Friday, February 28, 2020

The More Things Change...

Coronavirus which is dominating the news cycle at the moment is a big deal. I've been poo pooing it for a few weeks now but have been informed in no uncertain terms that's wrong. There's nothing funny about the nearly 3,000 people who have died so far at this writing and the eighty plus thousand individuals around the world we know of who have contracted the disease. That's a lot of people, true a small percentage of all the people in the world, but that percentage surely will go up as so far there are no vaccines to stem the spread of the disease. By all indications it is a tremendously infectious virus whose end is nowhere in sight.

So by all means take every reasonable precaution. As a public service, here is a link to the site of the World Health Organization with some tips on what to do and also what not to help keep yourself and others safe.

Listening to the radio this morning I heard an epidemiologist with some dire warnings sharing much of the same advice you'll find on the WHO website. But he added another important bit of advice.

Don't panic.

It would appear that lots of people are not heeding that advice and are letting fear and ignorance get in the way of rational decision making. A while ago before the outbreak of the disease was made public, I saw a brilliant cartoon that describes much of the current state of the world. In the cartoon, a laboratory beaker with a substance labeled as "ignorance" is heated by a burner labeled as "fear". The resulting condensation of the vapor collected in an adjacent test tube was labelled "hate".

A couple days ago in my own city of Chicago, there was a group of good people who put together a public outing to patronize the restaurants of this city's Chinatown, as despite there not being one report of an infection here, those business saw a dramatic drop in business since news of the outbreak which began in China reached these shores.

I reiterate, Coronavirus is nothing to, pardon the pun, sneeze at. But that reaction in Chicago and elsewhere harkens back to a story my mother was told by the nuns when she was a child in Catholic school in the early forties. The story went something like this:

There was a high school couple who were ice skating on the frozen lagoon in Humboldt Park in Chicago, back in the day before climate change made that impossible. The girl fell on the ice and cut her lip. The boy used his handkerchief to help stop the bleeding. Shortly thereafter the girl contracted syphilis. As these were two good Catholic kids, they certainly could not have been up to any monkey business right? Certainly not. Fortunately for the reputation of the two, it turns out that the handkerchief had recently been laundered at a local Chinese laundry, most certainly the source of the dreaded disease which at the time, was still a few years away from a cure.

Mystery solved.

As absurd as that story is, it left an indelible mark on my mother and her classmates about Chinese people. Remember this was the time when we were sending American citizens of a particular ethnicity to concentration camps because we were at war with their ancestral relatives. And for no reason other than physical resemblance, some Americans had to assure their fellow countrymen that they were of Chinese ancestry not Japanese.

German Americans whose ancestral relatives were also at war us, and folks who merely resembled them did not have the same unfortunate experience.

Clearly there is a long history of bigotry in this nation and recent events have shown that not much has changed.

Now you might say I'm over-reaching, as the two stories are completely un-related. Coronavirus is highly contagious, transmitted through moisture droplets suspended in the air. In other words, you can get it through very casual contact with people while syphilis is only transmitted sexually. Coronavirus originated in China and that is where the majority of its victims live. You might say it only makes sense that limiting one's exposure to Chinese people is simply a matter of sensible risk management.

Fair enough.

But let me add that as of this writing, the country with the third highest total of Coronavirus infections is Italy.

I wonder if pizza restaurants are taking a hit.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Milwaukee Way

The most memorable scene from an otherwise forgettable movie was shot inside of one of Chicago's most spectacular interiors, the sanctuary of Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica on the West Side. The sacred space provides a brilliant contrast to the conversation that takes place. It's from Brian DePalma's 1987 The Untochables, and features Sean Connery as grizzled Chicago police officer Jim Malone, explaining to a still green FBI agent Elliot Ness, played by Kevin Costiner how things work in this city:.

"You wanna get Capone..." Malone says, "'s how you get 'em. He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.

"That's, the Chicago Way."

I'm reminded of this by last week's train wreck of a debate in Nevada between six of the hopeful nominees for the Democratic candidate for president. With the exception of about 60 million Americans, the majority of people in this country would prefer to see another person taking the oath of office on the steps of the Capitol Building come January 20th of next year. Despite that, it's looking increasingly clear that's not going to happen.

And if things turn out as I fear, the Democrats, and everyone else who would like to see a change in the White House will have nobody to blame but themselves. Perhaps we should ask ourselves, like Mallone asks of Ness, "what are we willing to do to win this election?" It appears at least at this moment, not enough.

The real problem I fear is that the Democrats are doing everything in their power to lose the election, just as they did four years ago. For starters, there are the supporters of Bernie Sanders. As you may recall, in 2016 the current leader in the race for nomination lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton. So incensed by their man losing the nomination, many of his supporters chose to rather than vote for Clinton, sit out the election, or vote for a third party candidate. One might think that everyone would have learned the lesson that enough of them doing just that won the election for the current president. One would think wrong, I'm hearing much of the same uncompromising rhetoric from the Sanders camp that I heard during the last election. I'm convinced that a very significant number of Sanders supporters have no intention of voting for the Democratic candidate if it is anyone but Bernie.

Then there's the candidate himself. One of his rivals for the nomination, former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg said that win or lose the nomination, he will contribute a large portion of his fortune to the Democratic candidate in order to defeat the current president. Bernie Sanders has made it clear that if offered to him, he will turn down that money.

Well isn't that special.

If Sanders does win the nomination, his Republican opponent will have no such qualms about where his money is coming from. The sad fact is that money, and lots of it, is essential in winning an election in this country. The Supreme Court in its highly controversial 2010 ruling Citizen's United vs. FEC has guaranteed that.

Bloomberg who had not until last week participated in any debates and still has not run in any primary, has saturated social media and the air waves with commercials and memes promoting himself as the only candidate who can defeat the president. In the process he has already spent a fortune and his incredibly deep pockets as the eighth richest man in the world ensure he will have plenty more in reserve. Without having done the hard, nose to the grindstone work that his current rivals have, Bloomberg has still succeeded in developing a significant growing base of supporters. If Bloomberg is sincere about his pledge to donate money to the Democratic candidate win or lose, Sanders would be a fool to turn that offer down because if he is the nominee, he'll need all the help he can get.

I'll go on record here and say of the six people who stood upon that stage in Las Vegas last week, Bernie Sanders probably has the least chance of beating Donald Trump. "But look at the polls..." his supports insist, "... most of them have Sanders beating the president." Again we apparently haven't learned much of a lesson. Four years ago, by looking at the polls, the idea of Donald Trump being elected president was unimaginable.

There's good reason why this president has been relatively and uncharacteristically silent on the subject of Bernie Sanders. There's also a good reason why the man who probably knows this country, its politics, our habits and our foibles more than anyone else, Vladimir Putin, has chosen to root for Sanders to run against Trump.

The fact is that Sanders is the president's (and Putin's) dream opponent in the upcoming election, as Trump will have a field day if the 78 year old senior senator from Vermont gets the nod from the Democrats. Yes there will be all the rhetoric about Socialism and Communism, but never mind all that. What will really sink Sanders in the general election is his real if not well advertised plan to significantly raise taxes on the middle class and of course the rich. His justification is that the savings from his proposed one payer, universal health care and free college tuition plans will more than make up for the money lost to income tax. Well it might for some people but there are an awful lot of folks in this country who are satisfied with their current health insurance plans from work and/or don't have college age children. It's going to be a hard sell to convince all but the most altruistic of these people to vote for a candidate who promises to significantly raise their taxes while offering them little or nothing in return. Like it or not, self-interest plays a more significant role in determining whom to support in a presidential election than altruism.

Should Bernie win the nomination, you can count on the Republicans running ads featuring the likes of Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Nicholas Maduro, and scores of other Communist leaders past and present chanting slogans like "Death to Capitalism", "Death to Free Enterprise", and "Death to America", inter-cut between clips of Bernie advocating for Socialism, for the "Redistribution of Wealth" in this country, and having nice things to say about Fidel Castro. And for good measure, the ads will remind voters that Sanders plans to raise the income tax rate to ninety percent for every man, woman and child in the country.

It will all be bullshit of course, but very effective. Like a spectator hollering "He's Guilty!!" in the middle of a criminal trial, no matter how much a judge instructs the jury to disregard the comment, the damage will have been done. Those ads will piss off and scare the bejesus out of a great deal of folks who would otherwise vote for anyone but Trump.

I said above that Sanders is perhaps the least likely candidate of the six (I'm not counting Tulsi Gabbard and Tom Steyer who are technically still in the race but are extreme longshots) who could win in November. But frankly as things stand now, I don't see much hope in any of them bringing enough people together to beat Trump. I bemoaned that to a friend who works as a political strategist for the Democratic Party. Yes he told me, trying to find a silver lining, but that is only an indication of how diverse the Democrats are as a party. I suppose he's right, so long as by November 3rd, that diverse crowd is able to come together and at least during that one day, come to an agreement as to whom should be our next president or at the very least, who should not.

On the other hand, I looked at the six candidates standing together on that stage in Vegas. Yes there was some diversity there, and the election of any of them would be precedent setting. Two are women, we've never had a woman president, two are Jewish, we've never had a Jewish president, one is openly gay and we've never had an openly gay president. If elected, Pete Buttigieg  also would be by five years, the youngest president elected. At the other end of the spectrum, four of the six if elected would be the oldest president ever elected to a first term, and two of those, Sanders and Bloomberg will have beaten that record by a whopping eight years!

Yet something is obviously missing from that group and herein lies the biggest missed opportunity, there no candidate of color. For a party that claims diversity to match the diversity of this nation, that is utmost unthinkable. Yes indeed the road to the presidency is a long and arduous one, and political parties no longer deem from on high, well at least not entirely, who gets to be their standard bearer.

But as it stands, it will be nearly impossible for a Democrat to win the upcoming presidential election without a great deal of support from people of color. That's not to say a white candidate cannot attract the support and bring out the vote of minority communities. Up until a few months ago. it looked as if Joe Biden would be the president's most formidable opponent based largely upon his support in the African American community.  Then came that "perfect phone call" and the subsequent impeachment that in an alternate universe would have doomed the president. Instead it only bolstered his support and all but killed Joe Biden's life-long dream of being the principal occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Formidable as the odds of Trump winning a second term are, he's not a shoe in, not yet. It's true that he did win the electoral college by a landslide against Hillary Clinton in 2016 (while losing the popular vote by three millions votes), but in reality, turning around a few key states by a relatively few number of votes could very well turn the election around. Those states, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all have metropolitan centers with large minority populations. Black voters in cities such as Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Milwaukee came out to vote for Barack Obama in both of his successful elections. Foolishly Hillary Clinton chose to overlook this essential demographic in 2016.

Here is a recent article from the New Yorker speculating on how the African American population in the city of Milwaukee could play a pivotal role in the upcoming election. Despite living in desperate poverty in what is considered to be one of the worst places in America to be black, the article suggests that the current situation puts that population in a place of considerable political power, if everyone plays their cards right that is.

We can complain until the cows come home that the Electoral College is an unfair, undemocratic institution that was invented to appease slave holders and has no place in contemporary politics. However as long as one party feels it benefits them, there is no chance it will be gone anytime soon.

As much as we'd like the political process to be above board and pure, it is anything but. How wonderful it would be to simply debate issues and select the candidate we feel best represents our values and ideals. But when the opposition will stop at nothing, and I mean NOTHING to gain an advantage, the other side has to modify its ways and focus on winning above anything else. That's the only way it will happen.

It would be impossible to out-cheat or to go lower than the Republicans have of late. But given the vagaries of the Electoral College, there is a razor thin difference between winning and losing if you look in the right places. That Trump base we've heard so much about is formidable because they vote, but it's also static. Trump and the Republicans have made no efforts to expand it. Likewise the Democrats have a strong base who will not be moved. Most of them including myself would vote for a roll of paper towels before they'd vote for Donald Trump. In reality, there are probably very few Americans who are on the fence in the November election, the difference is getting the vast majority of of them who do not support this president out to vote for the only viable alternative, the Democratic candidate. Whomever that may be HAS to appeal to as diverse a population as possible, and for God's sake, will not forget places like the north side of Milwaukee.

Will the Democratic Party and opponents of this administration heed that advice?

If they don't it's going to be a very long and dangerous four more years for anyone who cares about this country and our democratic republic.

Let's not screw it up this time.