We’ve moved into a new phase of Covid-19 in America, the selfish phase. It disgusts me.
The image above is from a holiday party at a fancy business club in Texas. Everyone gets to make their own choice, see? Some folks say "no contact", some folks say "bring it on". Everyone gets to do what they think is best for themselves, what’s the problem?
We finally have Covid-19 vaccines. The primary discussion is whether people will choose to take them. Surely it should be everyone’s own personal decision? Some 40% of Americans think it might be OK for them to personally decide not to vaccinate themselves, as if their decision only affected them.
That is not how public health works.
The only way to control a highly contagious disease is to quarantine to slow the spread, then vaccinate so that a large majority of your population has immunity. Only then does the disease die down. The quarantine period is difficult and requires personal sacrifice for the common good. Americans refuse to do it. It’s against our very national nature, what we think of as the virtue of individualism. The flipside of that is selfishness.
I’m in a Facebook argument because someone in Nevada County thinks it’s "hateful" for me to answer a request about "which nail salons are open" with the comment that they all should be closed. The discussion instead is about how awful it is we can’t get our nails done, and it’s our choice anyway, and won’t everyone think of the poor nail salon workers who need jobs? Meanwhile our hospitals are at 100% capcity statewide and in the middle of the biggest outbreak of Covid-19 yet. But folks gotta get their nails done.
The sheer selfishness of it is revolting. Look also to our California political leaders going to big indoor dinner parties at lavish restaurants in defiance of social distancing rules. Or how it’s apparently everyone’s personal choice whether to wear a mask, ignoring the risk they put other people in. Or the millions of people travelling for Christmas. That same selfishness at Thanksgiving led to a major case growth; now that’s just going to be doubled.
I grappled with this question back in July and concluded the main reason I was being so careful about Covid isolation was to keep other people safe. That was about a month before the Sturgis motorcycle rally led to a major surge in the virus all over the middle of the country. I sure feel like a sucker now, I’m not sure why I’ve bothered.
America is a nation of selfish people. And it’s literally killing us. 330,000 and counting.
Please, if you run the website or a development office of a tax-exempt charity, place your EIN, address, and 501c3 status prominently on your website. It will make it much easier for me to give you money.
All too often I hear about a neat charity that deserves support. Then I go to the website and I find a form that includes a donation link run by a third party. Which is great for a quick one off credit card donation. But sometimes I’m trying to give a larger donation from my Donor-Advised Fund. Which means I have to look up the business on my bank’s website and often it’s not easy. Many charities operate under one name then raise funds via a separate company, often an umbrella parent company that handles the tax logistics. I want to be triply sure I get the right company!
The EIN makes this simple. It’s the tax ID code that uniquely identifies businesses. Every DAF makes it easy to look up a charity by its EIN. It’s also very helpful for finding a company at a charity research site like Charity Navigator or Guidestar. Having your legal business street address easily findable also helps. It makes it easy to verify that you’re paying the right company, and in a pinch you can often look up a business by its address.
Well Biden didn't win easily last night, so there's lots of vote counting to come. The press is mostly saying Biden is likely to win, but it's really not certain.
The immediate danger is Trump and his authoritarian speech he gave last night. It's the most astonishingly anti-democratic thing I've ever heard an American president say. It should disqualify him immediately from holding any elected office in the US.
But it won't, so we're going to have an ugly knife fight in the coming weeks. Expect 2000 Florida style nastiness over vote counting in 5+ states. I just hope the disputes stay in polite court discussions and don't turn into real violence.
Getting to a complete vote count will be hard, and it will be unpleasant, and it will be expensive. But the alternative is letting our country be stolen by an authoritarian who openly declares his intent to ignore the vote and just take power.
It’s been clear for awhile that Trump is very likely to lose a fair election. I’ve been worrying about what happens if the election is not fair. There’s a lot of ways the election can be stolen. We’ve been watching the Republicans fight tooth and nail to make it harder for people to vote these last weeks. They will keep fighting after the election to try to invalidate votes that were cast, which is where I think the real danger lies. But in this essay I want to focus on election day itself, intimidation at the voting place.
In general in America, intimidating voters is illegal. It is a federal crime to "intimidate, threaten, [or] coerce any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right of [that] other person to vote or to vote as he may choose." On Tuesday if you are intimidated or see voter intimidation, please report it. The ACLU-recommended hotline is 1-866-OUR-VOTE, the Democratic Party’s hotline is 1-833-336-8683, and the US DoJ’s hotline is 800-253-3931. Despite the law, America has a long ugly history of voter intimidation, particularly against Black voters.
The recent history starts with the Ballot Security Task Force of 1981. This was a group of Republican-organized off duty police officers hired in New Jersey to maraud African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods on election day. They verbally and physically intimidated voters and blocked access to the polls. This action and various other Republican-led voter suppression efforts were so egregious the Republicans were forced into a consent decree to not suppress the vote, with significant federal oversight. That agreement expired in 2017.
So now the Republicans no longer have their hands tied and seem to be reverting to various forms of voter suppression and intimidation. Many of them are murky and on the margins, so first let’s clarify the simplest cases of how voters could be intimidated.
US Military: It is illegal for the US military to be at polling places. 18 U.S. Code § 592 makes this very clear. No one considers this a real threat in 2020.
National Guard: it is legal for the various National Guards to help at polling places if requested by the state. Generally, unarmed and out of uniform. Mostly they’re asked to serve as poll workers; set up tables, help run the polling station. It’s historically been calm and uncontroversial. In 2020 there has been concern about some states calling up the National Guard for security; Greg Abbott in Texas, for instance. The assumption at the moment is they’re only on standby in case of violence. If they enter any polling stations armed or in uniform, it will be a very alarming turn of events.
State and local police: it depends on state law, but in many states it is legal for police to be at a polling place, in uniform and armed. In five states it’s required! Voter intimidation is still illegal, but it’s easy to see how the mere presence of an armed white cop watching voters could be intimidating for voters, particularly Black voters. It is what it is; the main problem to look for is a pattern of deliberate police intimidation.
Barr’s Army: this summer Trump and Barr created an unregulated paramilitary organization. They attacked peaceful protestors in Washington DC so that Trump could do a photo op, then later occupied parts of Portland for several weeks. Much of that army is made of civilian DHS agents who are not subject to military regulations. It’s entirely unclear whether it would be legal for this force to show up at a polling place, although it would certainly be a frightening turn to facism.
Unlawful militias: it is completely illegal for a random armed citizens group to show up at or near a polling place and intimidate voters. That doesn’t mean there’s no risk of it happening. The only appropriate response would be a swift capture and arrest by local or national law enforcement.
Poll watchers: there’s lots of room under "poll watchers" and "voting advocates" to have potentially hostile people in a polling place. Passive poll watching is fine, but it’s possible to abuse the role or the access to disenfranchise voters. Trump has made a lot of noise about having watchers to stop imaginary voting fraud, but "poll watching" is also a classic intimidation technique. There’s been some troubling signs of who’s being recruited to be poll watchers: ex-special forces and retired police in Minnesota for instance. Note the organization of those watchers is literally called Trump’s Army; the militarized language is not an accident.
Random people: I put this here because it’s just so American: in some states like Michigan an individual can carry a gun while voting. I assume it’d be illegal for them to do anything with the gun but why the hell is it even allowed?
That’s all the niceties of the law. The reality on the ground could be very different. If a few hundreds ICE thugs show up at a Philadelphia polling place on Tuesday in anonymous uniforms with grenades and assault weapons in hand, what’s going to happen? An emergency court order, several hours of chaos, and a suppressed vote. What if rumors spread in Detroit that there’s a group of militia guys running around threatening to shoot people near the polling places? How many people won’t take the risk to go vote?
The only thing stopping voting intimidation in the moment is basic decency. But the Republicans have a history of not caring about decency when it comes to voting rights. I don’t think they’d go so far as an armed coup but there’s plenty of room at the margins for intimidating enough voters to affect the vote. Know your rights. Report any intimidation: 1-866-OUR-VOTE. Trump is very likely going to lose a fair vote; do not let him steal this election.
I’m back to playing World of Warcraft. I picked it up back in March starting with the Covid lockdown. (I’m far from the only one!) Partly for something to do, partly to play with a family member. It’s been great!
I quit playing WoW in 2009. Coming back the main feeling is it’s very much the same game. Compelling mix of basic MMO RPG power growth, lots of fun side activities, social raiding, PvP. It’s all there and all just about the same. It’s a credit to Blizzard that they’ve kept the game more or less on an even keel all along and it’s comforting and familiar.
The big improvement is the game is way more casual-friendly. In the old days you’d level up to max level and then all that was really available to you was raiding, big serious events with 25 or 40 people. You really had to be in a raiding guild. Over time they added more activities; PvP seasons, reputation grinds, etc. But the real game (and real gear) required raiding.
2020 WoW has all sorts of progression paths. Raiding is still there, but a heavy emphasis on social tools means PUGs (pick up groups) are more viable. There’s even an automated "Looking for Raid" tool that will let you see a simplified version of the raid content very easily. There’s a path for 5 person dungeons in the Mythic dungeons, with ever-increasing difficulty levels. There’s even a solo progression in the Visions of N’Zoth. PvP also has significant progression and gear attached to it. All of which means they’ve made the high end content way more accessible to everyone. It’s a great change. (And lest you miss the old hard stuff, Mythic Raids still basically require a guild and serious dedication.)
Some things haven’t improved. Crafting is still dumb and mostly pointless. A lot of the top end gameplay is grindy, do the same thing every day for 3 weeks to increment a progress bar. The graphics are incredibly dated; partly to keep system requirements low, but also because they don’t want to re-do all the old graphics for modern systems and it’d look weird to have a mix. Which is a shame; the dress-up doll game in WoW suffers significantly compared to FFXIV.
The hidden strength of WoW in 2020 is all the depth of content. They’ve got 16 years of content in the theme park now and it’s almost all accessible. You can still go back and do Molten Core if you want. It won’t be a gameplay challenge, but it’s still fun to see and there’s rewards like rare mounts to encourage you. I’ve really enjoyed exploring all the content I missed in the intervening years, including some really great systems like the Garrison. (Why did they abandon that?!) There’s no other MMO that can boast this much content and it’s great fun to discover some old neat toy to surprise your friends with.
And that’s the other reason WoW is still compelling; friends and guildies. The cooperative social aspect of MMOs is nearly unique in online gaming and Blizzard has done a good job reinforcing it. My new guild isn’t the most hardcore or accomplished but we have some strong players, it’s mostly nice people, and we have a code of conduct that keeps the jerks out. I continue to be concerned about the shallowness of online game friendships just like when I quit in the first place, but it’s a fun way to wile away a few hours.
Fancy was written and first performed by Bobbie Gentry in 1969. But the song is best known as the Reba McEntire 1991 cover. Both performances are pretty similar, upbeat and with doowop backup singers. It’s a great song, but it feels a bit dated and strange.
Peck’s album version is quite different. He plays it spare and tragic. The song comes off a lot more dark and sad this way and to me, more meaningful. Worth noting this variant is unique to the EP; Peck’s live versions from last year I can find online (1, 2, 3) are more upbeat and read a lot like the Reba version.
But the real change Peck makes is in a single lyric.
Staring back from the looking glass
The original lyric is "half grown kid"; it’s remarkable Peck chose to bend it to gender-specific. It instantly recasts the whole song as a transgender tragedy. Which then gives so many of the other lyrics more powerful meaning. "To thine own self be true", "Said I was gonna be a lady someday though I don’t know when or how". "I couldn’t see spending the rest of my life with my head hung down in shame." It even gives the unlikely name "Fancy" a new entrendre as a chosen name, maybe a drag name.
A gay man singing a woman’s song in a baritone is always going to queer it up a little bit. But as the Esquire article notes Sam Hunt covered the song last year and it just sounded like a man singing a woman’s song, nothing too unusual. I give Peck’s LGBT stage persona plus his smart choice of changing that single word to infuse the song with something new. I sure hope he does a video for it; both Gentry and McEntire have elaborate story-telling videos for the song and I'd like to see him take a swing at that.
Peck’s still out on the fringes of country and western but happily C&W is pretty broad and welcoming. His big breakthrough might yet be Legends Never Die, his new duet with Shania Twain. The song’s not particularly queer but it’s great and must sound terrific on the radio. The video is fantastic and pretty gay.
Here's your one chance Fancy, don't let me down
Democrats can win a whole lot of seats in Congress this year, quite possibly even taking control of the Senate. There are 15 Senatorial elections that are not solid locks; of those, 13 are currently held by Republicans. And there’s some 64 close House races.
I just made 25 donations to campaigns for the Senate and the House. I hate the idea of paying in to American campaign financing and it’s a lot of work figuring out who to donate to. But making donations like this in 2018 made me feel like an active participant in the political process. It’s like buying tickets for your hometown baseball team, then keeping track of how your team does. It’s engagement. So I’m back again this year.
My main criterion is "support the Democrat in close races". I am not aiming for every candidate to win; that’d be money wasted. I give money where it might make a difference. Some more sophisticated people than me also look to donate in races that are underfunded or otherwise worth special attention. Swing Left does an excellent job packaging this kind of analysis up in a single one-stop donation form, plus advice on how you can volunteer your time. Read on here if you’d rather do it yourself.
My primary source of information for which races are close is the Cook Political Report: Senate and House. Ballotpedia is also a very useful source of information about specific races, including candidate funding and likelihood of winning. See their battlegrounds pages for more info: Senate and House. Finally the WashPo recently did a great article on Senate races that is a useful guide.
For the Senate, I ended up donating to 13 of 15 close races. The candidates are Gary Peters MI, Doug Jones AL, Mark Kelly AZ, John Hickenlooper CO, Jon Ossoff GA, Theresa Greenfield IA, Sarah Gideon ME, Cal Cunningham NC, MJ Hegar TX, Barbara Bollier KS, Jamie Harrison SC, Amy McGrath KY, and Steve Bullock MT. Alaska hasn’t had their primary yet, so I’m waiting on that. There’s also a special election in Georgia but the November race is effectively a jungle primary, so again I’m waiting. I only spent a couple minutes looking at each candidate’s political positions, mostly to verify they were OK on LGBT rights. I’m sure I disagree with some of them on some things.
For the House, in 2018 I mostly gave to the close California races. But this year there’s only 3 close races in CA, so I expanded my list to include 3 races I knew something about the candidate and then 5 more left-wing candidates from the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Justice Democrats. The candidates are Christy Smith CA-25, TJ Cox CA-21, Harley Rouda CA-48, Hiral Tipirneni AZ-06, Hillary Scholten MI-03, Lizzie Fletcher TX-07, Angie Craig MN-02, Matt Cartwright PA-08, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell FL-26, Andy Kim NJ-03, and Kara Eastman NE-02.
Finally I gave one special donation to my most local candidate: Audrey Denney for CA-01 including Grass Valley, CA. The Cook Report doesn’t show it as a close race but I think it’s closer than it looks; the current Republican LaMalfa is a real loser, less popular even than Donald Trump. And Denney ran a strong campaign in 2018 and is looking even better this year.
Donating online is remarkably easy; all but one of these candidates are using ActBlue, an excellent product. See my earlier blog post about avoiding spam when you donate; in particular do not give ActBlue or any candidate your phone number or primary email address.
I would like to add a caveat to all this optimism, which is that I’m basing it on there being a fair vote. But I give a ~10% chance of massive voting fraud conducted by the GOP resulting in a deeply unfair election. Not just the usual voter suppression and structural bias towards the GOP. But some broad and enormous combination of invalidating or not counting vote-by-mail ballots and using Barr’s Army to intimidate vote counters similar to what was done in Miami in 2000. I honestly don’t know how to fight this kind of coup, the best I’ve done so far is donate to voting rights agencies like the Brennan Center and the ACLU.
I've been obsessed lately with Blixa Bargeld, the front man for Einstüzende Neubauten (and formerly with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds). He's aged remarkably well! The middle picture is early 80s Blixa doing his more-heroin-chic-than-Peter-Murphy look. The other two images are from his latest videos where he looks like your cool degenerate uncle. Looks much healthier with a little meat on his bones.
Looks aside the new album Alles in Allem is excellent. Taken as a whole it's a love letter to Berlin, with four songs explicitly about various neighborhoods and the whole thing having a Berlin cabaret feel. The two videos are a good place to start: Ten Grand Goldie and Alles in Allem. But the whole album is great and very listenable. If like me you mostly think of Einstüzende as the arty machine noise group from the 80s, you missed their turn to more lyricism. Still plenty of unusual percussion sources though, not to mention Blixa's trademark shriek. May they have another forty years as productive.
(CW: rape, racism). Ken and I watched Gone With the Wind this week. As if it were prestige TV, in one hour segments over four nights. It’s imminently watchable that way. And for a movie as early as 1939 it still feels very modern. It’s completely enjoyable by modern standards, no early film awkwardness of plotting or direction. Well written characters, amazing sets and costumes, there’s a lot to enjoy in the film.
It’s also a racist piece of shit of a film. And deeply steeped in rape culture. And these sins don’t just mar the surface; you can’t watch the movie and just sort of ignore them. The entire intent of the film is racist, the racism is woven throughout the whole story. It’s a Lost Cause fiction about a Gallant South, about how Georgia suffered unjustly under the evil invading Union forces. I was prepared for the racism part; the film is notorious for it. I was less prepared for the rape culture.
The center of the film is the relationship between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. It’s excellently written and both actors are amazing, so the performance is exhilirating. It’s also absolutely awful. The first time they kiss, it’s as they’re fleeing the burning of Atlanta and the destruction of Scarett’s world. Scarlett keeps saying "no" and pushing Rhett away, hitting him, pleading him to stop. And he literally forces a kiss on her against a blood red sky. To the film’s credit she holds her ground, pushes him away and slaps him, but Rhett doesn’t even look surprised.
It gets worse with the actual rape on the staircase, a drunk Rhett violently attacking his wife, grabbing her and carrying her up the stairs. To impregnate her, after she’d already told him she didn’t want a second child and implied she wanted no sexual relations of any kind. The hideous thing is in the morning she’s shown waking as from a dream, with a smile, a happy smile, because apparently… I can’t explain it, it’s simply rape culture and it’s awful. Particularly for Scarlett. In many ways she’s a great character, a strong woman who survives no matter the circumstances, uses men and sexuality for her own purposes. To have her so violated and then shown to enjoy it is deeply offensive.
There’s nothing I can say about the racism in the film that’s not been said better elsewhere. Happy slaves, noble Klansman (barely disguised), the whole mythology of plantation life… it’s all awful propaganda. What I didn’t know before reading about the movie this week is how there were protests about the film both during its making and in its premiere in 1939. It was a hugely successful film but its hatefulness did not go unnoticed. Just most white Americans didn’t care. The Jim Crow South in particular was eager for a film that justified its continuing racism.
I don’t know what to say about the stereotype character Mammy. When I was a little kid I had a nanny like Mammy, a big caring middle aged Black woman who loved children. So this Mammy stereotype is deeply wired into me. And Hattie McDaniel’s performance is excellent. I particularly like how much latitude she has in the household, how she can speak the truth and be sassy and be respected. OTOH Mammy is only written as a character to support the white people in the movie. Nothing at all is said about her own life, or what the transition of emancipation might have meant to her, or whether she had her own children or life outside of being Scarlett’s minder. None of the other Black characters get any better treatment, the film is entirely blind to the reality of life in that place.
My mother loved Gone With the Wind. She loved the fantasy of the antebellum South, the costumes, the performances. She might have acknowledged the fantasy depiction of plantation life but would have found it unobjectionable. But I think what she really liked is Scarlett, a strong woman, a woman who survives very difficult times through grit and shrewdness and clever use of her feminine wiles. I don’t know what she would have thought about the rape culture, I think she bought into it as much as most people her age. That it was romantic for a man to ravish a woman. What an awful thing.
Next up: Giant.
America has failed to contain Covid-19. It seems the virus will continue to spread unchecked and every American will be exposed in the next few months. So now what? Is there any point in even trying to isolate?
I feel like people haven’t yet recognized the magnitude of our failure to control the disease. We are at 45,000 new cases a day; a significant increase over the early April peak of 30,000. And the rate is accelerating. We have uncontrolled growth in the wake of states relaxing social restrictions. There’s now a move to improve distancing a little bit but the only thing that would stop this kind of spread is a lockdown even more severe than those of March and April. No one is talking about doing that.
To be clear, this loss of control is a uniquely American failure. Compare to Germany, Spain, Canada and China. All had an infection spike, some quite a bit higher on a per capita basis. All tamed the disease and are now finding 0-10 new cases a day. Pretty much all developed countries have controlled this disease; you have to look to Brazil for a catastrophe as bad as ours.
We gave up on containment. My question is… now what? We seem to have accepted that the whole country is going to be exposed to Covid-19. Is there any point in trying to socially isolate or distance now? Why go through enormous restrictions on your personal life if you’re just going to get infected anyway despite best precautions? If 10% of the people in your town are infected, the only way you’re going to avoid getting it yourself is extreme isolation. Washing your hands and trying to maintain six feet from others isn’t going to save you, particularly when the Trump mouth breathers around you won’t even wear a mask.
The main communal reason I see to continue to distance is to try to at least slow the spread down. The pressing danger now is we get a big enough spike in critical cases that hospitals are overwhelmed and people start dying again for lack of medical care. A miserable year+ of semi-lockdown might help. That seems to be what California is governing too, at least. But that’s an altruistic argument. My own personal case isn’t going to overwhelm the hospitals, so why deprive myself?
For me the personal motivation to continue to maintain isolation is moral. I don’t want to get sick, but I really really don’t want to get other people sick. Like my partner Ken, who is old enough there’s a significant risk to his life if he gets a bad case. So I feel like I have a moral responsibility to continue to distance myself. It’s very hard to maintain that standard when so many Americans don’t.
Our government has completely failed to protect the public welfare. Trump’s deadly ignorance is well documented and bears a lot of the blame. The Republican leadership mostly repeats his Covid denialism. But the Democrats aren’t doing much better. Here in California, Newsom’s informed and well-meaning policies seem to be failing nearly as badly as the ruinous Republican policies in Texas and Florida. We have week-long delays for test results, not enough contact tracing, and uncontrolled spread in half the state. Even my little small town mayor has failed her people.
America is simply incapable of dealing with a national health crisis. We’ve defaulted into a path where everyone gets sick and too bad for the millions who will die. We have failed. What’s the appropriate personal response?