Zebras Not Horses: The New American Normal

Funny story. Early one morning last week, the wife and I were awakened around 6am by what sounded like an enormous explosion, followed by a burst of light. It speaks to the collective jumpiness of the current American moment that as New Yorkers, immediately flashing back to 9/11, the first thought for both of us was that a bomb had gone off. 

We leapt out of bed and went to the window—not having paid attention during those duck-and-cover drills in the ‘50s, before we were born—and soon heard more explosions and additional flashes. 

Pretty soon we realized it was nothing but an especially intense bout of thunder and lightning. But it took us a while. 

As I went about my business on the day that followed, I mentioned the experience to several friends, all of whom told me they had the same exact experience. All of them. 

When it comes to diagnosis, medical students are taught to live by Occam’s razor: that the simplest explanation is usually correct. As the maxim goes, when you hear hoofbeats, your first thought should be horses, not zebras. So what does it say when your first instinct upon hearing a loud boom is “bomb,” not “thunder”?

It says you’re living in fraught and anxious-making times.

A BOX OF GRID SQUARES

At the military installations that I grew up on and around, the sound of live artillery, in gunnery training, was pretty commonplace. You got used to it. 

(My dad—an old infantryman who had a pokerface that made Buster Keaton look like Jim Carrey—once told me that the cannonshot that accompanied the playing of “Retreat,” and the lowering of the flag in front of the post headquarters at 5pm everyday, was a live round that flew overhead and landed in an impact area on the far side of post. “That’s why helicopters fly with their doors open,” he added, “so the shell will pass right through.”)

Even in Iraq in the Gulf war, there was plenty of boom boom, mostly from the skies, but apart from the occasional Scud, it was mostly the other guys on the receiving end of it. (I’m told that American vets who have gone to Ukraine to fight with the International Legion have had to adjust to being on the side with less firepower, even as Kyiv’s forces have proved adept at asymmetrical warfare.)

But I’m not used to hearing bombs go off in NYC. Even the sound of the first 767 to hit the World Trade Center—an improvised missile—did not immediately register to me as what it was, on the day. (I thought it was demolition associated with construction or something, albeit an unusually very loud one.) 

Exhausted from the pandemic and from Trump, New York is a tense place at the moment, and I suspect that is probably true all across the country. The city feels jumpy right now, with a larger-than-usual number of openly unwell people on the streets, shouting profanities at imaginary demons and threatening violence to passersby. The shooting on the N train in Sunset Park last month, two stops from where my wife and daughter and I live, has people rattled and wary on the subway especially. (The shooter fled the scene calmly, debarking in our neighborhood before moving on to the Lower East Side, where he called the cops from a McDonald’s in order to surrender.) 

Old New Yorkers never cease bemoaning how the city ain’t what it used to be. I’ve lived here for 23 years, and still get lectured on the glories of pre-Applebee’s Times Square. File that under “careful what you wish for.”

Sad to say, then, but the notion that there could be a nuclear blast in New York City—or anywhere in the US, but NYC especially—feels like a reasonable fear. It’s something that has haunted America since 1945, and developed a renewed urgency in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. Obviously, I didn’t think Vladimir Putin had attacked us the other morning; that, I presume, would have been a much bigger bang. But I did think it could be terrorism related to the war in Ukraine, or part of the not-quite-finished “Global War on Terror,” which is to say, the “clash of civilizations” between the radical Islamist extremism and the West.

We used to say that Americans were spoiled and soft and disconnected from the harsh reality in which the rest of the world lives. That is still so, compared to, say, life in Ukraine, or Yemen, or Myanmar, to pull just three names out of the hat. But after 9/11, an economic collapse, a certain tangerine-tinted tinhorn Mussolini, the pandemic, Derek Chauvin and Kyle Rittenhouse, and now the spectacle of the resurgence of brutal land war in Europe, we may have turned a corner, mentality wise.  

ACCEPT IT THAT SOON YOU’LL BE DRENCHED TO THE BONE

Obviously, I am generalizing, badly. There are plenty of individual Americans who are not at all benighted—who, either through personal hardship or experience of the wider world or both, are plenty clear-eyed about the harshness of the aforementioned reality. There are whole communities, and whole demographics, whose daily life in this country does not resemble a picnic, and never has. 

But as a nation, it’s hard to dispute that we have long been a rather naïve and privileged people, insulated by oceans and good fortune and military might. 

And there were certainly rough times in the past, to be sure. We are regularly, numbingly reminded of how the Greatest Generation endured and prevailed during the Depression and the Second World War. During the Fifties, even as America supposedly experienced a “Happy Days”-style period of postwar prosperity presided over by an avuncular war hero-turned President, it also lived through the plague of McCarthyism and under the cloud of looming nuclear armageddon that might descend at any moment. The Sixties too certainly had its share of horrors, from Dealey Plaza to Memphis, Chicago, My Lai, and Kent State and beyond. 

But the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties—my own formative years—were relatively serene, assuming you were white, male, and middle class. The Wall came down, Francis Fukuyama sold books, there was peace and prosperity—an economic boom, in fact—and a smooth and fantastic hillbilly in the White House who played sax on “Arsenio Hall.” 

Even after September 11th broke the spell, it was another 15 years before the chickens really came home to roost, on a dark day in November 2016 that marked the beginning of the grim period in which we still wallow. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which unfolded in that interval, really had little impact on domestic American life for most of our countrymen, which was actually a huge part of the problem. After Vietnam, our leaders figured out how to prosecute our foreign military misadventures without need for a draft, outsourcing our warfighting—or should I say, insourcing it—to a tiny sliver of the population that was returned to combat again and again while the rest of us had the luxury of not worrying about it. Needless to say, that is a toxic arrangement for democracy. The feeling within the ranks was succinctly captured in a photo snapped at a US Marine base in Ramadi, Iraq and widely circulated on the Internet, showing a whiteboard inscribed with the words, “America is not at war. The Marine Corps is at war. America is at the mall.” 

But that era seems very much at an end. The pandemic brought home the point of “It’s a Small World After All” with even more force than that insidious earwig of a melody. First, America—almost unique in the developed world—was humiliated by its inability to cope with the coronavirus, thanks to a widespread Know Nothing anti-intellectualism and predilection for the “paranoid style” that runs deep in our collective DNA, as strongly reflected by our government at the time. But then, just as quickly, we were at our best, the envy of the world as American scientific know-how—the very thing that COVID deniers and anti-vaxxers angrily rejected—delivered a medical remedy in record-breaking time. Even then, of course, that same John Birchist precious-bodily-fluids faction refused to take advantage of it, prolonging the death and suffering for everyone. 

But it was no coincidence that our haplessness in responding to the coronavirus coincided with the reign of a toxic political movement unprecedented in our history in terms of the threat it poses to the republic. We didn’t need a foreign crisis to teach us about the big bad world when a homegrown monstrosity had arisen to threaten everything this country was supposed to stand for. 

BLESSED BE THE FRUIT

While I’m writing about explosions, and the present dystopia, we might as well touch on the continuing fallout from last week’s Supreme Court bombshell (yswidt?). It feels like a prime example of the parade of hardships that lately seem to have befallen us.

After years of insisting the fight against abortion was all about returning power to the individual states, emboldened Republicans are already talking about a federal, nationwide ban on abortion—period, without exceptions even for rape, incest (which, btb, is a form of rape), or the life of the mother. That didn’t take long, did it? Giddy over Alito’s draft opinion, they aren’t even pretending to hide their hypocrisy. Should they retake the Senate, they are contemplating dispensing with the filibuster in order to do so, notwithstanding their recent gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over its sanctity—nearly as sacred as a newly fertilized ovum, protected by law with all the rights of a fully formed human voter even as the post-coital couple are still avoiding the wet spot. And despite Alito’s risible insistence that the Court isn’t setting a precedent regarding other unenumerated rights, those same Republicans are also talking about making IVF, the Plan B pill, and contraception illegal. Gay and interracial marriage, the rights of LGBTQ couples to adopt children, and even desegregation are all on deck

Hysteria? Perhaps Susan Collins can reassure us that the Court, and the Christian dominionists who spent decades working toward this moment, would never do such a thing. 

Let’s be clear. The plutocratic wing of the GOP, which ran the Republican show for many many decades, does not care about abortion one way or another. But beginning with Reagan, the GOP deliberately courted the so-called “religious right” to bring to the polls a bloc of religious fanatics who would turn out turn out turn out, ferociously, for years to come, in order to achieve their theocratic goals, enabling the mainstream Republican Party to achieve its own prime directive of cutting taxes for the rich. 

And it worked. 

The problem is, the creature has blithely knocked Dr. Frankenstein aside (that’s fronk-en-steen, to you) and is now fully in control of the GOP. And that’s why our country’s laws on abortion—and a whole raft of other issues soon to come—is being dictated by a small minority of medieval religious zealots. 

If we don’t like it, perhaps we can push back with some passion and ferocity of our own. Which may be why those same folks are not only very keen to suppress voting rights, but also to get a chokehold on how our elections are run full stop.

Leave it to Harvard’s Jill Lepore to hit the bullseye, in a piece for The New Yorker titled, “Of Course the Constitution Has Nothing to Say About Abortion,” which begins with the salient observation that “Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito is surprised that there is so little written about abortion in a four-thousand-word document crafted by fifty-five men in 1787.”

As it happens, there is also nothing at all in that document, which sets out fundamental law, about pregnancy, uteruses, vaginas, fetuses, placentas, menstrual blood, breasts, or breast milk. There is nothing in that document about women at all. 

Most consequentially, there is nothing in that document—or in the circumstances under which it was written—that suggests its authors imagined women as part of the political community embraced by the phrase “We the People.” There were no women among the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. There were no women among the hundreds of people who participated in ratifying conventions in the states. There were no women judges. There were no women legislators. At the time, women could neither hold office nor run for office, and, except in New Jersey, and then only fleetingly, women could not vote. Legally, most women did not exist as persons.

Lepore writes that “Alito, shocked—shocked—to discover so little in the law books of the 1860s guaranteeing a right to abortion, has missed the point: hardly anything in the law books of the eighteen-sixties guaranteed women anything. Because, usually, they still weren’t persons. Nor, for that matter, were fetuses.”

(W)hen Samuel Alito says that people who believe abortion is a constitutional right “have no persuasive answer to this historical evidence,” he displays nothing so much as the limits of his own evidence. “

To use a history of discrimination to deny people their constitutional rights is a perversion of logic and a betrayal of justice. Would the Court decide civil-rights cases regarding race by looking exclusively to laws and statutes written before emancipation?

Lepore sagely points out that “Alito’s opinion rests almost exclusively on a bizarre and impoverished historical analysis,” one that argues that rights not explicitly stated in the Constitution, can be affirmed only if “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition”—a standard, she notes, that “disadvantages people who were not enfranchised at the time the Constitution was written, or who have been poorly enfranchised since then.”  

Women are indeed missing from the Constitution. That’s a problem to remedy, not a precedent to honor.

Mic drop.

HARBINGER FROM THE SOUTH PACIFIC

The other item in the news that struck me this past week was the presidential election in the Philippines, where the good people of that long suffering nation inexplicably returned to power a monstrous and corrupt family that not very long ago robbed that country blind and eviscerated its democracy before being ousted on a wave of massive public outrage.

(I invite your attention to John Oliver’s excellent pre-election piece on the topic.) 

This is a tragedy for the people of the Philippines. How and why would they do such a thing to themselves? I dunno, but I know it’s a bad omen for democracy across the globe, the USA very much included.

So what I want to know is: In 2024, or even just six months from now, with the midterms, will we look back and ask the same question of ourselves?

Among saddest aspects of the Philippine debacle is the fact that Bong Bong—like Duterte—legitimately has the support of massive numbers of his fellow citizens. We have a similar WTF problem here in the US, but not a majority, which is both good and bad, when one contemplates the looming autocracy they intend to impose. Is a dictatorship installed by a small cabal of venal assholes against the will of the people better or worse than one that seizes power with the enthusiastic support of tens of millions, as in the US, or more extreme still, a full-on majority of short-memoried supplicants anxious to be abused, as in the Philippines? 

It took the people of the Philippines 36 years to forget the sins of this particular criminal gang and return them to power. We the people of the United States of America might well do that in less than two. 

If the age of American privilege and naivete is ending, such that we—like many people around the world—have to worry about bombs going off, and killer viruses, and insurrectionists living next door—maybe that vigilance is not such a bad thing, even if it’s a nerve-wracking way to live. That clap of thunder that I and many others mistook for an explosion woke me up. Which is not a bad way to be.

One thought on “Zebras Not Horses: The New American Normal

  1. Sadly, your summary of the politico-legal system is very concerning. The calculated rise of the in my views fundamentalist religious right is worrisome. Their tentacles have extending here to Australia, although one hopes our upcoming election will beg to differ from the directions of the USA and the Philippines. The incumbent leader is not popular with Australians whose psyche is very much centred on a “fair go,” not a religiously-inspired ‘go.’
    I am sorry to hear but not that surprised New Yorkers have a fear reaction to loud sounds despite your reputation for resilience.
    The post war period had its downsides but also advantages and those of us who have lived through it are right to feel disillusioned now with so many retrograde erosions of hard fought for rights. The solution is hard to see. Democracy is a flawed beast. Awareness is the first step. Voting with awareness the second. What is the third?

    Like

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