Friday, August 10, 2018

The 2018 Summer of Discontent

Manafort's trial is in full swing and those in the know say you can read his indictment as you would a spy novel. If it isn't thrilling enough by itself, then Gates's testimony definitely adds spark to it. Just as you begin to get bored with that story, you learn about Wilbur Ross and that reminds you of Pruitt..... If you live overseas and these names mean nothing to you, all you need to know is that people behind them have been accused of amassing large amounts of money, in one case $120 million, in illegal ways. More importantly, they are all linked to the current U.S. administration.

Commentator Steve Chapman recently wrote: "Since Jan. 20, 2017, Americans have seen an endless torrent of corruption beyond anything previously imagined. No president has ever had a surer instinct than Donald Trump for finding and empowering scam artists, spongers and thugs."

Others have said worse things about our president and his administration. But Trump's support base is unwavering. T-shirts with the logo "I'd rather be a Russian than a Democrat" are for sale online, and photos of people wearing them are posted on social media.

Prints of the painting below, priced at $30 to $750 depending on the size, are almost sold out.

Crossing the Swamp by John McNaughton, 2018

And just to clarify the significance, here is the original the above painting is based on.

George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River by Emmanuel Leutze, 1851 
Some "insiders" claim that Trump is nervous, concerned, agitated...but in this case I would agree with him that this is fake news. He has nothing to worry about and he knows it. Didn't he famously say: "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters".

While we are entertained by real life stories inspired by spy novels, other news fall through the cracks.  Another forest fire in California? The biggest one ever? The deadliest fire in Greece? The hottest summer in Japan, Britain, Germany? The Swiss Army having to air drop water for cattle in some farming areas? Oh, yeah? Ho-hum.

A joint study by Australian, Danish and other institutions, published last week, has found that even if signatories of the Paris 2015 Climate Agreement adhere to limit the rise in temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius, global warming will continue because of processes already in motion, such as ice melting in the polar regions. Scientists are talking about 4 to 5 degrees rise, which will make some parts of the world uninhabitable.

Meanwhile, plans are underway for an attempt to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an island of plastic and debris the size of Texas, floating half-way between California and Hawaii.  (The U-shaped tube is designed by 23-year-old Dutch college dropout Boyan Slat, which is most interesting for the United States where colleges are unaffordable and possibly useless.) There are concerns that the first-of-the-kind cleaning device could cause further environmental damage without serving its purpose.
New contraption to be launched September 8 to scoop garbage from the Pacific Ocean

But environment is such a boring topic. To get away from depressing news, I choose to read (long overdue) Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughter House-Five, about World War Two devastation of Dresden. I've been meaning to read it for a long time, ever since I interviewed Vonnegut on the occasion of a Dresden bombing anniversary, a few years before his death. It was a phone interview but a memorable one. He seemed such a nice guy. In the book, he called himself "an old fart." We need more of such humility today.  But perhaps it's not possible without getting as close to death as Vonnegut did.

"The old fart" must have whispered in my ear from the other world because what do I find in one of the first few pages in the book but his memory of an American soldier who had been arrested and executed for taking a teapot from the ruins of the incinerated city. "Poor old Edgar Derby", wrote Vonnegut, "a whole city gets burned down, and thousands and thousands of people are killed. And then this one American foot soldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot." It turned out that many other soldiers had picked up "souvenirs" in Dresden, but had gotten away with them, including someone absconding with a bunch of rubies, emeralds and diamonds taken from dead people in the cellars of Dresden.

"And so it goes," says Vonnegut. Indeed it does. Some people get away with embezzling $120 million, I pay hundreds of dollars in fines for parking tickets and for every time a red-light camera captures the tail end of my car.

Another catchy detail from Slaughter House-Five: someone asks Vonnegut to write an anti-glacier book instead of an anti-war book, meaning that there will always be wars and there will always be glaciers. Well, I am thinking, since glaciers are now shrinking, can we hope that 
perhaps ...? Maybe it will be too hot to fight. Except verbally, on social media. I have already done that with friends who suggest that their right to own a gun is more important than other people's right to live and those who claim that poor people are poor because they don't work hard enough.

I think back on all the books I have read and liked by Erich Fromm, whose ideas are obsolete today, but who has made an important observation - normal, healthy and well meaning people often choose to live in an insane society.