What does it mean when people tell us that things have been bad before?
I can see Canada from where I’m typing this, and today I’m taking my sons canoeing on one of the world’s loveliest lakes. But you didn’t really think I was going to be able to stay away, did you?
Vote: for this SXSW panel, please. (And if you have any panels you want me to promote, send them along)
Read: Reading the news is bad for you, Democratic self-identification peaked in 2017, why the economic expansion doesn’t feel good, the most hyperpartisan websites got the angriest engagement on Facebook, the popular interpretation of Election is this wrong, how Snopes became a target for conservative blowback, a pirate gave us the first recipe for guacamoles, and John Steinbeck may have been a spy.
Watch: Marc Maron in the quietly funny Sword of Trust.
Listen: New songs from Ty Seagall and Clairo, a Tiny Desk Concert from Calexico and Iron & Wine, and a video from Davina and the Vagabonds.
But first: What does it mean when people tell us that things have been bad before?
One day, we drank our morning coffee and took in news about one mass shooting and went to bed during another. It was one day, just one day in our week, in our year, in our lives, in what we hope is a long history of our country. But we always kind of assumed that this experiment on this continent that we called the “last best hope on earth” we would always be here, right? We survived a civil war over the enslavement of human beings, and hundred years later a preacher told us that the arch of the moral universe bends toward progress, but first and foremost that it was long, right? But then we see a pile of shoes in a Dayton parking lot and focus on the brand-new red shoe in the center. Someone didn’t even outlive a pair of Chuck’s, so why do we assume that the republic will stand if our political system can’t pass gun reforms that nearly everyone want?
To make sense of how bad things are, we turn to the oracles of our age, comedians.
Wanda Sykes is on the one hand:
This shit’s not normal, y’all. It’s not normal. Come on. The lying, the tweeting, the playdates with dictators. Come on. This shit is not normal. It’s not normal that I know that I’m smarter than the president. That’s not normal. Come on. In the Mueller investigation, how does he not know that he’s Individual Number One? Come on. Everybody who’s been indicted or going to jail, Papadopoulos, Gates, Flynn, Manafort, it all says in the Mueller report that they co-conspired with Individual Number One. Motherfucker, that’s you! All right. Now… if everybody you come in direct contact with… gets herpes… …wouldn’t you be like… “Am I giving everybody herpes?” But no. President Trump tweets… “All clear.” “Too bad for Individual Number One. Hashtag sad.” No, motherfucker. You have herpes! You are patient zero. Trump, he doesn’t even look presidential. He doesn’t look presidential. It looks like he’s doing an impersonation of a president. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands. Even the way he stands there, he’s just like… He looks like those things that you put out in front of the car wash. You know… Shit’s not normal, y’all. It’s not normal.
Aziz Ansari is on the other:
Everyone’s very worried right now. A lot of people are bummed. People are like, “Oh, my God. Shit has hit the fan.” I’m not worried, though. You know why? ‘Cause… this is America, okay? Shit didn’t hit the fan, shit’s always been on the fan, okay? There’s never been a clean fan out there. There’s always been shit up there. Every generation of Americans has had their shit. And they’ve persevered, and we will as well, okay?
Now, there are fine people on both sides of this argument, those who say thinks might be slightly more than a little effed in the Bezos and those who say we’ve been here before and we might be making too much of this. One of those fine people is me, because I’m on both sides. My resistance takes the form of trying not to freak out, of limiting my news intake, of going canoeing with my children, of wanting to be reassured that we’ve been here before and we’ll all be together again on the other side.
If you were inclined to construct such an argument, there are plenty of facts just laying around to use. There’s the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, and the Great Depression. Having women burn their bras during the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War may have given some pause, but that era’s tumult was to others an exciting redefinition of what it mean to be an American.
Douglas Brinkley wrote a remembrance of Woodstock pegged to The Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the concert’s golden anniversary. The end of his well-written piece focused on Jimi Hendrix’s “gonzo rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’”
It was a lesson in being an American in 1969. Bending notes and sculpting feedback to mimic bombs bursting in air, at one point dropping in the funereal notes of “Taps,” Hendrix transformed the national anthem into a cry for freedom, peace and ecstasy.
Having been here before it’s easier to appreciate the art that came from suffering, to feel peace at a war memorial, but those memories do not exist to comfort us. Jimi Hendrix was not playing to get on the front page of the Journal. He was trying to say tell his contemporaries what Wanda Sykes told us, what always falls to artists to say when politicians fail. This is not normal, which is shorthand for “we’re in trouble.”
I asked my youngest son where he came down on the question of whether this weren’t normal or we’ve all been here before. The more we talked, the more we realized that all he has known is not normal. Born three months after the start of the Iraq War, he had so many lockdowns in elementary school that he stopped mentioning them to me. There was a patrol car guarding Bryker Woods Elementary the day after Sandy Hook. His friends would make up songs mocking Trump at recess in middle school. Now he’s a rising junior in high school in a global studies program. The senior trip to China was cancelled because relations have deteriorated. There were no special security measures the day after 14 kids were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
The day after the shootings in El Paso, I overheard him say to his older brother, “They’re blaming this one on video games.”
“What, Fortnite?” asked the older.
“Yeah, probably,” shrugged the younger.
I wish you could have felt their contempt, not just for politicians who are recycling fear tactics from before they were born but politicians who are so out of touch as to blame Fortnite. Little kids play Fortnite. The other night I walked into the youngest’s bedroom to find him watching Ben Shaprio on his monitor. He showed me the smaller picture-in-picture of the liberal commentator providing real-time analysis of Shapiro. “He’s ripping him apart,” said my youngest. They know where the evil is in their bedrooms. They know what they’re up against.
Of course we’ve been here before, but the fact that our country survived the genocide of native peoples, the enslavement of Africans, the disenfranchisement of women and communities of color, and any other things you can name is not reason to pat each other on the head and tell each other we’ll be OK.
Of course we’ve been here before. That’s the point.
What I’m reading
M.H.-S. did a dataviz that shows that Democratic self-identification peaked in 2017 and that Republican self-identification has ticket up noticeably since then. Still, Democrats have a slight advantage. And his wife, E.H.-S., gave a speech about how her father swam to freedom and how, as a child of an immigrant, she has “literal skin in the game now” and “makes those of you who have real, lived-in experience of immigration so valuable in covering the negotiation of America’s identity right now.”
Here’s why the great economy doesn’t feel good: Over the last three decades through 2017, inflation-controlled household incomes are up 14 percent, average housing prices are up 290 percent, and average tuition at public colleges is up 311 percent.
In a study that found that the most hyperpartisan websites got the angriest engagement on Facebook, the people who did the study falsely equated partisanship with misinformation, which is a baseline assumption I have seen a lot of political reporters make with the “both sides” canard.
There are so many women and non-straight dudes running for president that their partners are getting to define a new American male archetype. Kudos, dudes.
OK, this is fascinating. First a black Georgia state lawmaker got upset and made up a story about a white guy at a grocery store. Then a Christian satire site retold the story as happening in a Chick-fil-A, and a lot of readers took that as gospel. This wasn’t humor to illuminate a truth, unless you think it black people are too sensitive about racism these days. So the fact-checking site Snopes, responding to popular demand, pointed out that it was not true and in fact a “piece of satire.” The Christian satire site said, hey, no fair, we’re satire, leading to a conservative blowback against Snopes that it’s pushing a liberal agenda.
A 17th-century pirate named Dampier gave us the words “tortilla,” “soy sauce,” and “breadfruit,” as well as the first ever recipe for guacamole.
John Steinbeck may have been a CIA spy in Paris in 1954!
The Democratic debates are getting more run online than on television, apparently. Of note, Andrew Wang had the highest percentage of Twitter mentions from men. The candidate who had the highest percentage of Twitter mentions from women? I’ll put the answer below. Betcha can’t guess.
News nerds: WhatsApp has a new way to curb the spread of misinformation that I don’t think will work. Should newsrooms go dark periodically to give people a break from, well, everything? Also, sunshine is not the best disinfectant when it comes to school shootings.
Answer: The candidate who got the most Twitter mentions from women in the last Democratic debates was Julián Castro with 53 percent.
And the last word goes to: Jimmy Carter, who did not renounce Christianity.
What I’m watching
Marc Maron, whose podcast you might enjoy, has been doing a bit of acting since his eponymous television show that I tried to watch. Then he popped up on a wildly uneven and dark-hearted episodic Netflix show called Easy in which he played a version of what I imagine he was before getting sober, though on the show his character was just not a coke head, just a jerk. And then he had a leading role on Netflix’s more winning GLOW, in which he did play a coke head as well as a jerk, which I guess was kind of a stretch, though his reading of the last line of season 2 won me over.
Now comes Sword of Trust, a very independent movie. It’s like the ‘90s made a movie about our current conversation about wokeness and historical revisionism, and Maron is not only terrific but neither a cocaine user or especially jerky in the movie. Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post liked it, and so will you if you know what’s good for you. It’s a relaxed, funny movie. Enjoy.
What I’m listening to
The lead single, “Taste,” off Ty Seagall’s new album Taste is the best thing on it, but hoo boy, it’s good.
Clairo, who got big on YouTube before putting out her first album, has put out her Pitchforky first album. If you get that reference, you might like “Immunity,” which sounds like a lot of alternagirl music out these days, but in a good way. If you like this, let me know, and I’ll keep looking for this kind of stuff. I like it, but I don’t want to bother you with it.
These days, you could worse than listen to a Tiny Desk Concert from Calexico and Iron & Wine. You can’t be tense while listening to them.
Finally, Davina and The Vagabonds of Minnesota are finally out with Sugar Drops, which sounds like Amy Winehouse making a happy New Orleans jazz blues album.
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