I want to write entries in this diary about Tom Petty, my fridge magnet collection, and a solo trek I intend to make on foot from my house to downtown Seattle. But my best-laid plans keep getting waylaid by all the shit hitting the national fan.
It happens that today is the 25th anniversary of the bombing by Timothy McVeigh of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which itself took place to mark the second anniversary of the fiery end of the Waco siege. (Just in time, as I was preparing to put this entry online, Pete Comley came through with a pun about “that fundamentalist cult that doesn’t believe in epidemiology, the Branch Covidians.”) A quarter-century ago today I was in Lahore, at the tail end of my first visit to Pakistan, about to return to India through the border crossing at Wagah. The widespread initial assumption was that the bombing must have been the work of Muslim terrorists. Back in Delhi a few days later, a Kashmiri friend exclaimed to me: “There was bomb blast in America!” He was surprised, but what struck me was that he was only mildly surprised, that there would be a bomb blast in America, of all places.
The New York Review of Books seems to be rising to the occasion admirably under its new young editors. The other day I got an email from them promoting several essays from their vast and dauntingly erudite archive. So I read “On The Plague” by Tony Judt from November 2001 and resolved to reread the book itself when I can find time. Now I’m reading Susan Sontag, from 1978:
Illness as a metaphor for political disorder is one of the oldest notions of political philosophy. If it is plausible to compare the polis to an organism, then it is plausible to compare civil disorder to an illness. And the classical formulations which analogize a political disorder to an illness—from Plato to, say, Hobbes—presuppose the classical medical (and political) idea of balance. Illness comes from imbalance. Treatment is aimed at restoring the right balance—in political terms, the right hierarchy. The prognosis is always, in principle, optimistic. Society never, by definition, catches a fatal disease. …
Hobbes’s view is anything but fatalistic. Rulers have the responsibility and the ability (through reason) to control disorder. For Hobbes murder (“externall violence”) is the only “natural” way for a society or institution to die. To perish from internal disorder—analogized to a disease—is suicide, something quite preventable; an act of will, or rather a failure of will (that is, of reason).
The past couple of days have witnessed a spate of rallies in state capitols against the stay-at-home orders, followed by Trump’s tweets to e.g. “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” Establishment organs like the Washington Post are pointedly describing the rallies as “small,” but somehow I don’t find that adjective reassuring. The bullets in the assault rifles I’ve seen carried by some attendees are also small.
State governors are deciding and speaking as they see fit. Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, has reopened the state’s beaches. Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer said: “It’s better to be six feet apart right now than six feet under.” Brad Little, the Republican governor of Idaho (where there was a protest), issued a press release: “No one wants to get our economy back up and running as much as I do, but we simply cannot open everything all at once and reverse the good work we have done collectively over the past month to slow the spread of coronavirus.” And our own Jay Inslee has once again done us proud: “The president is fomenting domestic rebellion and spreading lies even while his own administration says the virus is real and is deadly, and that we have a long way to go before restrictions can be lifted.”
So much for my cousin-in-law Carolyn’s forlorn hope that Americans could avoid making this crisis political, and for my hope of avoiding being a political writer. My lifelong aspiration has been to be one of those artists who, in the writer Patrick Nathan’s fine phrase, “make you feel visited or graced, not petitioned.” Maybe that’s feasible amid all the politics flying around, but it’s hard.
But politics is not really the right word for what’s happening right now in the USA. There is statesmanship, which is a political virtue, being exercised variously by Cuomo and Inslee and Whitmer and Newsom and Brad Little in Idaho. And then there’s what Trump is doing. And our available vocabulary is not yet ready to describe accurately what exactly that is.
For example, on Saturday The Guardian ran a longish piece headlined “Operation reopen America: are we about to witness a second historic failure of leadership from Trump?” As a mainstream outlet, albeit an unusually alert one, The Guardian could hardly couch matters much differently. The article quoted Jeremy Konyndyk, who helped lead the response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014, calling Trump’s initial response to the coronavirus “one of the greatest failures of basic governance and leadership in modern times,” and asserted that “the chilling recognition is dawning that the country is heading for a second massive failure of governance under Trump, this time on an even bigger scale.”
But I have a queasy feeling that failure is not a truly apt word, because Trump might well be succeeding at whatever it is he’s attempting. I’m reminded of an American officer’s summing-up of the Vietnam War: “We were playing chess; they were playing go.” Trump is manipulating an atavistic human craving to jettison all the mess and inconvenience of politics and return to prerational or preconscious brute force. Some expressions of that craving have become versions of totalitarianism, which is a modern thing. But I suspect that more fundamentally than that it reaches back into the biology of our primate species, to something that’s still prehuman. In any case, civilized human beings do have a word for the willful causing or allowing of mass death in a population because of ideological, ethnic, or factional enmity.
This morning the Jonestown survivor Eugene Smith, whose book I’m helping write, sent me a link to an Amanpour & Co. interview with veteran Republican strategist Stuart Stevens, promoting his new book It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump. Stevens told interviewer Michel Martin that he takes the controversy over hydroxychloroquine personally because he himself survived a serious bout with malaria, and he called it “a perfect little metaphor for our moment.”
“I mean, we have pretty safe drugs in America because we have a system that works,” he said. “So somehow we’re saying we shouldn’t trust the FDA, that we should listen to Donald Trump or Sean Hannity about what drugs to take? I mean, that’s a short walk to Jim Jones.”
Speaking of walks, our daily walk on Friday provided an unexpected grace note. We didn’t take our walk until early evening, because Jenny had had a long, busy work day and I spent the day transplanting a weigela shrub from the back garden to the front and then planting our new fig tree in the weigela’s previous spot. I showered off the day’s garden dirt and Jenny closed her laptop and got ready, and then I suggested we drive to somewhere in northeast Seattle and walk there.
On NE 77th Street, along the south side of Thornton Creek Elementary School, we ran into Jenny’s colleague Donna. We were walking on the sidewalk and she was in the street. Donna was wearing a mask, so Jenny almost didn’t recognize her. But then she called to her just in case, and we ended up talking – while maintaining social distance – for quite a while. I sat leaning against a tree while Jenny and Donna talked shop about teaching online and their respective plans for after their jobs go away this summer. Donna is close to retirement, and she said her personal finance guy recently assured her she could expect to do okay. She told us about her trip last year to Isle Royale in Lake Superior with her brother, which was idyllic but somewhat fraught with family issues and political rifts.
Finally we said goodbye, but not before Donna gave us a tip because we were walking east: to look out for the house and garden of none other than Ciscoe Morris, on the corner of 77th Street and 44th Avenue NE. She saw him around the neighborhood and they were on friendly terms, she said. Ciscoe is a local celebrity gardener, with a goofy grin and a mustache and an almost cartoonish Wisconsin accent. His catchphrase is “Oo-la-la!” He’s been ubiquitous for years on TV and radio around Seattle, and lately he’s been appearing with Lou Piniella in commercials for SHAG retirement communities.
Jenny is usually not at all one to be starstruck, but she loves Ciscoe. So we walked, on the north side of 77th, to the T intersection where 45th Ave NE runs along the western wall of the golf course, then back east along the south side of the street and around the corner, lingering to admire the exuberant panoply of shrubs and vines along Ciscoe’s side fence and the full length of his parking strip, the gator head garden art piece that Donna had told us to look for, and the cacti in pots in his driveway. We didn’t see Ciscoe himself, but we did see his two dogs in his living room window.
Then we walked back west the fifteen or so blocks to our car. At 77th Street & 38th Ave NE we stopped to admire an enormous tree, and a woman called from her garden nearby to tell us to look for the plaque around the corner. The tree turned out to be Seattle’s largest scarlet oak, an eastern tree that’s non-native here. As we reached our car it was already after seven o’clock, the sun was falling fast, and a warm day was becoming a chilly evening. Dinner was going to be a quick and easy frozen pizza. This walk, with its several quietly beautiful surprises, had turned out to be the perfect palliative ending to a long, hard week. We were happy.