The Disunited States of America

The Fracture Lines Are Becoming More Evident

At some point in the last few decades, it appeared that the people of the United States of America could not agree on much of anything. Does water flow uphill? Is a fetus worth more than an actual human being? Did the Confederacy actually win the Civil War? Did the moon landing really take place? Can we fight the coronavirus by injecting bleach into our veins? Does the Hollywood QAnon child sex ring exist? Is the Earth flat?

All these questions which to me represent the pinnacle of stupidity seem to have large numbers of adherents—people who are angry with Liberals who have ignored them as inhabitants of “Flyover Country,” made fun of their strange religious practices, and insisted that they conform to scientific principles that are somehow unfriendly to them. These people are seriously pissed off, to the extent that they will stridently and repeatedly deny home truths believed by their adversaries.

Will the USA eventually fragment itself into agglomerations of states such as the map shown below?

One of Many Possible Variations

I was discussing the matter with my friend Bill Korn this evening. We both agreed that we were mistaken in thinking that a real existential crisis would bring us together. Well, coronavirus is nothing if not an existential crisis, and we are finding millions of people who are saying, “F—k it! Let’s go back to normal and ride it out!” Them’s brave words, but I would not trade my life for a chance to go to a bar or patiently listen to an unmasked person ranting in my general direction.

Perhaps I am timorous because I am:

  • Diabetic
  • Overweight
  • Asthmatic
  • Blood Type A

That makes me a four-time loser if I get the ’Rona. Thanks, but I’ll watch all you fine folks self-destruct from the sidelines.

 

Fairbanks 142 Goes for a Ride

Chris McCandless in Happier Days

In August 2017 I wrote a post entitled “Fairbanks 142” in which I talk about the end of Chris McCandless, who died isolated in the Alasks wilderness while living in an abandoned Fairbanks City bus.

The problem was that thanks to a book by Jon Kracauer entitled Into the Wild, a number of visitors to the bus site either had to be rescued or even lost their lives while staging a pilgrimage to the site of the bus. According to a CNN story:

In April 1992, McCandless hitchhiked to Alaska, where a man dropped him off at the head of the Stampede Trail, according to the book. A few days later, he came upon the abandoned bus and lived there for about three months before deciding to head back to civilization.
As he attempted to make his way back, he arrived at a crossing of the Teklanika River. But because the river was running fast and high from rain and the snowmelt from glaciers, he was unable to make his way across, according to Krakauer.
Defeated, he turned around and headed back toward the bus, where he survived for about a month before succumbing to death in August 1992.
Hikers from around the world attempt to retrace McCandless’ steps every year, but many have failed and have had to be rescued. Some even died.
Last February, firefighters and Alaska state troopers rescued five Italian hikers on the Stampede Trail as they were returning from visiting the abandoned bus. Less than a year before, a Belarus woman died on the trail trying to cross the Teklanika River to visit the bus with her new husband.

Alaska National Guard Helicopter Coming for the McCandless Bus

Finally, the State of Alaska decided to airlift the ruined bus before more tax dollars had to be spent rescuing pilgrims. They haven’t decided what to do with it yet, though I think it would make a fine addition to one of the state’s museums—acting as a warning to wilderness buffs who are tempted to follow in McCandless’s footsteps.

 

Unexpected Angels

Young Volunteers Removing Graffiti

In general, I am not one to praise the younger generation—probably because they have adopted too many aspects of our culture which I find spurious, including smart phones, e-scooters, and in fact the whole gig economy.

Imagine my surprise when I found many young men and women cleaning up the mess in Santa Monica after the looters and other thugs had their way last Sunday. Okay, I guess I was a little tough on them, but after all they shouldn’t ought to have have stepped on my lawn.

More Graffiti Cleanup

I have always loved the look of Santa Monica. In 1966, when I moved into an apartment on Sunset Boulevard near Barrington Avenue, the first trip I took on my own was by bus to Santa Monica and its beach. After having been raised in grungy Cleveland with its dirty red brick, I saw Santa Monica as a pretty town at the edge of the sea. In Cleveland, we had no beach to speak of along the shores of poor, polluted Lake Erie. For many years, I lived in Santa Monica, until I was squeezed out around 1979 when Proposition 13 was adopted by the voters of California. Still, I live within two and a half miles of the ocean and I like to walk there from time to time.

 

 

The Ruins of Santa Monica

National Guard Protecting Santa Monica Place Shopping Mall

The above picture shows two aspects of yesterday’s widespread looting of Santa Monica businesses. On the one hand, the National Guard was moving into place to protect businesses; and HUMVs with guardsmen were seen in the streets. On the other, if you look to the left of the photo, you will see a mother and daughter with brooms, two of the many people I saw today helping to clean up the mess.

I spent an hour visiting places where Martine and I shop. The amount of damage was appalling. While the demonstrations were going on, looters moved in with hammers to break into businesses by shattering glass doors and windows. Below is a photo I took of a smoke shop on Broadway near 2nd Street that had been entered that way and ransacked. You will notice that the windows and doors had been smashed::

Cleaning Up the Damage at a Looted Tobacco and Vaping Shop

It seems that half the businesses in town were putting up plywood to protect their doors and display windows:

Putting Up Plywood to Protect Businesses

Finally, as I was searching for a bus stop where the re-routed #1 bus could pick me up, I noticed an ATM whose glass had been broken with a hammer:

Damaged ATM Window at Pacific Western Bank

I do not blame the protestors for the looting. It’s just that highly mobile thieves were using them as a screen. While most of the police were with the protestors, the looters quickly moved in, parked their cars, smashed their way into businesses, and made off with whatever merchandise they could find. Among the businesses looted were a Target three blocks away from us, the Italian deli I usually walk to, the Vons Supermarket across the street from it, several local pharmacies, a smoke shop, and a branch of Recreational Equipment Inc (REI).

 

Mayhem Comes Close

Looters in Santa Monica on Sunday

To begin with, I think that Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin should be severely punished for his murder of George Floyd—and I believe that First or Second Degree Murder would be a more appropriate charge. The worst option, which would result in riots across the country, would be for him to be set free.

Today the protests came very close to home. In conjunction with the protests, which were generally peaceful, there were both looters and anti-police provocateurs. The latter came armed with firecrackers, shields, and weapons. There were major outbreaks in nearby Santa Monica and in Long Beach.

Tomorrow, I plan to walk to Santa Monica to survey the damage and take pictures for posts to follow. I suspect by then that the hubbub will have moved on to other locales.

 

 

Weasel Words

To Be Sure!

One result of quarantining in place is that I have been exposed to a good deal more television than usual. Watching the ads on my favorite programs, when combined with my experience doing marketing for a software company, I have become acutely aware of advertisers’ practice of being so overwhelmingly positive as to be prevaricating.  I myself have produced numerous ads for the software products of Urban Decision Systems. The pressure was always on for me to omit anything that could give rise to a negative customer response.

Every day I see ads that are so clearly n the bait-and-switch category: They quote prices that are as low as $9.95, or starting at $9.95, or “as little as” $9.95. Or the price contains certain additional features in selected areas. What do you want to bet that those selected areas are ZIP codes with no residential or business population? Call the phone number attached to the ad, and you will see that the come-on is just a starting point to products and services that cost much more.

You’ve Undoubtedly Noticed the Literal Puffery of Food Ads

Because I tend to watch programs geared to older viewers, I am bombarded by health ads of dubious provenance. Everything either has copper woven into some sort of brace, or there are Medicare-supplemental insurance that includes free meals and other services that I doubt would be normally provided. Colonial Penn will offer to pay for my funeral for a cost “starting at” $9.95 a month, even if I have advanced leprosy or ebola. And the price will never go up.

I know that most programming is paid for by advertising, but I wonder how many viewers like me cringe when they see the pitches aimed at them. How many TV ads have I responded to over the last ten years? Zero. Zip. None.

 

It’s Not Like Flicking a Switch

Abandoned City on Hashima Island, Near Nagasaki

Let me start by saying that I am no Pollyanna-ish prognosticator of Good News. The worldwide COVID-19 plague has wounded all economies to varying degrees, some of which may not return to “normal” for decades. I cannot help but think that most Americans in flyover country think that all the government has to do is flick a switch for us to return to the good old days before March 2020. I for one do not think it’ll be that easy.

What will inevitably happen is that the plague will settle most heavily on states which have gone off social distancing and quarantine too early. The people that Trump is most trying to help—his supporters in the South and Midwest—will die by the thousands, if not tens of thousands. Any attempt to return to “normal” too quickly will re-energize the plague as people go back to being in close contact with one another.

The governors of states like New York and California are for a more gradual approach. States with anti-science GOP governors, like Florida and Georgia, will suffer the consequences disproportionately.

 

 

 

Strange New World

Who Could Have Expected This?

When I returned from Mexico on February 7, it was to a vastly different reality—one that grew increasingly strange with each passing day. With the cancellation of music festivals, sporting events, live audiences, and even schools and libraries, it is a strange and unexpected new world in which I find myself.

Tomorrow night, Martine and I are attending an event given by the Kárpátok Hungarian Dance Ensemble, which we both love. It is not a large event, and Martine and I plan not to stay for the socializing after the folk dances. Even a week ago, I would not have been so conscious of the danger of contracting Covid-19. Now, alas, I am: I am a walking encyclopedia of pre-existing medical conditions, including panhypopituitarism, type II diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and a few others not so prominent. If I caught the virus, I would likely be at risk not to survive it.

It has been a particularly strange week, partly because of the draconian measures to minimize casual social contact, and partly because of a rare week-long “Pineapple Express” rain event which is leaving us with a certain degree of cabin fever.

At present, an average of 350 people per day are officially identified as having come down with Covid-19. I suspect the number is actually much larger because of the nationwide shortage of test kits. Supposedly, something is being done about this—but then I don’t usually expect competence or any degree of helpfulness from the Trump administration.

The only good news about the coronavirus is that it has all but chased the 2020 presidential election from the news. But it has not replaced it with anything more palatable.

 

 

Bad Ass Drivers

Typically, the Bad Ass American Is Most Readily Found on the Road

A few days ago, I wondered why Americans were so intent on playing the role of the bad ass. Of course, the great theater of bad ass behavior is to be found on the streets and roads of your neighborhood. And you don’t have to go very far to find them.

Everybody is familiar with the over-aggressive goon who cuts you off in your lane with inches to spare. You can beep your horn at him, but that will only give him a warm glow that he not only got away with it, but succeeded in annoying you in the process. You can catch up with the louse and give him the finger or verbal abuse, but that could place you at risk. These are not nice people. Being not nice is a way of life with them and affords them some form of satisfaction.

On the other side of the spectrum is the (mostly) woman drivers who in their minds see stop signs at every residential intersection, even when there is none. Although there are hyper-aggressive women drivers as well, intent on proving their status as bad ass malefactors, most women do not fall into this category. Texting and otherwise driving distracted is not so much an instance of bad ass driving as it is an invitation to disaster.

Ultimately, the only way to deal with real bad ass drivers is to see them the way a Buddhist monk views venial sins: with complete equanimity. By reacting at all, you are in danger of allowing yourself to be distracted.

It would be nice if there were more police enforcement of moving violations, but I suspect that the highways of America will become choked with gory bodies before the men in blue could be lured from their coffee and doughnuts.

Bad-Ass Nation

Is This Really the Way We See Ourselves?

Take a look at our recent movie heroes. Instead of John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant, we have violent, muscle-bound clods like Bruce Willis, Dwayne Johnson (“The Rock”), Samuel L. Jackson, Sylvester Stallone, Steven Seagal, or even Arnold Schwarzenegger. There is a tendency for young men to shave their heads, cover themselves with tattoos, and even dress like big-time bad asses.

Even women are not immune to mthis effect, starting with Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 (1991). This was taken all the way to the top by Quentin Tarantino with Uma Thurman as Beatrice Kiddo in Kill Bill 1 (2003) and Kill Bill 2 (2004).

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2

I wonder why we have to look so tough. If we ask ourselves what do we gain by looking tough, I would have to answer, “Practically nothing.” You may choose to shave your head, grow a scraggly beard, get tattooed like a Maori warrior, wear a hoodie, and practice your scowls in a mirror. Will that really protect you if you get caught by someone who really is tough and sees through to your marshmallow-like interior? Will you be able to convince your fellow inmates at San Quentin that you can successfully protect your ass if you drop your soap in the shower?

No, I am not being facetious. These are existential questions. And they relate to the way that America is faring in the world today.

Let’s say you’re a Navy Seal or a Ranger. What is your record of success when military decisions are being made by a draft-dodger with a terminal case of bone spurs? Our tough guys abandoned Syria to the real bad guys when the Trumpster decided to pull out. (Were his bone spurs bothering him?)

A Real Bad Ass Car, for People with Tiny Dicks

Well, I suppose if you’re so fortunate as to avoid someone who is willing to face you down, you can drive around in your Tesla or Hummer and make yourself the envy of pouting teenagers.