we can continue this conversation same time next year.