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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 25, 2018
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The protestors are here. Just saw a bus with a woman on top chanting, “You down with TPP? Hell no, not me!” Followed by off-key rendition of “This Land is Your Land.”
–message from friend who lives in South Philly
Leaving now for the DNC in Philly. 100-degree heat on its way. In Washington DC, where I live, you can already see it in the distance, the heat, blurring the trees near the creek.
Only four days earlier, Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination with a Law-and-Order speech he plagiarized directly from Richard M. Nixon—whose ghost you could actually see for just a moment, if you squinted hard enough, as the balloons rained down and the families came out on stage, an apparition swaying along to the music of The Rolling Stones… and even now He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die…
But enough of all that. Time to put on Let It Bleed and drive north. First, a few quick reflections on last week in Cleveland:
1. The general media narrative is that the Republican National Convention was a disaster for the party and its nominee. Maybe, but I disagree. The protests never got out of hand, and there was no real violence to speak of. Inside the arena, the political controversies—Melania’s speech, Ted Cruz’s attempt to swallow the world whole with his tiny little snake throat, etc…—were just replays of the same show we’ve been watching for months. And during his Thursday acceptance speech, after being introduced by his terrifyingly telegenic daughter, Donald Trump stayed on message just long enough to deliver a minimally coherent version of the worldview he’s been advocating all along. “The barbarians!” he shouted. I was up in the nosebleeds, where his carnival-barker style played better than I ever would’ve thought.
2. The lack of violence in Cleveland is a key factor as to what might happen next. If the upcoming protests in Philadelphia offer images of panic—if there’s violence of any kind—then November gets more complicated. That being said, this shouldn’t happen. It’s not 1968. The police are looking to avoid conflict. The protestors aren’t calling for it. Activism, in Philadelphia, appears to be best defined as an expression of voice, as opposed to physical engagement. Instead we have new realities. Russian hackers! And Trump’s rise in the polls. Make no mistake: the Democratic Party has an enormous financial, organizational, and demographic advantage. Hillary Clinton is so confident of victory that she picked Tim Kaine for her running mate, a Jesuit-educated social-justice liberal who doesn’t bring much of an electoral advantage to the ticket… apart from competence. And even after his adequate showing last Thursday, Donald Trump seems incapable of acting like a reasonable adult for more than a few hours at a time. Which is absurd: all he needs to do is carry himself with a Newt Gingrich-degree of composure over the next three months and he’ll have the same chance of becoming the ruler of the most powerful nation-state in the history of humankind as the Chicago White Sox have, today, of beating their crosstown rivals the Cubs…
3. Are we clear on the real horror of Nixonian Law-and-Order speeches? In 1968, it was a coded whistle not just to white Americans afraid of radical threats but also to entities like J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI—a tacit approval for state-sanctioned violence against civil-rights movements. In the years that followed, Hoover would accelerate his infiltration of these groups, planting undercover operatives whose orders were to attack the police, thus allowing law enforcement to respond with their most effective weapon: lethal force. It worked. And that’s the point: when you talk about “cities enveloped in smoke and flame” and “sirens in the night” what you’re really saying is By any means necessary—a maxim Nixon understood better than most.
4. Inside the Republican Convention, I was struck by the degree to which almost everyone there still seemed to see disadvantage in a moral light. As in: you’re poor because you don’t work hard enough. Sick for lack of faith. Silent because you just don’t speak loudly enough. Which is part of the brilliance of Trump’s rise: he makes us reassert basic truths as if we’ve forgotten them—as if they’re not intrinsic to the nature of justice, and fairness, and human compassion. It’s one of the oldest political tricks in the book—you force your opponent to refute charges that are clearly and outlandishly false, and by doing so change the conversation altogether—a tactic that, when played right, turns the whole nature of what’s considered offensive/defensive on its head. At the RNC, when I said “Black Lives Matter” to someone wearing a shirt in support of police officers, the resulting outrage was instantaneous: suddenly people were screaming “ALL LIVES MATTER” in my face with such violence I found myself retreating up the aisle. And I shouted far more radical things than this over the course of the Convention. But that’s the point, too: Black Lives Matter is in no way whatsoever an outrageous phrase; and if that’s how it feels—if we’ve changed the conversation to the degree where members of a group who are statistically more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement are not allowed to assert their right to exist—then it means we’re approaching a moment when speaking itself will be beside the point altogether…
* * * *
“Do you want to strip the earth of all trees and living things just because of your fantasy of enjoying naked light? You’re stupid.”
“I won’t argue with you, old sophist,” replied Levi Matvei.
“You can’t argue with me because of what I just said—you’re stupid,” replied Woland, and asked, “Well, tell my briefly, without tiring me, why have you appeared?”
–Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
At City Hall: perhaps 500 protestors total. Mostly for Bernie Sanders.
A few Honduran activists are demonstrating peacefully. They’re here to talk about Berta Caceres, an environmental activist who was shot dead last March. They’ve constructed an enormous puppet in her likeness: elegant robes, a head that pivots and tilts, and broad outstretched hands. INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION INTO BERTA’S MURDER, a sign reads.
Nearby, someone’s maneuvering a giant Bernie head with hands. It’s much smaller. The puppeteer is wearing a sticker that says I’m sticking with Bernie! Across the street, there’s truck with video screens that’s showing clips of Hillary at a podium—alongside a running ticker of speaking fees. BERN OR JILL BUT NEVER HILL, a sign reads.
Also: THE CLINTON’S ARE SUPER PREDATORS AND MUST BE BROUGHT TO HEEL.
And: RIP DEMOCRACY: MURDERED BY DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ
Not to mention a giant sign for “Funny Condoms,” which apparently a young man is selling in droves.
The anarchists have camped near the entrance. I stop and speak with one of them. He’s very young. He’s holding a giant cardboard WHOEVER THEY VOTE FOR WE ARE UNGOVERNABLE sign, a circled A beneath.
I ask about the antecedent of “We.”
“You know. The People.”
I ask if, in his opinion, a just government is ever possible, or if government itself is inherently unjust.
“Could you repeat the question?”
I ask about his background, and why the anarchist movement appeals to him, and the reason he’s come here, in 100-degree weather, to protest—what sort of change he hopes to elicit, by doing so.
“I’m from New Jersey,” he says. And then, together, we start talking about the heat. It’s so hot it seems somehow hotter when we mention it, but that’s all we can do. Later, I’ll see a man in Under Armour shorts wading through Swann Fountain in Logan Circle.
“What do you think?” the anarchist asks me.
“This heat is the shape of the emotion I feel when I’ve gotten to the point beyond the use of words,” I tell him.
“I know, right!” he replies, smiling for the first time.
I’m writing all of this now at the Free Library of Philadelphia, which is about six blocks up Ben Franklin Parkway from City Hall. I’m here with a friend who’s lived in South Philly for half-a-decade. He works as a tour guide in Independence Hall—“The Most Historic Square Mile in the Country” he reminds me—and also as a Caviar delivery man. “Caviar, C-A-V, like the fucking fish—the eggs!” he says, when I ask how to spell it. He’s an old college friend who used to be a newspaperman at the West Chester Daily Local News, but who got out of that gig a few years back. “Stop asking me how to spell things,” he tells me now.
The young anarchist, dipping his head thoughtfully: “What do you think the ‘We’ in the sign means?”
South Philly friend: “I told you to wear shorts, Denevi. You chose jeans. Don’t complain to me about how hot it is.”
Bernie supporter: “LOCK HER UP!”
Me: “Jeans were a bad choice. It’s a hot day!”
Sign at City Hall: JUSTICIA PARA BERTA
We hear that protestors are marching down Broad Street with a 51-foot inflatable Marijuana cigarette, which they’re calling: “The World’s Largest Joint.” They’ll be followed by a general march, from City Hall to the arena.
It’s time to head back out into the heat. We’ll take the subway to FDR Park, where the protestors are camping out.
“Don’t say ‘Downtown,’” my friend says. “Nobody here says ‘Downtown.’ We call it ‘Center City.’”
* * * *
The heat was too much. Dizziness. Confusion. Terrible pressure behind the eyes. When the marchers appeared it was as if from a dull shimmer. Their green flags were like flashes inside my own sight. The police drifting slowly on bikes. There were Bernie supporters in “Sand Wars” shirts. A goateed young man held a POETS FOR PEACE sign. They all look like they’re from Vermont. Which is fine. But in the heat I couldn’t summon the question I’ve been working on. Why? As in: With what, exactly, are you expecting to explain yourself?
I have no issue with Bernie. And I think, outside of the heat and exhaustion, the question I hoped to ask his supporters was: “Do you hate Hillary Clinton more than you like Bernie Sanders?”
His supporters don’t want violence. This much is clear. And the police aren’t looking for violence either. On the ground in Philadelphia it’s really nothing like 1968, and despite the heat, this feels very important to me.
Heatstroke: n, a condition marked by fever and often by unconsciousness.
Well, it didn’t come to that. But it’s the last thing I wrote in my notebook: HEAT STROKE. Both words are underlined. And stained with sweat.
After the march, we ducked into a bar on Mifflin Street. My friend ordered me a gin and I refused to drink it. A few Gatorades later, I could make eye contact. Next to us was a family from Miami: Son, daughter-in-law, mother. They were Cuban-American, they told me, and each was wearing a Bernie Sanders shirt. They’d driven up from Florida on Saturday.
Over the next half-hour they proceeded to tell us about their trip. They were staying in FDR Park, in tents alongside other protestors. The police had been gracious at every step. The closest to violence they’d come was during the march down Broad Street that day; a self-proclaimed Trump supporter walked up to them and began saying “unmentionable” things. But the cops were right on him—talking rationally—and, with the assistance of “Bernie peacekeepers,” this Trump supporter was convinced that marching along with the rest of the rally was not the best way to express his ideas. “What a wonderful time we’ve had,” the mother said, drinking a margarita. They ate desert together. And then they headed back to the park.
I’d meant to ask them the questions I’d arrived with. Why have you driven 24-hours straight to camp in a park and support Bernie Sanders? What do you think of Hillary? Where might things go, after this?
But the heat made me mute. And soon we were heading back out into the day. And, mercifully, I’ll offer no further descriptions of this heat, here.
* * * *
I’m sitting at the bar of the Ritz Carlton. Not many Bernie supports here, to say the least. The room is filled with men in blue blazers and pink-checkered shirts. They wear exquisite tortoiseshell glasses—different from Republicans in the way Robert Redford looks different from a banker; it’s all in the eyes and collar.
Is he here, Robert Redford? No, just a reflection. A description of Redford, from James Salter’s memoir Burning the Days: “The last time, I saw him at a premiere… in the near gloom a murmur went across the crowd. People began to stand. There was a virtual rain of light as everywhere flashbulbs went off, and amid a small group moving down the aisle the blond head of the star could be seen.”
Who are we really talking about? I am, unfortunately, in these matters naïve.
A comment by my friend, earlier tonight: “The inherent sexism of the motherfucking Democratic Party is not to be discounted, man.” He and I are Hillary supporters. Tonight he had a bit of an incident after Bernie’s speech, which we watched at Chickie and Pete’s, a sportsbar in deep South Philly, close to FDR Park. The room was packed with Bernie supporters.
Probably best to go to the notes for the recap—all around me people are shouting about Dunhill cigarettes, and after all, I have to be back in Washington, DC early the next day.
Speakers: Sarah Silverman and Al Franken
Silverman: “This past year I’ve been feeling the Bern.”
Silverman, on Bernie fans not supporting Hillary: “You’re being ridiculous!”
Someone at bar: “Fuck you Silverman!”
Silverman, on why Donald Trump is a terrible human being: “Because I was given money instead of human touch!” Then she makes a sad adult-baby face.
Singer: Paul Simon
Begins to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” like an angel.
Someone at bar: “We want Garfunkel! He’s the genius!”
Me, to friend: “This Convention is so much better than the Republican one. It’s like a concert and the Oscars all rolled into one!”
Friend: “Stop talking about the Republican Convention and Nixon’s ghost.”
Speaker: Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama: “I got news for Donald Trump: the American people are not falling for it!”
MO: “Hillary will fight to make sure discrimination has no place in America!”
Someone behind us: “Benghazi! Hello?”
Same person: “Traitor?”
Friend: “If that asshole just called Michelle Obama a fucking traitor to this nation I swear to god…”
Speaker: Bernie Sanders
Paul Simon’s “America” playing as he walks on stage.
Screams. Shouts. BERNIE BERNIE BERNIE chant.
BS: “No one is more disappointed than I am.”
Someone behind us: “MEEEEEEEEE!”
BS: “Struggle of the People!”
BS: “End the movement toward oligarchy!”
BS: “Climate change! Hillary is listening to the scientists.”
BS: “The greed of drug companies must end!”
BS: “The president’s job is to worry about future generations.”
Afterward: my friend emerges wildly from bathroom.
Friend: “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
Me: “Um, that’s the kind of thing I usually say.”
Friend: “I almost just punched a Trump supporter in the face.”
Me: “Here? Why? What’d he say?”
Friend stares with such seriousness we leave bar immediately.
Later: walking the park. Tents in night. Thinking of family from Miami. Wondering if they will stay for the rest of the Convention. What did they think of Bernie’s speech? And how would they answer all the questions I forgot to ask…
* * * *
The bar is flanked on all sides by thirty-foot columns of marble. I’m not kidding. The Ritz! I wanted to come here to see how the Democratic elite would compare to their counterparts across the aisle, who I witnessed last week in Cleveland in all their splendor.
Someone next to me: “My dad had sex with my mom, in Cape Cod, without a condom, and here I am!”
Someone else: “I used to fly to England like it was Jersey.”
Someone else: “Dude, we’ve been here since like noon.”
But now it’s time to go; these conference-goers have a long week ahead of them.
Bartender, ironically: “FEEL THE BERN!”
Other bartender: “So I think I’m gonna like come in tomorrow morning… I mean today… in three hours…”
Other bartender, to police officer, near door: “Can I buy you a drink, at least?”
* * * *
There’s something I’d like to add, now, straight from my notes: a thesis I wrote out manically, after Cleveland, as well as a quote I later associated with it:
The real threat to our pluralistic society, which we’ve fought tooth-and-nail to sustain, is not President Donald Trump. There’s gotta be enough in place, today, to resist him in a democratic fashion. The real threat is three steps down the road: a new version of Trump who can focus his charisma and hate-speech into a message that a slim majority of Americans will accept. That’s how our balanced and demarcated system of power falls apart. This has happened before. It’ll happen again, eventually. It always does. It’s the nature of how things break down—when we’re forced to extremes, the first thing that happens is a natural consolidation of power. Trump helps call into existence this eventual doom in the way someone like Nixon has presaged Trump. Such a thing is so inevitable that at times it can feel as if it’s happened already.
We saw the fire grow. It was not bright, it was a gruesome, evil, bloody flame, sweeping, before the wind, through all the City. Pigeons lay destroyed upon the pavements, in hundreds, their feathers singed and burned. A crowd of looters roams through Lincoln’s Inn. The churches, houses, the woodwork and the building stones, ablaze at once. The churchyard yews ignited, each one a lighted torch, a shower of sparks now tumbling to the ground. And Bishop Braybrooke’s grave is opened up, his body disinterred. Is this the end of time? A muffled, fearful, thudding sound, moving, like waves, through the air. The powder house exploded. We flee onto the water. The glare around us everywhere, and yonder, before the darkened skies, in one great arc the jagged wall of fire. And, the day after, a silent rain of ashes, westward, as far as Windsor Park.
–W.G. Sebald (describing the Great Fire of London as recorded by Samuel Pepys)