Trump’s Second Term

Sunday night, after the rain clouds parted, Blanca and I headed due West like we were shot out of a cannon. Up and over the 4th St Bridge, she wanted to see Oyster Bay. We added on Ellison Loop NW for a little more climbing. That wall at the very end is a bitch, but I digress.

A beautiful night for a fling with your gfriend. Until we saw FOUR houses in a row with Trump/Pence signs. Trump’s gonna carry Oyster Bay?

No big deal you say, Washington is dark blue, no reason to let a few right wing nutters ruin a glorious ride.

But then, after we ducked into the driveway right before sunset, I finished reading Evan Osnos’s smartly written, “How Greenwich Republicans Learned to Love Trump.

Which is filled with insights into things I don’t understand. Like this:

“The (college) admissions case reminded me of the rationale I kept hearing for looking past Trump’s behavior toward women, minorities, immigrants, war heroes, the F.B.I., democracy, and the truth, not to mention his request that Ukraine “do us a favor” by investigating his political opponents: a conviction that, ultimately, nothing matters more than cutting taxes and regulations and slowing immigration.”

Osnos disabuses people like me that Trump’s base is just gun-toting, stay-at-home protesting, working class, modestly educated, rural people. Trump has massive support among the ultra wealthy, like Michael Mason, a mover and shaker in Greenwich, Connecticut, probably the wealthiest enclave in the (dis)United States:

“Mason knows that the President’s ‘culture’ still upsets many people in Greenwich. But, he said, ‘his policies over the last three years have gained more attention and probably more support.’ He predicts that the trauma of the pandemic will persuade some voters that Trump was right to want to cut immigration and lure back industries from abroad. ‘He had policies that he wanted to change on our borders, on immigration. I certainly think people in this country now are worried about that.'”

The Resistance is deluded to think this pandemic shitshow is going to ruin his chance at re-election.

Another depressing insight:

“If you are among the Greenwich élite, whether you love Trump or hate him, it is easy to count the ways that he has oriented his Administration to help people like you. When Trump introduced his tax bill, he called it a gift to ‘the folks who work in the mail rooms and the machine shops of America.’ That was absurd. The bill cut the corporate tax rate by fourteen per cent, and most of the windfall went to investors in the form of dividends and stock buybacks. . . . Though he limited the deductions for state and local taxes, wealthy citizens were compensated by new tax breaks, including some specifically for the commercial-real-estate industry and for wealthy heirs. On average, Trump gave households in the top one per cent a forty-eight-thousand-dollar tax cut, while those in the bottom twenty per cent received a hundred and twenty dollars, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a nonpartisan think tank. Jim Campbell, the Republican organizer who embraced Trump early in 2016, told me recently, ‘I don’t know anyone who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and won’t vote for him again. In Greenwich, he’ll probably pick up some votes.'”

I never thought the country would elect Trump president. Since 2016, his supporters have become less afraid, less self conscious, and more outspoken. Now, for the first time, I’m bracing myself for the fact that my friend, who promises “100% that Trump is going to be reelected”, may very well be right.

Thanks for that Osnos.

 

 

 

In North Korea, The Fourth Man Could Be A Woman

Barbara Demrick in The New Yorker:

“The conventional wisdom is that a woman could never ascend to the leadership of North Korea, a country stuck in a time warp of passé fashions, hairdos, music, and social mores. A toxic mix of Confucianism and totalitarianism indentures women to their husbands, to their in-laws, and, ultimately, to a male-dominated regime. With a few exceptions (the best known being the vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui), North Korea’s senior cadres are almost entirely male. The Supreme People’s Assembly—which currently has six hundred and eighty-seven members—is supposed to set aside twenty per cent of its seats for women, but the percentage has frequently dipped lower. And the primary function of these token deputies seems to be to brighten the optics, by wearing the jewel-toned, floor-length Korean gowns best known by the South Korean term hanbok. Since 1948, North Korea has been ruled by three men—the founder, his son, and his grandson—but, nevertheless, it is now conceivable that the fourth man will be a woman. That is because, with reports that Kim Jong Un is in failing health, the most obvious successor is his thirtysomething sister, Kim Yo Jong.”

And dig this:

“She was reportedly a favorite of her father, Kim Jong Il, who ruled from 1994 until his death, in 2011, and who, according to a former Russian official, Konstantin Pulikovsky, may have had a more enlightened attitude toward women than some of the North Korean élite. Pulikovsky, who travelled with Kim Jong Il by train and later wrote a memoir about the experience, told interviewers that the leader praised the intelligence of his daughter, while deriding his sons as ‘idle blockheads.'”

Despite being 36 years young, obscenely rich, and with access to world class medical care, Kim Jong Un is allegedly at risk of dying due to obesity, chain smoking and who knows what other vices. Dad’s assessment seems spot on, which begs the question, why didn’t he go with Kim Jo Young in the first place.

Most likely for two reasons. Too young and . . .

“‘North Korea is so outlandishly sexist, despite the fact that they are supposed to be a revolutionary society. When it comes to gender relations, it is like South Korea decades ago,’’ Katharine H. S. Moon, a political-science professor at Wellesley College who has written about gender issues in Korean politics, said. In fact, as Moon notes, women have not fared well in politics in South Korea, either, a nation that is routinely toward the bottom of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s list of developed countries’ rankings on gender equality. South Korea’s only female President, Park Geun-hye, was impeached in 2017, and is now in prison, serving twenty-five years for bribery, extortion, and abuse of power, which some maintain is harsher treatment than accorded men who committed comparable offenses.”

 

I Watched Americana

And not too proud to admit it. Well, so far, the first 35 minutes, which to my TSwift-loving daughters, secures my place in the pantheon of history’s most outstanding fathers.

For extra credit, I read Amanda Petrusich’s review in The New Yorker, TAYLOR SWIFT’S SELF-SCRUTINY IN ‘MISS AMERICANA'”.

 Petrusich notes:

“Swift is certainly not exceptional in her yearning for approval, but her life has unfolded on an unprecedented scale.”

Not exactly original insights. If The New Yorker had commissioned me to write the review, which in hindsight they should’ve, I would’ve framed the film as another in a long line of case studies on the corrosive effects of fame. As my saying goes, “Fame tends to corrupt and absolute fame corrupts absolutely.” Then I would’ve referenced “Amy” the documentary about Amy Winehouse which powerfully illustrates how sadly pop icons’ stories often turn out especially when surrounded by selfish, financially dependent employees, family, and “friends”.

And it’s odd that The New Yorker’s choice for reviewer is silent on our mindless tendency towards celebrity worship, which I’d argue makes us complicit in Swift’s struggles and Winehouse’s demise.

It’s also disappointing that their reviewer is silent on Swift’s passive acceptance of her fame. Swift did lay low for a year, but more as a pause in her incredibly ambitious career. What’s stopping her, someone has to ask, from a complete retreat from the public sphere for much, much longer.

Taylor, if you’re reading this, which I suspect you are, eat up and change your appearance, move to Canada, make friends with Harry and Megan, and dig into the ancient Stoics. You won’t be disappointed.

I can’t speak for my daughters, but the rest of us will be okay.

Two Very Good ‘Los Angeles’ Sentences

From Margaret Talbot’s “Dancing with HAIM” in The New Yorker.

Talbot doesn’t drive. Sentence one.

“In high school and afterward, I was often a passenger, and, though I’ve always enjoyed riding in cars as much as any golden retriever with its head hung out the window, I also walked and took buses a lot.”

Slowing down has it’s advantages, in particular, noticing the details of one’s surroundings. Sentence two.

“I got to know the particular topography of pedestrian L.A.: muffler shops and taquerias and strip-mall doughnut shops run by Cambodian immigrants; bougainvillea and birds-of-paradise that grow opportunistically in cracked sidewalks; abandoned shopping carts and outdoor newsstands and faded courtyard apartment buildings with grand names; the scintillation of sunshine on passing rivers of traffic, telephone-pole flyers advertising suspicious-sounding opportunities in the entertainment business, and freeway underpasses and their homeless encampments.”

 

American Exceptionalism

Our passivity towards gun violence is exceptional. Especially among developed nations.

Anthony Lane in The New Yorker on Tarantino’s current film “Once Upon a Time. . . in Hollywood”:

“. . . two things alone freaked me out. One was the sudden, insane burst of brutality that is inflicted by men upon women. And the other was the reaction of the people around me in the auditorium to that monstrosity. They laughed and clapped.”

One night in 1994, knowing it wouldn’t be the Good Wife’s cup of tea, I went to see “Pulp Fiction” by myself in Greensboro, North Carolina. In the film there were a few insane bursts of brutality inflicted by men upon men. Point blank shootings that prompted the crowd to spontaneously erupt in prolonged applause. That was deeply unsettling.

Twenty five years later I fear we’re even more desensitized to wanton gun violence.

Where does it end?

Try To Stay Present

After a fun fiction jag, I’m reading David Brook’s #1 Best Seller in Philosophy of Ethics and Morality, The Second Mountain: The Quest For a Moral Life.

I’m only a third in, but my overwhelming thought so far is that it’s uneven. Some parts are clear, insightful and inspiring; others however, like Chapter Six, “Heart and Soul,” are so vapid I wonder if his editor is afraid of him. Brooks is like a batter that drills one pitch off the wall for a stand up double and then strikes out looking the next time up.

He argues Millennials are lost, which of course, is an exaggeration. Lost because nearly every American institution has declined in importance and young people are left with the admittedly inane advice to “do you” whatever you may be. He argues all people would benefit from living more committed lives to some combination of a vocation, marriage, philosophy and faith, or particular community.

He tells his story and stories of many others who prioritized their work lives and wealth and notoriety at the expense of deeper, more meaningful commitments based upon mutual vulnerability and selfless service. He’s best when he explains how these “Second Mountain” people lose themselves in listening and caring for others in ways that are mutually transforming.

The problem he slips into though is highlighting people whose transformations are so radical as to be nearly unrelatable. Like Kathy and David who extend dinner invitations to a hodgepodge of 40 struggling young people on a weekly basis. David left his job to create a nonprofit, All Our Kids, and gave his kidney to one of the young women when she needed a transplant.

Yeah, I’m sure I can high jump 10 feet if I just put my mind to it.

Or Etty Hillesum, a Jewish woman in Holland during World War II, who maintained a supernatural inner peace and joy all the way up to the point that her parents, brother, and she were killed in Auschwitz.

I set Brooks down for awhile to watch the first episode of HBO’s Chernobyl which is as scary a story imaginable for anyone who has ever worried about exposure to radiation at the dentist and/or airport. After that harrowing experience, I sought refuge in The New Yorker instead of immediately jumping back into Brooks.

There I think I found a more subtle and nuanced way forward for mere mortals like me. In a very short story about Maggie Rogers’s rise, John Seabrook, who hangs with her in New York one afternoon, tells this story:

A fan recognized her. “Wow,” he said. “Biggest fan. Can I actually ask a question?”

“Dude, I have no idea what I’m doing,” Rogers said, laughing.

“That’s what your album is about, right?” the fan asked. He was her age.

“Exactly,” Rogers said. “I’ve just really been trying to stay present.”

How does one stay present? By giving off a particular vibe that communicates “Heck no I’m not too busy for you.” By maintaining meaningful eye contact. By thinking about what others are saying instead of what you want to say the second they pause. By asking clarifying questions. By empathizing instead of problem solving. By learning to appreciate what’s unique about others.

Much easier to write than do.

 

 

Coffee Is For Closers Only

Most writers, like recreational runners hitting the wall, don’t pace themselves. As a result, they shortchange their readers with uninspiring conclusions.

Evan Osnos, in his lengthy New Yorker expose on Facebook provides us writing mortals with a tour de force example on how to close. Dig his last three pgraphs. So good, let’s take them one at a time beginning with the third to last:

“The caricature of Zuckerberg is that of an automaton with little regard for the human dimensions of his work. The truth is something else: he decided long ago that no historical change is painless. Like Augustus, he is at peace with his trade-offs. Between speech and truth, he chose speech. Between speed and perfection, he chose speed. Between scale and safety, he chose scale. His life thus far has convinced him that he can solve “problem after problem after problem,” no matter the howling from the public it may cause.”

He saves a key insight to the very end—conventional wisdom on Zuckerberg is wrong. Then the Augustus reference reminds the reader of Zuckerberg’s fascination with Roman history nicely explained in the body. Then the three brilliant “Between” sentences which beautifully summarize the three tensions that weave throughout the piece. Then Osnos uses a few of Zuckerberg’s own words to thoughtfully wrap the pgraph.

The penultimate one:

“At a certain point, the habits of mind that served Zuckerberg well on his ascent will start to work against him. To avoid further crises, he will have to embrace the fact that he’s now a protector of the peace, not a disrupter of it. Facebook’s colossal power of persuasion has delivered fortune but also peril. Like it or not, Zuckerberg is a gatekeeper. The era when Facebook could learn by doing, and fix the mistakes later, is over. The costs are too high, and idealism is not a defense against negligence.”

Again, a wonderful payoff for sticking with Osnos to the end, another astute insight about “habits of mind” and the difference between growing a new business and leading a mature one. Instead of a mechanical “tell them what you told them”, Osnos leaves the reader thinking even more deeply. Will Zuckerberg be able to make the pivot Osnos so convincingly argues he must? That question gives the piece a stickiness that a typical “let’s just end this” conclusion never does.

And the last:

“In some sense, the “Mark Zuckerberg production”—as he called Facebook in its early years—has only just begun. Zuckerberg is not yet thirty-five, and the ambition with which he built his empire could well be directed toward shoring up his company, his country, and his name. The question is not whether Zuckerberg has the power to fix Facebook but whether he has the will; whether he will kick people out of his office—with the gusto that he once mustered for the pivot to mobile—if they don’t bring him ideas for preventing violence in Myanmar, or protecting privacy, or mitigating the toxicity of social media. He succeeded, long ago, in making Facebook great. The challenge before him now is to make it good.”

Whew, where to start? A vivid reminder that Zuckerberg and Facebook are in their very early years. Anything is possible. And again, respecting his readers’ intellect by leaving things open-ended, a question, does he have the will? There’s no hand holding, every reader will come to their own conclusion. The “pivot to mobile” phrase is a reminder from the body of the time period when Zuckerberg only took meetings with people if their proposals included ways to grow Facebook on mobile devices. Osnos cleverly uses that anecdote to remind the reader one last time of tremendous challenges facing Zuckerberg. And then the final sentence, which again, leaves the reader wondering, can he make it good.

Give the man a cup of coffee.

Postscript: Not a flattering portrait of Zuckerberg and FB. Increasingly, I wonder, why don’t I delete my FB account?

The Sexual Harassment Epidemic is More Sordid Than You Realize

If you think you have a pretty good feel for the breadth and depth of the sexual harassment landscape, think again. Then read “Can Hollywood Change Its Ways?” by Dana Goodyear:

“Lyle’s job was to write down what the writers talked about. According to testimony she gave later, several of them talked about anal sex, oral sex, “fucking,” “pussies,” “schlongs,” what color hair they preferred women to have, what size breasts, and how one of the writers had missed his chance with one of the show’s stars. They referred to a lead actress as “having dried branches in her vagina”; one writer “frequently brought up his fantasy about an episode of the show in which one of the male characters enters the bathroom while a female character is showering and rapes her.” They doodled offensive anatomical drawings, vocalized pleasure while pretending to masturbate, altered a calendar in the writers’ room so that it read “pert tits” instead of “persistence” and “penis” instead of “happiness.”

“I can’t even say I was offended,” Lyle told me recently. ‘That’s how steeped in the culture I was. It was such a ubiquitous thing that it would’ve seemed off to have them not do that stuff.'”

Goodyear describing a female writer who became a target of one studio’s star executive:

“The woman wore librarian glasses and thrift-store clothes, and kept her hair short. It was her style, but also a signal of her seriousness, her not-gameness. It provoked him, even though his own girlfriend was “hot,” as he told her all the time. “Can you believe I want to fuck you and that’s my girlfriend?” he said.

Several times a week, she had to call him to talk about a script, a writer, the status of a project. Instead, he asked her what she looked like naked, and sulked when she declined to flirt. It was impossible, under these conditions, to do her work effectively, but she had to make nice—he was their guy.”

Kim Masters is an investigative journalist at the Hollywood Reporter. Goodyear turns to her for the bigger picture:

Hollywood, Masters says, has long operated like a men-only club. “This town is shot through with a culture of intimidation, boys having fun, going to Las Vegas, hiring hookers. They don’t want female colleagues anywhere near them. Women are not invited and not promoted. I remember Dawn Steel saying, ‘If only I could go whoring with these guys my life would be so much easier.’ ”

Still, Masters has been shocked to see how pervasive sexual harassment is, particularly at certain studios and agencies. “It’s not just one or two people,” she said. “It’s woven into the fucking fabric.” She went on, “What’s become clear to me is how deeply the culture of tolerating this behavior is rooted. You have a standoff—mutually assured destruction. There’s so much bad behavior, if you try to get rid of one guy then he says, ‘I will go after you. I know what you did.’ The behavior is entrenched at such high levels. You almost have to burn the companies down.”

Are we, as regular consumers of Hollywood products, complicit in helping create the “fucking fabric”?

Rethinking Cancer

I was blown away by the scope, clarity, interdisciplinary artistry, and intelligence of Siddhartha Mukerjee’s 2010 book, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer“. Like Atul Gawande, Mukerjee somehow practices medicine, runs a world class research lab, while being married with two school-aged children. I like this quote from his wife, Sarah Sze, a MacArthur Genius grant recipient and tenured art professor/sculptor at Columbia.

“‘You can’t get lost in the everyday details. Sid and I are both totally like that, which can be not good with things like parking tickets. Sure, things are falling through the cracks all the time, but that doesn’t matter. The big things matter.'”

I haven’t read Mukerjee’s 2016 book, “The Gene: An Intimate History,” but did just finish his recent New Yorker essay, “The Invasion Equation,” about how cancer biologists are rethinking cancer. And he’s done it again, written so clearly even I can make sense of the science. His writing is deeply engaging on top and will not disappoint anyone interested in the current state of oncology.

A one-sentence caption on the second page of the essay summarizes the shift in thinking:

“We’ve tended to focus on the cancer, but its host tissue—”soil,” rather than “seed”—could help us predict the danger it poses.”

Later, he elaborates:

“It was only natural that many cancer biologists, confronting the sheer complexity of the whole organism, trained their attention exclusively on our “pathogen”: the cancer cell. Investigating metastasis seems more straightforward than investigating non-metastasis; clinically speaking, it’s tough to study those who haven’t fallen ill. And we physicians have been drawn to the toggle-switch model of disease and health: the biopsy was positive; the blood test was negative; the scans find “no evidence of disease.” Good germs, bad germs. Ecologists, meanwhile, talk about webs of nutrition, predation, climate, topography, all subject to complex feedback loops, all context-dependent. To them, invasion is an equation, even a set of simultaneous equations.”

My take-away from Mukherjee—whether you or I are likely to die from cancer depends largely on whether oncologists learn to think like ecologists.