Category Archives: Commentary

The Fourth Reich — It’s Them or Us

Disclosure: Much of this post depends on information from the Bob Woodward- Robert Costa book, Peril. Woodward and I were friends in college and have had sporadic contact since then. I still consider him a friend, though we do not communicate regularly. Back in the day, a national magazine (not to be named) briefly suspected I might be Deep Throat. As everyone now knows, I was not Deep Throat. I never was.

This post is also inspired both by the column in the Washington Post by Margaret Sullivan [https://wapo.st/3v4LeMv] that asks the question why the “news” has largely ignored or downplayed the revelation that John Eastman, a Trump lawyer (and thus, legally, Trump himself), produced an outline for the steps to overturn the 2020 election and replace the real winner, Joe Biden, with Donald Trump.

The third inspiration is a line in Steven Pinker’s new book, Rationality:

Many facts, of course, are hurtful: the racial history of the United States, global warming, a cancer diagnosis, Donald Trump. Yet they are facts for all that, and we must know them, the better to deal with them.

So we must.

Since I began thinking deeply about this, we have also learned that Trump’s Department of Justice deliberately sat on its hands and did not brief Congress or others in the administration about what it apparently understood could be a day of violence against the government. https://bit.ly/3npJLON

We have also become aware that,

Republican leaders loyal to Trump are vying to control election administrations in key states in ways that could drastically distort the outcome of the presidential race in 2024. With the former president hinting strongly that he may stand again, his followers are busily manoeuvring themselves into critical positions of control across the US – from which they could launch a far more sophisticated attempt at an electoral coup than Trump’s effort to hang on to power in 2020.

… in recent months Trump has emerged as an unashamed champion of the insurrectionists, calling them “great people” and a “loving crowd”, and lamenting that they are now being “persecuted so unfairly”.

A poll released this week by the Public Religion Research Institute found that two-thirds of Republicans still believe the myth that Trump won. More chilling still, almost a third of Republicans agree with the contention that American patriots may have to resort to violence “in order to save our country”. [https://bit.ly/3ckbwlq]

As Donald Trump Jr has asserted, the Republican Party is now the Party of Trump. He owns it. His army of sycophants are as loyal to him as ever. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, his people believe the 2020 election was stolen, just as Trump continues to claim.

This is so despite Trump’s admitted bungling of the response to COVID that added significantly to the death toll, his incessant grifting and lying and treasonous acts of disloyalty to the United States, and, of course, his many “ordinary” crimes, such as giving secrets to Russia, extorting the president of Ukraine and a multitude of documented obstructions of justice, among many others. Evidence of cultish blindness to Trumpism is everywhere – mainstream media, Fox Propaganda, Twitter, Facebook, even LinkedIn and more.

Even with all that, the Eastman memo, unearthed in Woodward and Costa’s book, is shocking. As explained by Sullivan,

Written by Trump legal adviser John Eastman — a serious Establishment Type with Federalist Society cred and a law school deanship under his belt — it offered Mike Pence, then in his final days as vice president, a detailed plan to declare the 2020 election invalid and give the presidency to Trump.

In other words, how to run a coup to overturn the election in six easy steps.

Yet, Sullivan reports, the mainstream media largely ignored it at first. She rightly asks why this was not the multi-alarm firestorm – a presidential advisor casually informing him of the steps needed to undermine the outcome of a national election and claim the presidency that he had clearly lost.

The answer, it turns out, is as disturbing as the memo itself.

As reported by Sullivan, network executives thought the story unworthy because it was “crazy” and unsurprising. In effect, Trump has so normalized the idea of overthrowing the election that evidence of actual work to do so is not important enough to report. Another didn’t address it because “There’s no indication that Pence considered it seriously.” Others responded that there was much other news that seemed more important. What would be more important than an attempt to overthrow the government?

The normalization of the Trump-Republican attempt to subvert the Constitution and reinstall Trump as president, and de facto dictator, is being enabled by publications as venerable as the Wall Street Journal. The Journal published a letter from Trump on October 27. It did so without comment or any attempt to address the truth or falsity of his claims. The grotesque problems with the letter and the Journal’s decision to publish it are addressed in detail by Philip Bump in the Washington Post. https://wapo.st/3GTiYCg

The obvious and logical, and profoundly disturbing, conclusion is that WSJ supports Trump’s claims of election fraud and his belief that he was denied re-election by widespread vote fraud. Thus, the Wall Street Journal joins the campaign to undermine American democracy and replace it with a Republican autocracy led by Trump and his family.

At the same time, Trump is desperately fighting to prevent the release to the House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection/coup attempt of a large trove of documents that would reveal his role, and that of his key enablers, in the attack on the Capitol. https://nyti.ms/3wgXYAc His claims of executive privilege have been rejected by President Biden, but Trump maintains he can assert the privilege even though no longer in office. Trump’s claim of privilege fails on multiple grounds, not least of which is that most of the documents sought have nothing to do with this execution of the job of president – they are related to his personal political objective to remain in office despite the electoral outcome.

Thus, Trump continues to maintain his thoroughly debunked claims of election fraud while resisting efforts to uncover facts that might expose his role in trying to overthrow the federal government.

What else does the Woodward/Costa book contribute to our understanding of all this? A lot.

  • The chair of the Joint Chiefs, Mark Milley, after plenty of chances to observe Trump’s thinking and behavior as president, agreed with Speaker Pelosi’s observation that Trump was “crazy” and had been “crazy for a long time.” Peril at xxii. Colin Powell, former Chair of the Joint Chiefs described Trump as a “f*cking maniac.” Peril at 106.
  • Pelosi characterized the Oval Office under Trump as an “insane snake pit.”Peril at xxiii.
  • Referring to the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, and under pressure from then-Speaker Paul Ryan, Trump refused to criticize the marchers because “These people love me. These are my people. I can’t backstab the people who support me.” Peril at 8.
  • Trump was often unaware of his own actions. He did not know that the money for the border wall in the early 2018 spending bill was an amount he had approved. He finally agreed to sign the bill to prevent a government shutdown. Marc Short, Trump’s legislative advisor told Ryan this chaos was typical of “every day around here.” Peril at 9. Bill Barr, who was committed to run the Justice Department in Trump’s best interest to promote his re-election thought Trump’s big problem was his “pigheadedness and his blindness.” Peril at 71.
  • Trump failed to grasp the nature of the threat posed by COVID-19 and refused to accept information that conflicted with his view. Peril at 82.
  • Trump rejected advice of Gen. Milley and other senior advisors to rename military bases from Confederate traitors to Medal of Honor winners. Peril at 108-109.
  • Even as the U.S. pandemic continued to escalate (approaching 4.9 million cases and more than 160,000 deaths), Trump insisted that it was “disappearing. It’s going to disappear.” Peril at 113.
  • Trump tweeted that the “deep state” was interfering with the development of vaccines. When his own appointed head of the FDA tried to explain the process, Trump changed the subject. “the president had no idea how the FDA operated and had made no effort to find out.” Peril at 113-115.
  • Aware of his failing election campaign, Trump primed his followers for the possibility of defeat by repeatedly claiming that the only way he could lose was a rigged election. Peril at 131.
  • As soon as Trump’s defeat was reported, he announced from the White House that the election was a “fraud on the American public.” Peril at 133.
  • Even Michael Pompeo, one of Trump’s most loyal sycophants, told Gen. Milley that “The crazies are taking over,” referring to Giuliani, Sidney Powell, Michael Flynn and Mike Lindell, the key players on Trump’s legal defense team. Peril at 150.
  • On November 10, following Trump’s firing of the Secretary of Defense, Gina Haspel, the CIA Director, presciently predicted, “We are on the way to a right-wing coup.” Peril at 152.
  • Mark Meadows made repeated efforts to install a Trump super-loyalist into a leadership position at the FBI and, stymied by Barr, later at the CIA, stymied by Haspel. Peril at 154-156.
  • Trump acknowledged that Giuliani was “crazy” but claimed that “sane lawyers” would not represent him in attacking the election. Peril at 164. Trump’s AG Barr referred to Trump’s legal team as a “bunch of clowns.” Peril at 170. See also Peril at 180.
  • Trump’s team of incompetents had no plan to efficiently distribute COVID vaccines. Peril at 187.
  • Steve Bannon advised Trump to focus on January 6, the day the Electoral College votes would be certified by Congress, the last step to elect Joe Biden as President:

We’re going to bury Biden on January 6 …. If Republicans could cast enough of a shadow on Biden’s victory on January 6 … it would be hard for Biden to govern. Millions of Americans would consider him illegitimate. They would ignore him. They would dismiss him and wait for Trump to run again. “We are going to kill it in the crib. Kill the Biden presidency in the crib… [Peril at 207-208]

  • Trump directly threatened VP Pence if he refused to reject the Biden Electoral votes and hand the election to Trump. Peril at 229-230.

The above references are just a small taste of the astonishing revelations in Peril. Most of the rational people in the White House at the time of the election and its aftermath appeared to believe that Trump was mentally unstable, incapable of and uninterested in the complexities of governing and focused only on retaining power. There was palpable fear, even among some Republican leaders, that Trump was so unhinged and desperate that he might start a war or try to use the military to retain power. His distraction likely played a role in the continued spread of COVID and  his administration’s failure to respond appropriately.

These concerns, which continue in the wake of the January 6 insurrection that Trump inspired and encouraged, raise the gravest questions about the capacity of the American democratic republic, and the Constitution on which it is based, to survive the presidency of an incompetent psychopath like Trump.

Thus far, the only action against the insurrectionists has been to arrest just over 700 of the perpetrators out of what appeared to be several thousand involved in the assault. No charges have been leveled against anyone in Congress or the Trump administration in relation to the attempted coup. Trump continues to claim in every available forum, without any factual basis and in the face of more than 60 defeats in legal proceedings, that the election was stolen. His supporters in Congress continue to obstruct President Biden’s efforts to end the pandemic and restore the economic health of the country.

Republicans around the country continue to alter election rules, gerrymander districts and prepare to overturn the results of any election defeats they may experience in 2022 and 2024. The Doomsday Clock on American democracy is ticking down and, as far as can be told, more than a year after Joe Biden’s election, no meaningful actions to hold the real leaders of the January 6 coup attempt accountable has been made.

Watch this video, produced by Don Winslow Films, listing 19 critical questions central to the January 6 insurrection, that remain unaddressed as far as anyone can tell.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z2cG1PIhLIA

We are told we must be patient, that building a solid criminal case against a former president requires time. To a lesser extent the same “principle” is offered regarding the members of Congress who actively promoted the insurrection and have worked very hard to sustain a ludicrous phantasmagorical version of what occurred on January 6.

I understand the need for careful preparation, but in a little over a month we will have reached the one-year anniversary of the attack on Congress. I ask what evidence of conspiracy, perjury, sedition and obstruction of justice, to mention just a few of Trump and team’s major crimes, is missing? Has a grand jury been impaneled?

As Don Winslow’s video compellingly asks, why have so many key witnesses not been subpoenaed by the House Select Committee and placed under oath? What kind of investigation is this? Are we going to get another version of the Mueller Report that says we can’t find enough evidence to indict but neither do we exonerate? How could such a conclusion be reached without a full investigation? Mueller failed to fully investigate, as revealed in Andrew Weissmann’s book, discussed at length in an earlier post in this blog, “Lawless White House” – the Mueller Report – “Oh! What A Tangled Web We Weave …” https://bit.ly/32GUDA1

Trump is infamous for using legal processes to stall and delay investigations and actions against his multi-various criminal activities and civil offenses. If the government takes much longer, there will be no chance for meaningful action while Republicans scheme to undermine the democratic process whose survival is central to a full accounting from Trump and his enablers. I am encouraged, not much but more than zero, by the fact that the Biden administration has not announced that it is closing any investigations but that is not sufficient.

Winter for American democracy is theatening and once it is here, there may be no chance for a renewal.

 

 

 

The 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction–My Nomination

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is awarded each year (usually) for books published the previous year. Thus, the 2021 Pulitzer went for a book published in 2020.

I am, therefore, in time to make my sole nomination for the Prize this year. I have never done this before.

My nomination is Late City by Robert Olen Butler. Butler already has a Pulitzer for the remarkable, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. But that was way back in 1993. With Late City, I believe Butler should be considered for the rarified club of double winners occupied by my favorite author, John Updike plus Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner and Colson Whitehead.

I cannot improve upon the dustjacket’s description:

A visionary and poignant novel centered around former newspaperman Sam Cunningham as he prepares to die, Late City covers much of the early twentieth century, unfurling as a conversation between the dying man and a surprising God. As the two review Sam’s life, from his childhood in the American South and his time in the French trenches during World War I to his fledgling newspaper career in Chicago in the Roaring Twenties and the decades that follow, snippets of history are brought sharply into focus, moments that resonate profoundly forward even into our own century.

Given that story line, I was surprised at the deep impression the book made. Butler’s prose is remarkable, and his storytelling has few equals. This book is cleverly constructed and brilliantly written. Part history, part memoir and more. I give you three short examples with little context.

Sam is often beaten by his father. At age twelve, he reads a report of the 62 lynchings of Negroes that year. Sam asks aloud “What’s wrong with us?” and more. Sam’s father prods him with his foot and says, “Stand up.” Sam knows what is coming “But I understand this blow is different. It’s the first one for an idea. An idea that feels like my own.” His father speaks,

“You will not indict America for this, he says. “You will not even indict the misguided white men who did this. These men are your people. They were hasty. They acted unlawfully. But they have grievances. They rely on you for understanding, not censure. Is that clear?”

Elsewhere, in another context entirely, Butler’s gift for prose shines in phrases like “the chaste seemliness of the age, which we have inevitably assimilated.” In another scene, “… our thighs tightly and unwaveringly aligned, ardent but chaste, as our shoulders square around to each other and our lips speak wordlessly of what we have become.”

This is, I believe, a genuine masterwork. Maybe it will surprise, delight and move you as it did me.

An Anti-Masker Walked Into a Bar ….

Actually, no, it’s not a bar and it’s not a joke. They’re boarding airplanes, knowing full well that there is a federal policy requiring that masks always be worn except when actively eating or drinking. Yet they continue to reject compliance and, in many cases, verbally and physically abuse flight crews and fellow passengers.

The situation is so bad that the Federal Aviation Administration is publishing monthly Unruly Passenger Statistics. See https://www.faa.gov/unruly

It’s time to stop calling these miscreants “unruly passengers” and call them by their true name: Criminals. Why?

As stated by the FAA:

Interfering with the duties of a crewmember violates federal law

“Unruly passengers” can be fined by the FAA and criminally prosecuted by the FBI.

“Can be,” yes, but are they? Some are, for sure. You can read about some of the fines imposed in Travel Pulse: FAA Fines 10 Unruly Passengers $225K for Alleged Assault, https://bit.ly/3qGcoJm That’s some serious coin. The Washington Post reports that the FAA has referred 37 cases to the FBI for prosecution. https://wapo.st/3BQT5iq

The problem, as I see it, remains that only a small share of the cases is being pursued, despite a “zero tolerance” policy adopted by the FAA at the beginning of 2021:

The FAA reported 5,033 incidents of unruly passengers as of November during this year, 3,642 of which were related to mask-wearing. From the total number of incidents, the FAA initiated 950 investigations, a sixfold increase from last year.

The agency initiated enforcement action in 227 cases, some of which will lead to a civil penalty. Of the 227, 37 of the most egregious cases of disruptive or violent passenger behavior were referred to the FBI for possible criminal prosecution.

The progression from 5,033 incidents to 950 investigations to 227 enforcements to 37 possible criminal prosecutions suggests to the irresponsible anti-masker (who thinks it’s perfectly fine to violate federal law, assault flight attendants and possibly endanger the safety of an entire aircraft in flight) that his chances of getting away with “unruly behavior” are pretty good.

The words we use are important. Calling someone’s misconduct “unruly” diminishes its significance. It superficially equates attacks on flight attendants with talking too loudly, playing music without earbuds and generally being a slob. But those latter misbehaviors – obvious acts of unruliness — are in a completely different category from refusing to comply with masking rules and, even more obviously, physically attacking a flight crew member.

Aircraft in flight are no place for scuffles and fist fights. Nevertheless, in many cases other passengers have engaged miscreant anti-maskers in efforts to protect flight attendants and to restore order. It’s good that there are people prepared to engage in this way, but it should never escalate to that stage.

I well understand that airlines are reluctant to sound too “authoritarian” in presenting passengers with the “rule of the airways” after boarding, but the fact remains that the dangers of violent passengers on an aircraft present a uniquely problematic situation – for the passengers and crew as well as people on the ground.

The AFA-CWA International that represents flight attendants has argued that,

Expeditiously referring the most violent, physical assaults against crewmembers and passengers to the Department of Justice for public prosecution is the most effective way to deter bad actors and put a stop to the spike in disruptive passengers. https://bit.ly/3Cj0eZh

Absolutely right, but I would go even further and argue for criminal referral of every act of assault against crew members, as well as every act of refusal to follow flight crew instructions to “mask up.” If in the off chance that a crew member oversteps, the passenger can take it up with the airline after the flight, not by verbally or physically attacking the crew. Based on experience to date, it seems clear that the only way to deter this dangerous criminal behavior is to create the certainty that criminal prosecution will ensue.

So, FAA, start using the right words to describe the conduct and refer all the cases to the FBI. And while you’re at it, adopt the flight attendants’ union’s call for,

the creation of a centralized list of violators who will be denied the freedom of flight on all airlines. If a passenger physically assaults crewmembers or other passengers on one airline, they pose a risk to passengers and crew at every airline. They should be banned from flying on all airlines. Period.

The time has passed for putting that issue “on the table,” as suggested by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. It’s time to act.

What If There is No End to the Pandemic?

We are all naturally inclined to think about important events as having relatively clear beginnings and ends. Especially when the subject is troublesome, our innate desire for clarity and safety often leads to unrealistic expectations. This is likely part of our psychological conditioning throughout life.

Summer, like the other seasons, starts and ends. Bad weather can be terrible, but it comes and then ends. We get comfort from knowing that it will.

We also know that illnesses “recycle.” We know we can catch colds and the flu. So, most normal people bundle up against the elements, take cold medicines (mostly to relieve symptoms until the body’s systems kill the cold virus), get flu shots. Other illnesses are different. Cancer, emphysema, kidney failure and many others do not just go away after a simple medical intervention. No one is immune to them.

We also know that the weather is changing, driven by climate change. Storms in many places are more frequent and more severe. A few people, some never heard from again, decide to “hunker down” and “ride out” such storms. Most run when told to evacuate and live to run another day. We don’t want the bad weather to return but we know that it will. We want it to go as soon as possible. Many people thus drive their cars immediately after a bad snowstorm, apparently just because they think they can. I suspect it’s their way of reassuring themselves that the bad news ends.

This phenomenon is present in the response to COVID. We desperately want it to “end” and to have life return to “normal.” For most of us, the year 2020 will be the worst in our lives, one we desperately don’t want to repeat. Unfortunately, the evidence indicates that may be an illusion when it comes to the COVID pandemic.

It is now reported, https://n.pr/3c0G5fF, that the COVID virus is present in the nation’s vast and widely dispersed white-tailed deer population (estimated 30 million in US alone, equivalent to about 10 percent of the US human population). The story is getting relatively little attention in mainstream media, compared, for example, to the “gripping” story of NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ lying about his vaccination, then contracting COVID, then being forced to sit out a game that his team lost – oh, yes, the story was extensively reported. Even Forbes covered it. An entranced nation awaits Rodgers’ return.

Meanwhile, back in the world where human lives and the national/global economy is under threat, and as reported by NPR:

A recent survey of white-tailed deer in the Northeast and Midwest found that 40% of them had antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. Now veterinarians at The Pennsylvania State University have found active SARS-CoV-2 infections in at least 30% of deer tested across Iowa during 2020. The study, published online last week, suggests that white-tailed deer could become what’s known as a reservoir for SARS-CoV-2. That is, the animals could carry the virus indefinitely and spread it back to humans periodically….

During April to December of last year, about 30% of the deer that they tested were positive for SARS-CoV-2 by a PCR test. And then during the winter surge in Iowa, from Nov. 23, 2020 to Jan. 10, about 80% of the deer that they tested were infected. At the peak of the surge … the prevalence of the virus in deer was effectively about 50 to 100 times the prevalence in Iowa residents at the time.

The COVID variants in the deer matched those in humans.

The deer species in question is native to North American, Central America and the northern part of South America. Their capacity to move into and thrive in new habitats is well known.

The NPR article notes that the important questions raised include whether COVID can be transmitted from the deer back to humans or to other animal categories such as livestock. And, of course, the presence of COVID virus in such a large population creates the conditions for further mutations, as has been found in the Netherlands and Poland.

The article does not mention what seems an equally or more important question. Deer are apparently not sickened and do not die from COVID-19 infection. WHY NOT? That issue surely ranks as a critical subject to study. Is there something unique about the deer immune systems that mutes the devastating effects the virus has had on millions of humans? If so, that understanding could be the source of new vaccines to combat what seems like the inevitable persistence of COVID-19 for the foreseeable and perhaps indefinite future.  No matter how much we may wish it were otherwise.

 

Draining the Swamp

Everyone by now has heard this phrase popularized most recently by Donald Trump when running for president. This post is not about Trump, however. It’s about that swamp. The “swamp” that so many Americans, out of ignorance, love to hate.

You likely wouldn’t recognize the denizens of the swamp if you passed them on the street. With very few exceptions, they’re not Hollywood material and don’t appear in movies or television. But if you’re alive and reading this, it’s likely due to their work, the work that goes largely unrecognized outside the government itself.

Unknown most likely to most of the country, the extraordinary work of federal employees is recognized annually by the Partnership for Public Service with the presentation of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals. Mr. Heyman was the founder of the Partnership. In keeping with America’s attachment to award presentations, the “Sammies” are delivered in a black-tie award dinner every year in Washington (virtually during pandemics), much like the Oscars – with award announcements by notable presenters, acceptance speeches and all the rest. But, thankfully, there are no musical numbers or unpleasant comedians running the show.

No, the Sammy awards are serious business, although the dinner, rightly so, can be something of an extravaganza. https://servicetoamericamedals.org/about/ For the most part, it’s an inside-the-Beltway thing, but it shouldn’t be. The contributions these people make to the country and the world deserve national public recognition far more than the “award” shows watched by millions and scorned annually by many. The Sammies are cut from different cloth and it’s a shame that they are not recognized for the ways these people contribute to the progress of our lives.

I was moved to produce this post by the 2021 award for Federal Employee of the Year, shared by two swamp workers to whom you likely owe your life and that of your loved ones, at least if you are vaccinated. The awards went to Kizzmekia S. Corbett, Ph.D. And Barney S. Graham, M.D., Ph.D. As explained in more detail in the video at https://bit.ly/3Dekht8, they essentially created the COVID-19 vaccine that has, literally, saved millions of lives around the world.

For the full list of current and past winners/finalists, see https://bit.ly/3FgoDAm. Pay particular attention to the Finalists.  Their contributions to public life are beyond exceptional in fields so rich with talent and desire to serve that they were recognized but did not “win.” The real winners, of course, are the American public and in many cases people and ecosystems around the world.

So, the next time you hear someone put down those “federal bureaucrats,” remember the Sammies and the people who earned them. You owe them much more than clichéd derogatory labels.

Dear Mayor Bowser

I am inspired to publish this now because I received your News message of October 15 entitled Accelerating Roadway Safety Projects. You stated a planned “acceleration of roadway safety improvements across DC,” driven by a wave of “traffic violence.” One of the primary solutions was the reduction of the default speed limit to 20 mph, although you recognized that speed is not the only problem – it’s also “distracted driving or a refusal to share the road.” Indeed.

One of the major “solutions” proposed is your request to DDOT “to move forward with a campaign to accelerate the construction of roadway safety improvement projects that will better protect pedestrians. This includes the installation of speed humps, stop signs, and right turn hardening measures. Starting this week, and continuing annually, DDOT will target 100 intersections that are within the District’s high-crash, high-injury corridors.”

Before going further, I suggest that solving the “traffic violence” problem is not achievable by placing obstacles in the path of already frustrated drivers. Speed humps may slow a car temporarily but if they lead to rapid acceleration after driving over one, the purpose seems defeated. Similarly, stop signs work if drivers stop and look before proceeding. If not, they can create more of a hazard as people in a hurry run through them. This happens every day all over the city.

While it may appear otherwise initially, rest assured that I am on your side. You have a difficult job for reasons too well known to reiterate here. Take what I offer as a good faith effort to help. As background, I moved to the District in December 2020, following three years in New York City. Before that, I lived in Northern Virginia (Falls Church, Reston, Alexandria) beginning in 1967, so I am no stranger to this area.

It is useful to begin with consideration of some general principles. The government is essentially a joint effort, funded with community money, to establish some rules within which a civilized society can function safely and fairly. This includes rules designed to establish order in what would otherwise be a chaotic, every-person-for-himself madhouse with high risks for everyone. Without such rules, the situation would resemble the Tragedy of the Commons in which each person would act in a manner designed to benefit him alone even though the result is destruction of the common good and losses for everyone. Today, DC roads resemble the Tragedy of the Commons because gross and serious violations of the laws, rules-of-the-road and common sense are rampant.

To be clear, I am not referring to “law and order” in the Republican/Tea Party/right-wing sense of the term, nor do I want to live in a “police state.”  The goal is a regime that, with reasonable compliance, benefits everyone – drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians. Everyone enjoys the benefits of more order, smoother traffic flow, less stress and more safety. There is an irreducible minimum of order that must be maintained to prevent chaos and avoidable harms.  DC appears to be well beyond that threshold.

For context, most days I drive two roundtrips from the West End (Washington Circle area) to the east end of town (10th & K), using L Street and returning west on I Street. When the traffic is unusually slow on I Street, I often move up to K Street for the return leg. Total roundtrip distance is exactly 4.1 miles. What occurs around me almost every day borders on unbelievable but it’s all true. A very select example includes:

Just this morning, we were confronted by a car traveling the wrong way on a one-way street (11th Street NW). The driver just kept coming, veering away at the last minute and turning the corner behind us. He was either completely oblivious or determined to place himself and us at risk to avoid turning around and driving in the proper direction.

Later, as I sat waiting for the light to change at Pennsylvania and 25th Street NW, two people, at least in their 30s, walked across Pennsylvania in reliance on the “walk” sign that was clearly lit. A car headed east on Pennsylvania ran the red lights facing west, passing between the pedestrians. Apparently, neither of them was aware of the danger – each had his nose buried in a cell phone and never looked up as the car raced between them.

A white Range Rover on K Street going west abruptly moved into the right lane in front of me with no signal, then a few blocks later, drove through a red light, turned left in front of the cars in the left lane and continued down the cross street, thereby also illegally crossing the service road on the other side.

A red truck in Washington Circle stopped at a red light, then drove thru it.

A driver ran three red lights in rapid succession in Dupont Circle.

It is routine to encounter drivers on M Street in Georgetown going 40 mph and more with impunity.

Illegal parking during rush hours is rampant. By taking up what would be traffic lanes, these parkers restrict the driving space for cars, leading to congestion, anxiety and angry, reckless driving behavior. Many sections of L Street are down to one lane in many places due to rush hour parking on sections already narrowed by construction sites. Many days a week the van in the photo below is illegally parked during evening rush in front of 1100 L Street NW:

Speaking of narrowed streets, the decision to block the left lane of the L Street/20th Street corner with pylons while allowing parking along the right side has reduced L Street at that intersection to one lane.

The result is that many drivers are surprised to find the left lane blocked and struggle at the last moment to enter the traffic flow in the one remaining lane of traffic. Conflict!

Worse yet, the complexity of the pylon arrangement misleads many drivers who then make a left turn from the remaining traffic lane, crossing the bike lane and the actual left turn lane, defeating the purpose of the pylon arrangement to provide additional protection to bicyclists.

The apparent absence of law enforcement in the city has led to other dangerous practices:

Pedestrians routinely slow-walking through intersections with nose buried in can’t-wait-to-be- read cell phone messages

Scooters/motorcyclists/bicyclists lane-splitting among cars in traffic lanes, zigzagging among the cars to get ahead

Scooters suddenly flying off the sidewalk at intersections to enter traffic

Red-light violations everywhere – by cars, trucks and bicyclists – often without even showing down

Left turns on K Street across multiple traffic lanes to enter the service road going the opposite way, in effect a risky U-turn, causing much sudden lane shifting

Turning from the wrong lane, usually with no signal – failure to use turn signals is rampant everywhere

The city’s installation of bus-only lanes, sometimes changing every block or two, has created additional parking space for trucks and cars alike. Buses for which the lanes were intended are forced to veer into car traffic lanes to get back. There is no apparent enforcement.

The most egregious and often-repeated violations of good driving practices are (1) failing to use the turn signal to indicate lane-changes/turns on the streets and in the roundabouts, and (2) turning from the center lane in either direction across the actual turning lane. These happen every day on my short roundtrip.

Then there is the matter of noise. As noted, I have lived in New York City and am no stranger to the realities of compacted urban living. There is, however, a difference between the unavoidable sounds of a city, cars and buses, aircraft overhead, etc. and the entirely preventable racket made by people who get some bizarre satisfaction from drawing attention to themselves by making unnecessary noise. These include motorcycles with punched-out mufflers, or no real mufflers at all, and cars with mufflers designed to make huge bursts of sound during acceleration and braking. These cars often display spoilers on the trunk and are in the style of “muscle cars.” The drivers who race the engines in traffic, do high-rpm “jack rabbit” starts and engine-assisted stops are trying to draw attention and they do, along with a large dose of irritation at the unnecessary noise they produce. Their behavior screams “look at me, look at me!” It is irritating and distracting.

The city has, apparently, determined to address these issues by trying to force traffic to slow down, as noted in the Mayor’s news message above. Reducing speed limits may seem an easy and appropriate defense, but speed limits that are too low likely cause more problems than they solve. Take a drive on the 40 mph GW Parkway, for example. Anyone trying to comply with that speed limit on the four-lane divided road will find other drivers speeding around them, frequently showing anger, impatience and dangerous driving. Average actual speeds in those areas are vastly higher whenever traffic volume permits and often even when it doesn’t.

It seems most drivers most of the time assess the risk of getting a ticket or being involved in or causing an accident as vastly lower than the costs of being a few minutes later at their destination. There is little question that this happens on DC streets every day all day everywhere. My casual but repeated observation of DC driving behavior suggests a widespread belief among drivers that there simply are no meaningful constraints on their behavior – no laws, no rules, no risk of being caught while endangering others.

Studies in the Netherlands support the idea that higher speeds, both generally and in relation to other cars, produce more crashes with greater damage to drivers and others affected. https://www.littlerock.gov/media/2484/the-relation-between-speed-and-crashes.pdf [the Institute for Road Safety Research] But US studies suggest that may not be the whole story and that “posted limits are not the cause of auto accidents – reckless driving is.” https://www.hg.org/legal-articles/the-effects-that-speed-limits-have-on-auto-accidents-30226

The last cited article states that

A method known as the “85th percentile” is used by traffic engineers to establish speed limits. This tactic operates under the assumption that most drivers will travel at a speed that is reasonable, sensible and comfortable to them on any given roadway, regardless of the posted limit. Speed limits are set at a number that separates the bottom 85% from the top 15%. For example, if the speeds of 100 vehicles are measured and 85 vehicles are traveling at 37 mph or less, the speed limit for the road could be set at 35 mph. [emphasis added]

A California study,

showed that higher speed limits set in 1995 and 1996 did not increase the rate of fatal or injury traffic crashes. In fact, actual travel speeds on roads with increased speed limits barely changed. People were already traveling faster than previous speed limits, and once speed limits were altered they generally did not speed faster than their comfort zone…. Although findings across the country are conflicting, they have shown that drivers are by-and-large practical and cautious. In essence, posted limits are not the cause of auto accidents – reckless driving is. [emphasis added]

At the risk of exposing my confirmation bias, those US observations are consistent with my day-to-day experience in DC. Lowering speed limits to levels that most drivers will find unreasonably constraining and putting speed bumps and stop signs in more places, will not change that. Such policies simply make more people into scofflaws, but they won’t likely change outcomes much if at all.

What then to do?

First, identify some of the main drivers of the problem and put resources against them. These would certainly include illegal parking in rush hour and in places where such parking materially increases congestion and conflict. The return on investment to DC from a well-managed team of “meter monitors would likely be very high.

Second, hire, train and deploy small teams to monitor driver behavior on problematic streets and intersections. Take videos of excessively dangerous practices and have another team member stop the car and issue tickets. This is not much more complicated than fielding teams of police to use radar and then flag down speeders. Observation of vehicles in the “circles” alone would likely more than pay for the costs of the teams.

Third, use the email addresses of DC-licensed drivers to remind them of certain rules-of-the-road. Explain in stark terms that certain behaviors will no longer be tolerated and that if stopped after being notified, the consequences will be serious.

I do not suggest these steps will solve all the problems. Even a 25 percent reduction in aberrant driving would be a worthy achievement and city revenues would increase significantly.

As for noise, the solutions are similar. There is no reason that the city should put up with people who deliberately make noise just to attract attention. Horn honking by automobiles (and frequently by impatient bus drivers) should be outlawed unless essential in an emergency. You get what you tolerate. DC has a Noise Ordinance.

Section 20-2700 of the DC Municipal Regulations states,

It is the declared public policy of the District that every person is entitled to ambient noise levels that are not detrimental to life to life, health, and enjoyment of his or her property. It is hereby declared that excessive or unnecessary noises within the District are a menace to the welfare and prosperity of the residents and businesses of the District. It is the declared public policy of the District to reduce the ambient noise level in the District to promote public health, safety, welfare, and the peace and quiet of the inhabitants of the District, and to facilitate the enjoyment of the natural attraction of the District.

This regulation reflects a serious quality-of-life problem in the city. Enforce it.

The cars in question usually are Mustangs or sports cars/muscle cars that look like them, often fitted with a rear spoiler. The noise they emit is usually coincident with moving at high speed through crowded streets in places like Georgetown’s M Street and less-crowded (at least now) thoroughfares like Pennsylvania Avenue. Even casual observation by enforcement would readily identify locations where deliberate noise violations, and often related dangerous driving, occur daily. This past Sunday I observed a motorcyclist riding twice through the same Georgetown neighborhood gunning his unmuffled engine for no purpose other than making noise.

In addition to the obvious benefits to safety and good order, active enforcement of traffic safety and noise control would also benefit the city’s finances. The cost of a reasonably trained force of meter monitors, traffic monitoring teams (all of whom do not have to be police officers) focused on serious violations and repeated noise ordinance violations would contribute significant revenue to fund the city’s other obligations. Everyone wins.

 

 

 

The Right to Vote

One necessary condition for the existence of a democratic republic is the ability of the people to control their government representatives. The control may be indirect and often untimely, but without the ultimate power in the hands of the governed, there is no democracy and no republic.

The essential manifestation of the power of the governed to control the governors is the vote. Without a watchful voting population, the baser instincts of politicians will eventually prevail, and the system will devolve toward uncontrollable authoritarian rule that benefits the governors at the expense of the governed.

To be effective, the right to vote must be available to everyone affected by the decisions of the governors. They must be able to exercise the vote with sufficient ease and frequency that the governors will remain cognizant of, and influenced by, the belief that if they fail to adequately and properly represent their electing constituents, they may be replaced. Since under normal conditions (e.g., no gerrymandered districts) the electing populace will be a mixture of viewpoints and interests, elected officials will often necessarily seek compromise and consensus to retain the consistent favor of at least a working majority of the electorate. When the interests of large electoral sectors are ignored consistently by political leaders, the normal conclusion is that gerrymandering is at work and politicians believe they only answer to a subset of the electorate. That in turn means that the interests and views of many voters are being ignored, that laws and policies will lag behind (often very far behind) the current views of the majority.

This is a complex and fraught business especially given the propensity of politicians to want to insulate themselves from the employment vulnerability that democracy necessarily imposes. Thus, professed fealty to the electorate and the “common good” often conflicts with the self-interest of employment security and the other fruits of power and influence. Hence the truth of the aphorism, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

We were recently reminded of this, and more by the invitation of a good friend to attend a presentation of the Women’s Advisory Board of the Girl Scouts Nation’s Capital at the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial in Occoquan Regional Park. We learned some interesting history not covered in many American history curricula. Inconvenient truths, it seems, are everywhere.

In a nutshell, the right to vote for women was not included in the original Constitution. Men resisted the idea for a very long time, despite persistent efforts by women to secure equal standing at the ballot box. While there are varying explanations of what led to the eventual drastic measures, the common point in the narratives is that women suffragists took to picketing the White House during the Woodrow Wilson administration. Wilson’s support for female suffrage had been unenthusiastic at best.

Eventually, the picketers, were arrested and jailed. They chose jail rather than pay fines they felt were unjust. In jail, fed rotten food with maggots, many of the women refused to eat and were force-fed with funnels and tubes. A diorama of this torture can be seen at the Lucy Burns Museum housed in the old Lorton Reformatory just up the road from the Suffragist Memorial. Lorton has now mostly been converted into an arts center, but the Burns Museum is must-see.

The Memorial is supported by the Girl Scouts National Capital. Lidia Soto-Harmon, the CEO of GSNC advised me that,

We are thrilled that in the design they created a bridge that will allow generations of Girl Scouts to “Bridge” to the next level in Girl Scouting.  We had two long time Girl Scout champions, that made a donation to the memorial on behalf of our council, and we are grateful to be listed along with the many contributors.

That bridge is pictured below with the attendees at the event.

Patricia Wirth, Executive Director of the Turning Point Suffragists Memorial Association, presented an extemporaneous and compelling history lesson for the enthusiastic group that attended. Pat is pictured here on the left, with Nancy Lyons Sargeant, who following long involvement in the TPSMA, has served as the Chairman of the Board since 2015.

A trip to Occoquan Regional Park is worthwhile for other reasons. There are paved and unpaved paths of varying degrees of difficulty, a very nice café with outdoor seating, great views of the Occoquan River

and plenty of space to picnic and play. But you don’t want to overlook the Suffragist Memorial. It’s an excellent learning opportunity for some history often overlooked, and especially for young people who need to understand all aspects of America’s history so, hopefully, they can improve on it in the future.

 

 

 

 

Artists Speak in Tongues

I often don’t understand. I recently had this experience again at DC’s Hirshhorn Museum https://hirshhorn.si.edu/about-us/ when we visited the huge Laurie Anderson exhibit, https://hirshhorn.si.edu/exhibitions/laurie-anderson-the-weather/ that will be displayed until July 31, 2022.

The museum describes Anderson as a “groundbreaking multimedia artist, performer, musician, and writer.” While I’m not qualified to judge, the description seems accurate. She’s going to be performing live at the museum next year, at times yet to be published, and, to my surprise, I think I want to see her. This woman has designed new musical instruments! Hirshhorn describes her thus:

As a Grammy Award-winning musician, performer, writer, and artist, Anderson has an international reputation as an artist who combines the traditions of the avant-garde with popular culture. Anderson’s theatrical works combine a variety of media, including performance, music, poetry, sculpture, opera, anthropological investigations, and linguistic games, to elicit emotional reactions. As a visual artist, Anderson has been shown at the Guggenheim Museum, SoHo, and extensively in Europe, including the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. She has also released seven albums for Warner Brothers, including Big Science, featuring the song “O Superman,” which rose to No. 2 on the British pop charts. She is currently Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University.

Her particular style/mode of artistic expression is not one to which I have been drawn in the past, but the two expressions below got my attention and I am something of a convert:

These photos are but a tiny portion of the full exhibit that includes many forms of multi-media, including video of Anderson dancing with electronic devices strapped to her body that make drum sounds when slapped.

You probably should read this before visiting the exhibit, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/06/magazine/laurie-anderson.html, but visit you should. I am still thinking about what I saw. Such stimulation of a distracted mind (you know, the destruction of our democracy) must mean something important is going on. Note that when the Hirshhorn first proposed a retrospective on Anderson’s long career (74 now), she refused and proposed an all-new show.

We Interrupt This Blog For….

Halloween.

The following are an example of the creativity of the residents of Georgetown who chose to celebrate Halloween by decorating their homes in various degrees of spooky splendor, guaranteed to draw gawkers and photographers, as well as delighting trick-or-treaters bold enough to approach.

Might as well get this out of the way up front; this dog, we were told by the owner, has lost weight, so his “costume lists to one side, but he was cute so …..

I cannot explain why some people go to such lengths as you will see below, but, frankly, I don’t care. It’s a relief to see it and we thank those who do it for sharing their time, money and inspiration with the rest of us. Some of the displays are highly metaphorical but I leave interpretation to others. Enough with the words. Next the photos.

What Freedom Really Looks like

Many people are refusing to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Some of them have adopted a mantra that they will not be vaccinated because complying with government directives or even guidelines somehow compromises their “freedom.” It’s sometimes expressed as “I’m an American and no one tells me what to do.” Even if it’s for their own good and the good of their fellow Americans. Freedom first, they say.

These people are becoming increasingly marginalized because American businesses are recognizing, slowly but surely, that the best hope we as a whole people have to return to normalcy rests with achieving a high percentage of vaccinated citizens. The federal government recognizes this as well and is requiring vaccination for federal employees.

I’m not here to argue about that. You know where I stand on vaccination. No, I’m here to talk about what true “freedom” looks and feels like.

True freedom was the ability this past Saturday night to attend the Paul Taylor Dance Company performances at the Kennedy Center. Everyone entering had to show a vaccination record, ID and then received a wrist band (see the photo above). Everyone had to remain masked in the theater. What did this mean?

First and foremost, it meant the freedom, for the first time since early 2020, to watch remarkable talented performers live on stage right in front of us. We can’t do what they do but we soared with them in another way. I wanted to jump up and shout but I restrained myself.

It meant that my wife had the freedom to chat with the man seated next to her about his having seen the first set of dances ten years ago. He clearly felt the freedom too, that deep sense of relief that we can live again. Live dancers – no Zoom! The real thing.

The audience was a good mixture of older people and many younger ones as well. Some of the latter group looked like dancers and I have no doubt they were as excited to see the Paul Taylor company as we were.

The performances were amazing. The first set was devoted to music from the late 1930’s and 1940’s sung by the Andrews Sisters, tunes like Pennsylvania Polka, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy and Rum & Coca Cola. The boogie woogie vibe of that era was fully realized in the choreography and high energy of the dancers. The dancers were clearly having a good time, and the audience was extremely responsive to the skills and enthusiasm of those remarkable people.

The second set was quite different: danced to Bach’s Violin Concerto in E Major and Double Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor (Largo & Allegro). If you aren’t familiar with those somewhat obscure titles, treat yourself here: https://yhoo.it/3lwXQc1 and here https://yhoo.it/3Bzy0tJ

While the set began with what seemed, to me at least, some pointless running around, it didn’t take too long for the choreographer’s vision to take hold with spectacular acrobatic leaps, rolls and more. Amazing athleticism. Amazing grace. Freedom!

Two days later we were still talking about the performance and the feelings it inspired.

Obviously, there are other more profound and, in a broader sense, more important aspects of freedom, but I’ll take this for now. We could breathe again, stop being afraid and just rejoice in the passion of the moment. Because everyone in the theater was vaccinated and wearing a mask. Everyone was respecting everyone else. The truth is I hate the mask. But it’s a small thing to do for my own and everyone else’s safety. And, not surprisingly, during the performances I forgot entirely that I was wearing a mask.

I read now that the Delta variant of COVID is in “remission” and that cases and deaths are once again declining. That’s good news, but we’ve been here before. Instead of declaring victory, do the smart thing: get vaccinated immediately. Demand that friends, family and co-workers do the same. That’s the only way we’re going to emerge from this nightmare. If you live in states where leadership is resisting vaccination mandates, replace those people. They don’t care about you.

If you want true freedom again, the fastest, best and only road there runs through the vaccination program. Do it now.