Sunday, July 11, 2021

Last Call For The Only Way To Win Is Not To Play

Adam Gopnik at the New Yorker argues that Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by not playing Trump's game as Hillary Clinton did and lost, but by showing people the alternative that the game didn't need to be played.
The Brooklyn-reared boxing trainer Charley Goldman, who crafted Rocky Marciano, the undefeated heavyweight champ of the nineteen-fifties, once made a wise statement: “Never play a guy at his own game; nobody makes up a game in order to get beat at it.” He meant that there was no point getting into a slugging match with a slugger or a bob-and-weave match with a bob-and-weaver. Instead, do what you do well. Damon Runyon, another New York character of that same wise vintage, said something similar about a different activity: if someone wants to bet you that, if you open a sealed deck of cards, the jack of spades will come out and squirt cider in your ear, don’t take the bet, however tempting the odds. The deck, you can be sure, is gaffed on the other gambler’s behalf. Never play the other guy’s game: it’s the simple wisdom of the corner gym and the gambling den. The other guy’s game is designed for the other guy to win.

An instinctive understanding of this principle was part of the brilliance of Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign—and that we do not think of it as brilliant, despite his decisive victory against an incumbent, is part of its brilliance. Donald Trump invented a game: of bullying, lying, sociopathic selfishness, treachery, and outright gangsterism, doing and saying things that no democratic politician had ever done or even thought of doing, and he did it all in broad daylight. (A notorious line attributed to Nixon—“We can do that, but it would be wrong”—was about paying hush money. Even Nixon wouldn’t pardon his henchmen. Trump did.) It was a game designed for Trump alone to win, but all too many got drawn into it. It was a game that some credit to a Russian model of disinformation but actually seems rooted in old-fashioned American Barnumism, weaponized with John Gotti-style ethics. It was designed, in plain English, to throw out so much crap that no one could ever deal with it all. Trying to bat the crap away, you just got more of it all over you, and meanwhile you were implicitly endorsing its relevance.

Biden, by contrast, insisted that the way to win was not to play. In the face of the new politics of spectacle, he kept true to old-school coalition politics. He understood that the Black Church mattered more in Democratic primaries than any amount of Twitter snark, and, by keeping a low profile on social media, showed that social-media politics was a mirage. Throughout the dark, dystopian post-election months of Trump’s tantrum—which led to the insurrection on January 6th—many Democrats deplored Biden’s seeming passivity, his reluctance to call a coup a coup and a would-be dictator a would-be dictator. Instead, he and his team were remarkably (to many, it seemed, exasperatingly) focussed on counting the votes, trusting the process, and staffing the government.

It looked at the time dangerously passive; it turned out to be patiently wise, for Biden and his team, widely attacked as pusillanimous centrists with no particular convictions, are in fact ideologues. Their ideology is largely invisible but no less ideological for refusing to present itself out in the open. It is the belief, animating Biden’s whole career, that there is a surprisingly large area of agreement in American life and that, by appealing to that area of agreement, electoral victory and progress can be found. (As a recent Populace survey stated, Biden and Trump voters hold “collective illusions” about each other, and “what is often mistaken for breadth of political disagreement is actually narrow — if extremely intense — disagreement on a limited number of partisan issues.”) Biden’s ideology is, in fact, the old ideology of pragmatic progressive pluralism—the ideology of F.D.R. and L.B.J. Beneath the strut and show and hysteria of politics, there is often a remarkably resilient consensus in the country. Outside the white Deep South, there was a broad consensus against segregation in 1964; outside the most paranoid registers of Wall Street, there was a similar consensus for social guarantees in 1934. Right now, post-pandemic, polls show a robust consensus for a public option to the Affordable Care Act, modernized infrastructure, even for tax hikes on the very rich and big corporations. The more you devote yourself to theatrical gestures and public spectacle, the less likely you are to succeed at making these improvements—and turning Trumpism around. Successful pluralist politicians reach out to the other side, not in a meek show of bipartisanship, but in order to steal their voters.
I happen to think Gopnik has a solid point, because it is how Biden won.
It is absolutely not how Biden and the Democrats can stay in power, however. Obama was reelected, but House and Senate Dems were wiped out at the local and state level, and frankly, we've not made very much improvement on preventing another catastrophe in 2022.
Therein lies the lesson.


Going Against The Grain

One thing I've noticed over the years and that history has taught me, is that symbols of progress like highways, factories, and stadiums always seem to get build on land owned by Black folk, particularly if the result of living near these symbols of industry come with an environmental cost. People want these things built, but there are always losers in the NIMBY competition. Nobody's going to build a polluting, noisy factory next to a neighborhood of million-dollar homes, after all. But people sure don't seem to have a problem building them next to Black neighborhoods.

Joy Banner, 42, stands at the edge of her hometown of Wallace, La., looking over a field of sugar cane, the crop that her enslaved ancestors cut from dawn to dusk, that is now the planned site of a major industrial complex. Across the grassy river levee, the swift waters of the Mississippi bear cargo toward distant ports, as the river has done for generations.

"This property is where the proposed grain elevator site would be set up right next to us," she says. "As you can see, we would be living in the middle of this facility."

A bitter fight has broken out between the powerful backers of this major new grain terminal on the Mississippi River in south Louisiana and the historic Black community that has been here on the fence line for 150 years. Charges of environmental racism are coming from her and fellow descendants of enslaved people, who believe the silo complex is an existential threat to the community of Wallace.

On this sunny Juneteenth, a couple dozen folks — mostly Banner's extended family — sit under a 300-year-old oak tree on the grounds of the Fee-Fo-Lay Cafe in Wallace. They eat roast beef sandwiches and peach cobbler, drink whisky and daiquiris, and enjoy the laid-back, rural life on this lazy bend of the mighty river.

But they fear change is coming.

"I have grown up here my whole life," says Banner, the community activist leading the fight against the grain terminal. "We don't want this way of life to be ruined." She and her twin sister, Jo Banner, are co-owners of the cafe.

Banner and the rest of this predominantly African American, unincorporated town of 1,200 are alarmed at the plans of Greenfield Louisiana. The company plans to put in 54 grain silos to store 4.6 million bushels of corn, wheat and soybeans. The grain would float down the Mississippi River from the Midwest on barges, get loaded onto cargo ships at a new Wallace terminal and then be delivered around the globe.

Supporters — from the governor's office to the local parish council — say the grain terminal will create jobs and expand international trade. But neighbors see a massive industrial installation with one structure standing as tall as the Statue of Liberty, operating 24/7 with constant truck and train traffic, machinery noise, and dust escaping when grain is loaded and unloaded.

Some 200 industrial and petrochemical plants are located along the twisting river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

This industrial corridor has been nicknamed Cancer Alley. Study after study has shown that poor Black communities near toxic air pollution suffer greater rates of cancer in south Louisiana.

People at the Juneteenth picnic say that their air is already foul and that a giant grain elevator next door is bound to make things worse.

"You got red dust, black dust, white dust. All these plants, they all got dust," says Lawrence Alexis, 93, in a thick Creole accent. He's a lifelong Wallace resident and former sugar-refinery worker. "That thing they wanna put right there, I don't think it should be there, not close like that."

The proposed Greenfield Louisiana terminal will help, not harm, the community by diversifying the tax base and creating 100 jobs, says CEO Adam Johnson.

In a statement emailed to NPR, Johnson said the "new, state-of-the-art grain elevator will enable the efficient transport of agricultural goods from local farmers to consumers while significantly reducing environmental impacts."

A company fact sheet says Greenfield Louisiana will fully enclose conveyor systems, install dust-collection devices and minimize fugitive emissions during loading and unloading.

While acknowledging that "any kind of change is an adjustment," Johnson said Greenfield has "taken great care to engage the community on this project."

On this point, Wallace residents emphatically disagree. They tell NPR that they were kept entirely in the dark. Banner heard a rumor about a big grain terminal last summer, but she only learned concrete details of the project from a scientist who received a routine public notice from a federal agency four months ago.

Moreover, the St. John the Baptist Parish Council — the elected body that represents citizens of the parish, or county — pledged its support to the grain terminal 14 months ago, yet it never held a public meeting in Wallace to listen to residents' concerns or even put the issue on the council agenda, as residents requested.

In May 2020, seven members of the parish council sent letters to then-Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao urging her to approve a $25 million grant to help the Port of South Louisiana build a new dock in Wallace for the Greenfield terminal. None of the elected representatives would agree to repeated requests by NPR for interviews to discuss their support for the project
It'll take a miracle to stop this grain terminal from being built, and miracles are in short supply these days. I hope the people of Wallace can stop the inevitable, but history tells us a few years from now that most of the residents will be gone. The 100 jobs will almost certainly be automated out of existence as soon as possible, too.

There's always a cost, you see.

Sunday Long Read: The Non-Outsiders

Vice's Talia Levin writes today's Sunday Long Read, about how the COVID-19 pandemic and the new normal actually ended up reversing the progress she had made on her near-crippling fear of open spaces.

I’m sitting on the curb, as I often do, contemplating how far I can go on my walk today. The sun is shining, and New York City hasn’t yet descended into its suffocative, piss-redolent summer heat. All around newly-unmasked people are out with their dogs and boyfriends and children, breathing in the good wind.

For me, this is a more complex equation than just my feet, or time, or stamina allows: I have severe agoraphobia, and the equation involves how to navigate my fear in the world—a fear that offers me the shortest of leashes
. With each step, I calculate how far I am from my apartment building’s door, and sometimes, without warning, I turn back, drawn by an inner calculus of fear that is sometimes baffling even to myself. Over the past year, during the pandemic, my range of motion has been pared down beyond recognition; once it spanned boroughs, whole cities, and now it spans a few blocks. I’ve memorized the mica and the placement of fire hydrants, and I see the same faces every day, when I take my air squatting curbside; I know precisely what’s growing in the planters, I examine the weeds, my life shrunk to a pointillist’s level of detail.

A panic attack is a deeply unpleasant experience. The comedian and author Sara Benincasa described it as the precise opposite of an orgasm, a full-body sensation one cannot ignore, and I call it being struck by bad lightning, electric terror that buzzes under every millimeter of your skin. Once you have had one—or ten, or 20, or 100—trying to avoid another is a fully rational pursuit, but the list of things you avoid gets longer and longer, until suddenly you are an agoraphobic, cut off by your fear from the world. I have a lot of stories from my disorder, raw and a little bit funny, dispatches from the outer edges of sanity. I once vomited copiously while watching a musical about Joan of Arc in the Public Theater, dripping with bile for the remnant of the musical Siege of Orleans. On a flight from Georgia to Ukraine, I stood half-crouched in my plane seat, ready to flee, for a full half-hour before takeoff, until a gold-toothed man with whiskey on his breath in the next seat over held my hand and prayed to Christ with me, a Jew. I’ve lived with panic disorder for 11 years, and agoraphobia, that metastatic outgrowth, for at least seven.

The first time I had a panic attack, I was 21. I was in Russia during the summer of 2010, and I thought I was dying. I called Russian 911 from my host family’s couch, unable to calm myself, my heart beating the primal tattoo of dread for hours on end. They gave me an EKG there on that couch, and a tonic of “herbs” to drink, and told me I was fine. My host mother, a heavily-made-up woman in her mid-twenties weighing 90 pounds at most, told me she regularly experienced such episodes, her heart hammering at her in the hot Kazan night. I wondered if this was a language-barrier issue because I didn’t know, yet, what had happened to me. How could she have nearly died so many times? Was the woman who’d made her husband carry her down four flights of stairs in glittery roller skates somehow an immortal—Highlander in pink stiletto heels?

In time, I learned that what I’d experienced wasn’t an incipient heart attack, but rather anxiety at its most savage; I got on Lexapro, saw a therapist briefly, poured myself into my studies and experienced a year of night terrors, waking up with a scream in my mouth and a weight on my chest to rival Giles Corey’s. I cultivated a support network of a few friends and relatives I could trust to soothe me back down from the edge, learned a few breathing techniques, downloaded a one-dollar panic meditation app, and lived as best I could for as long as I could. I went on different meds, and then other meds, and more meds after that, seeking out a formula that would allow me life; I tried Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, psychoanalysis, and raw bleak stretches of silence.

Throughout, everything was colored by anxiety, as if it were an impermissive chaperone: I can do this, I can’t do that; that’s too much and that isn’t. It was a constantly shifting set of parameters to live my life through, but one that permitted me some measure of mediated freedom. Until the pandemic. For a year and a half, my anxiety’s natural instincts—to stay at home, surrounded by trusted people—became the way of things. I no longer had to force myself to run a daily gauntlet of low-level fear. Unchallenged, the fears became stronger, and multiplied. I have seen an erosion, and then a disappearance, of my abilities, gradually and then faster and faster, into the big black maw of a fear that’s swallowed my life and left me little.

As New York City has opened up on the strength of a flood of vaccines, the city feels like a body whose veins, once pinched and restricted, are coursing with new blood. My friends—the ones that haven’t moved away, or faded from my life because I cannot, cannot come to the picnic or the birthday party or the brunch—are flowing back into the center of the city, laughing a little about how weird it feels to be together again. A few have commented in passing about the hitches they’ve faced in their reentry: a new unease in crowds, awkwardness around small talk with strangers, a certain reluctance to dance back into the swing of things as if the past year and a half of isolation had never occurred. I empathize, but distantly, as, for me, the permissive, pulsing life of the city in which I live is so far from my own eroded capacities.

From my enforced distance, the heady period being heralded as “Hot Vax Summer” doesn’t feel all that different from the ways in which we were expected to contend with, or ignore, the disease at the height of its deadly ferocity in this country. The president told us to go out and spend while tens of thousands were dying; expectations of productivity never waned, no matter how much stress we were under. Now, what meager aid has been offered is being yanked away, and the vast constellation of loss we have endured must be left hushed. Go out and spend: time in the sun and money in the bar, and subsume yourself in breathless companionable laughter and don’t think for a moment about what you lost, or you’re weak and strange. It is so very unnatural, and so very American, and I want my piece of this sweet and terrible lie and can’t have it.  

Not all of us want to go outside, folks. The new world of remote work and deliveries and never going any further than the mailbox makes that possible for some of us, but for others we have no choice but to do what we had to do before, and not knowing which of our co-workers, friends, or acquaintances are a ticking time bomb ready to put us in the hospital with Delta variant breaking through a vaccine.

Some of us never had a choice to begin with.
Related Posts with Thumbnails