Roaming Charges: One Hundred Days of Platitudes

First those Oscars, then this Biden speech. Has there ever been a duller week of network television? I feel like I should be angrier than I am, but I find it difficult to summon up much angst about Biden’s first quarterly returns, as meager as they are. Biden didn’t promise to do much and the few promises he made only the most credulous (or cynical) took seriously. By now, most of us should have learned that American politics at its most fundamental level is immune to change. Even Trump mainly delivered only sulfurous rhetoric, which was enough to intoxicate his flock but didn’t even cause a minor glitch in the underlying operating system of the Republic.

Those feral raiders of the Capitol, who tried to seize control of the building in a doomed attempt to prevent the transfer of power, were apparently unaware that real power, the power over their lives and ours, doesn’t change in this system. It remains securely in place, steadily accreting its dominion year after year.

Biden doesn’t even offer rhetoric as a placebo for our despair. He settles for a steady stream of prefabricated platitudes, not poetic enough to inspire or edgy enough to enrage. We are being fed a low-cal political diet that no one seems to mind or care enough about to get excited over or agitated about. We’ve entered the doldrums.

When Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump spoke before Congress, in the early days at least, people seemed to analyze almost every phrase they spoke (or read off the teleprompter), if only to dispute them, to shout–in our own heads, at least–“Liar!” “Fraud!!” “Not true!!”

That’s not the case with Biden. We feel we already know what he will say weeks before he says it. Or we don’t care what he says. Or we can’t understand what he’s trying to say in his own fractured way and don’t want to even try to understand, since it will make no difference one way or the other. It’s as if most people have come to the conclusion that Biden’s lies are all white, inconsequential slips of his perpetually-twisted tongue.

Part of it, I suspect, is our familiarity with the man or at least his persona, because who really knows him, probably not even Jill? Externally, at least, it’s the same Biden we’ve all seen and heard for years, decades. But somehow he seems less hyper, a little more relaxed. I can imagine him waking up on his 100th day in office and saying to himself, “I’m still alive, Jack.” And he’d be right to do so. Many (even some in his own ranks) had written him off.

Biden doesn’t make demands on us. He doesn’t suction our attention. He doesn’t Tweet, doesn’t give press conferences or interviews. There are few big policy announcements and even fewer big policies. For the first 100 days, it’s mostly been government by autopilot. It’s as though in finally obtaining the pinnacle of power that has obsessed him for five decades, Biden realized how powerless he actually is over the forces that really run the government, the same forces that he spent most of his political career cultivating and enabling. It must be psychologically liberating to be at the top of a machine that runs itself.

And yet…people are dying prematurely at the highest rate we’ve ever seen in this country.  Dying with tubes down their throats, with a cop’s knee on their necks, dying of thirst in the Sonoran desert, alone under a frayed blanket on city streets, dying of hunger, OD’ing on opiates manufactured by Big Pharma just to get you hooked, dying of suicide or with a bullet to the back of their head in their own driveway.

We are becoming more and more inured to the death that surrounds us, to the uniquely American way of killing and dying. Is anyone else having trouble keeping up with all of the police shootings and suffocations that have occurred since the Chauvin verdict, which we were assured was a game-changer, a judicial cleansing of bad apples that would soon restore the honor and integrity of police departments across the country?

We await some new tragedy, more horrific than the last, to spark outrage, when what’s really outrageous is what we’ve begun to tolerate as normal.

In the face of this, Biden offers new words for old disorders. And he’s largely gotten away with it unscathed. Bad cops must be prosecuted to save the reputations of the departments that trained them and put them out on our streets with their missions and weapons of violence. Immigrants can no longer be called “illegal aliens”, but will be detained, separated from their kids and deported for their own good. Health care is a universal right available to all who have the money to buy insurance and pay for their medications. Climate change is an existential threat to life on earth that must be confronted with urgency by the forces of the free market. Palestinians are entitled to a state as long as they renounce the means to protect its borders and sovereignty. Every American will get a $2000 survival check minus the $600 they spent months ago as a partial payment on long overdue bills. The war in Afghanistan will come to end by extending the occupation another five months and patrolling its skies with drones and bombers indefinitely.

So, the operating code has been upgraded, given a fresh name, to run the same flawed program, yielding the familiar economic, environmental and moral results. No one really feels good about it. No one really feels much of anything at all. And that’s exactly the way Biden wants it. Gore Vidal’s politics of amnesia has been supplanted by the politics of anesthesia.

It’s only been 100 days and the country already seems numb, insensate to the widening fractures beneath its feet. In a land without outrage, you can get away with almost anything.


+ With more than 618,000 migrants expelled at the border under the merciless enforcement of Title 42 of the Public Health Safety Act, Vox ran a fairly important story this week which they titled “Biden is Quietly Enforcing One of Trump’s Most Anti-Immigrant Policies.” Of course, this travesty is only happening “quietly” because the liberals aren’t raising hell about it they way they did under Trump…

+ Biden’s wide-tauted economic plan largely ignores the even meager expansions to the US health care system he promised during the campaign. Because if there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that the political class can tolerate a lot of sickness and dying, as long as they’re not the ones getting sick or dying…

+ The trouble with Biden summarized in one headline: “Biden Has More Respect for Liz Cheney Than Republicans Do…”

+ Is it too early to start the John Kerry deathwatch? He has apparently made one of the fatal political transgressions in Washington: letting slip what he really thinks of Israel. Apparently, Kerry, Biden’s patrician emissary on all matters relating to climate and energy, told the Iranian ambassador that Israel had struck against Iranian positions in Syria more than 200 times. This would hardly qualify as breaking news to the Iranians. So, who leaked it to Republicans in the Senate? Israel, most likely, who has always believed that Kerry is soft on Iran.

+ Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan rushed to make amends, assuring his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, that the US was ready to work with Israel to counter “the growing threat of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Precision Guided Missiles produced by Iran and provided to its proxies in the Middle East Region.”

+ The Biden administration offered proof of the seriousness of its pledge by firing at Iranian navy boats in the Persian Gulf a few hours after Sullivan’s make-up session with Ben-Shabbat.

+ Sen. John Barrasso: “President Biden has turned over the keys to the White House to the far, far left wing of his party. These are the people who are for big government programs and socialism.”

+ What Pentagon spending bill has Barrasso ever voted against?

+ For Mike Pence entering the White House was like checking into the Bates Motel. He didn’t realize it then, and apparently still doesn’t, but Mother knows. Yes, she does.

+ How many innocent people did the crackpot doctor from South Africa, who testified for Derek Chauvin put away? We might soon find out.

+ This week’s award for the use of the passive voice in police reports goes to the Alameda Police Department in describing the suffocation of Mario Gonzalez, after police officers penned him to the ground for 5 minutes for being drunk in a park, the day before the Chauvin verdict was announced: “An initial police report from Alameda, south of Oakland, said that “a physical altercation ensued” when officers tried to detain Mr. Gonzalez and that “at that time, the man had a medical emergency.””

+ Chauvin juror: “It felt like every day was a funeral.” Given the rate of police killings in America, it’s more like three funerals a day.

+ Virginia’s Jail Review Committee is urging the state to shut down the shutdown the Hampton Roads Regional Jail where at least 53 people have died since 2008, including Jamycheal Mitchell, a mentally-disabled 24 year-old man jailed for stealing snacks from a local 7-Eleven.

+ The CEO of Emergent, the vaccine maker whose lab mishaps spoiled millions of doses of the J&J COVID vaccine, sold $10 million stock shortly before news of the screw-up became public. He should be sentenced to 5-years as a laboratory animal for testing experimental drugs…

+ Statnews (which is on my daily must-read list) has published a pretty good summary of the COVID knowns and unknowns.

+ On April 23, Tom Shimabukuro of the CDC’s COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force reported that as of April 21 there have been a total of 15 confirmed cases of a blood clotting condition among nearly eight million doses administered of the J&J vaccine. All of the reported cases were in women. The highest risk appears to be among women ages 30 to 39, among whom the rate was 11.8 per million–although it could well turn out that women are the most likely to report their symptoms.

+ It now seems inevitable that the one person in the US who will go down with a more fatally incompetent record on COVID than Trump is Andrew Cuomo.

+ If your student loan debt has been canceled, please raise your hand….

+ So much for the Great Exodus: It turns out that more Manhattanites moved to Brooklyn during the pandemic than to Florida…

+ Who will mourn the end of the “Op-Ed“, in the NYT at least? (The real question is whether the Times every really printed “op-eds” to begin with.)

+ Biden is nominating the Pentagon’s former chief weapons buyer, Frank Kendall,  to serve as secretary of the Air Force, which is, of course, what the Air Force is all about. An F-35 in every garage!

+ Meanwhile, Michael Brown, the man Biden tapped to become the next weapons’ buyer for the Pentagon, is now under investigation by the Department of Defense’s Inspector General amid allegations that he circumventing federal hiring regulations during his tenure at the Defense Innovation Unit, a Silicon Valley-based agency established in 2015 under the Obama administration to accelerate the importation of innovations from the corporate tech sector into DOD.

+ Ted Cruz on Trevor Noah: “I remember when the Daily Show was truly funny.” Let me guess, Ted. When it was white?

+ Tutar’s Revenge: Feds raid Rudy’s apartment and the world’s most famous butt-dialer’s phone suddenly goes dead…

+ Linfield College (its pretensions to “university” status are dubious) has always been a blight on the great city of McMinnville, Oregon. But the firing of a tenured professor for raising credible allegations of sexual misconduct and antisemitism on campus is really noxious behavior from the administrators of this rinky-dink institution.

+ Looks like Mother Superior jumped the gun again, as German police rolled out in response to a bomb threat only to find a sex toy.

+ The population of the US isn’t declining. The rate of growth is. So why are people freaking out? If you want the rate of growth to increase, just open the borders.

+ Paris (agreement) is burning

+ With reports that the axis of the Earth has shifted as a result of melting glacial ice, we may have to revise Karl Jaspers’ Axial Theory of History.

+ Maybe Noam will write it: “You can’t overestimate, we have maybe a decade or two, that’s it, in which we can decide to get the heating of the environment under control. If we don’t do it, we’re finished. It’s not that everybody’s going to die the next year, but we’ll be on a course that is irreversible.”

+ A study of narwhal tusks suggests that the increasing levels of mercury in their system isn’t a result of fish consumption but to climate change and the loss of sea ice.

+ The end of coal in the EU by 2030? (Don’t count on it.)

+ The water privatizers at Nestle’s are awful and their corporate assets should be seized into the public trust, but when will the State have the guts to go after the real water hogs in drought-stricken California, the Westlands and Imperial irrigation districts?

+ An ingredient formulation (the exact chemical content of which remains undisclosed) in Roundup killed 96% of tested bees within 24 hours.

+ Two wolves were illegally gunned down from a helicopter in Montana’s Big Hole Valley last week. Their killers barely got a slap on the wrist…

+ Politically, Montana is going in reverse and will soon pass Idaho as the most reactionary state in the West. The state senate is now moving forward with a bill ordering the investigation of environmental groups, who now play the scapegoat role of ANTIFA for right-wingers in the Big Sky State.

+ I understand that a rapid transition to plant-based foods is a matter of ecological (if not physiological) urgency, but do we really want to continue to eat foods that “taste like meat” rather than moving away from the idea of “meat” altogether?

+ Marine scientists have found what they believe to be as many as 25,000 barrels containing DDT that were dumped off the Southern California coast near Catalina Island, where a massive underwater toxic waste site dating back to World War II has long been suspected. This is also where the late Hollywood reporter Charles Higham told me that the outtakes from many films were dumped by the studios, including the lost footage from Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons and John Huston’s Red Badge of Courage…

+ As the John Huston character says in Peter Viertel’s thinly veiled novel about the chaos surrounding the filming of “The African Queen,” White Hunter, Black Heart: “It’s not a crime to kill an elephant. It’s bigger than all that. It’s a sin to kill an elephant. Do you understand? lt’s a sin. It’s the only sin that you can buy a license and go out and commit. That’s why l want to do it before l do anything else in this world.” (I don’t think Mrs. LaPierre gave the moral implications of the life she was blasting into oblivion even that much thought. As for Wayne, who ineptly shot a different elephant three times before his two guides finally brought it down, if the widowed cow elephant had trampled him, I doubt she could have found the body parts (so microscopic they likely are) she’d want to raise with her trunk as sign of victory.)

+ The novel White Hunter, Black Heart came out in the late 50s. In the early 90s it was turned into a rather dull film by Clint Eastwood, where Clint (who barely ever speaks) cast himself as the Huston character (who rarely ever shuts up).

+ In search of something to replace the panic over Dr. Seuss, FoxNews, naturally, is promoting a conspiracy that Biden plans to force people to reduce their red meat consumption by 90%. Wonderful, if only it were true.

+ As for Larry Kudlow, he warned that Biden has morphed into such as radial vegan that he’s going to make Americans drink “plant-based beer,” which makes you wonder about how many years Kudlow has been getting trashed on human blood with his pals on Wall Street.

+ Meanwhile, Epicurious, the popular online foodie site, says it will no longer post recipes that call for beef, citing climate change: “We think of this decision as not anti-beef but rather pro-planet.”

+ I thought Nomadland was a simplistic, dull and uninspired film. But I didn’t realize–though perhaps should have–the malign political uses that it might be put to in the current drive to ignite a cold war with China…

+ Philosopher Brian Lieter reduces Derrida to his essence…

+ Which begs the question: philosophers, laughingstocks or absent-minded buffoons?

+ Once again there’s a lot of talk in rightwing think tanks and state legislature about forcing kids, especially urban ones, and immigrants to speak “correct English.” It’s always seemed to me that “correct English” is a dead language, while spoken English is an evolving one, open to new influences, as syncretic as the culture of its speakers. Those of us who studied English literature know how fast the language changes–vowel shifts, the introduction of latinate words, French, Gaelic, street slang, absorbing the influences and accents of the lands and people it imposed its imperial will upon. Shakespeare probably wouldn’t know how to pronounce the language of Chaucer and Chaucer certainly wouldn’t know the language of the Beowulf poet and few of Joyce’s contemporaries could understand the language of Finnegans Wake. Let the language speak for itself.

+ Interviewer: “What is the place of Bertold Brecht in the Polish avant-garde theater?”

Jan Kott: “We do Brecht when we want fantasy. When we want realism, we do ‘Waiting for Godot.'”

+ For a play in which nothing happens, quite a lot actually happens.

+ My French is terrible, but I’ve muddled through both texts Godot and there are some significant passages elided from the English version which I think help locate the play in space and time, notably the proto-Gestapo character Gogo’s lines about “l’Ariege,” the escape route through the Pyrennes during the Occupation. So when I read the play now, I keep thinking of Walter Benjamin’s companions awaiting his arrival on the “road to freedom,” not realizing he’d committed suicide thinking all hope was lost when he almost certainly could have made it into Spain. It’s telling, I think, that Benjamin’s friend Adorno had one of the best and most political readings of the play.

+ Adventures in Censorship: Beckett’s novel Murphy was banned in Ireland (no surprise, so were his novels Watt and Molloy), but the ban came (mild surprise) 25 years after Murphy was first published.

+ So in re-reading Joyce’s story “An Encounter” (Dubliners) are we meant to understand that the old man the two boys meet interrupts his discourse on young girls and the romances of Walter Scott to scurry off to the other end of the field to quickly masturbate before returning to lecture them on how all naughty boys ought to be whipped, whipped really hard? Hemingway gets most of the credit for developing the narrative technique of eliding the crucial event in a story, cf., “Hills Like White Elephants” (1927). In Seven Types of Ambiguity, William Empson refers to this rhetorical device as an “enthymeme,” a logical premise in which a key part of the argument is not mentioned. But Joyce (1905) seems to have “beaten” Papa to the punch by a couple of decades. (By the way, “An Encounter” wasn’t one of the two stories that prompted Joyce’s original printer to burn all but one of the page proofs of Dubliners after someone alerted him to what the stories were *really* about…)

+ Speaking of punches, Joyce and Hemingway were drinking mates in Paris in the ’20s and both tended to get ripped, with the frail, nearly blind Joyce often becoming the more belligerent drunk, hurling insults at random patrons in the brasseries of the Left Bank. When confronted, Joyce would hide behind the bulky American, saying: “Deal with him, Hemingway. Deal with him.”

+ Were Joyce’s physical debility, mouth lesions and failing eyesight, the consequences of congenital syphilis?

+ Around the same time the printer was pitching galleys of Dubliners into the furnace, Joyce returned to Ireland from Trieste to open the first cinema in Dublin, the Volta Electric Cinematograph. It failed within six months, after the Irish public eschewed Joyce’s daily fare of French and Italian films, pretty much confirming every prejudice Joyce had developed about Ireland’s cultural constraints…(His pal Beckett famously said 35 years later: “I’d rather be in France during war, than Ireland in peace.”)

+ Speaking of Hemingway, Papa and Fritz Lang were on opposite sides in battles along the Piave River on the Italian front during World War I. Both were wounded. Both fell in love with their nurses. Lang (according to some speculative accounts reported in David Thomson’s new book on directors A Light in the Dark) may have murdered his lover or at least drove her to suicide, after she caught him in bed with Thea von Harbou, who would later write the scripts for his greatest films. Hemingway, of course, famously killed off Catherine Barkley via a botched Caesarian in A Farewell to Arms. 

+ Lang, certainly one of the 10 most talented directors ever to say “Action” on a Hollywood soundstage, was never paid more than $50,000 to direct a movie, despite the fact that he was by all accounts one of the most efficient directors in town, filming quickly, coming in under budget and not fussing too much with the scripts. (Lang, who had flirted with becoming an architect like his father, obsessed on set designs and camera angles.) From the time Lang responded to Goebbel’s “offer” (ie., command) to head up the Nazi film office by fleeing to California, he was never attached to a studio and remained a free-agent for 30 years, making the films he wanted for the producers he liked (or who could tolerate him). His first major Hollywood film, The Fury, was based on a real lynching in California. He wanted to cast a black actor in the role that the studio ended up giving to Spencer Tracey. Lang went along, but even with Tracey the film was too raw of a look at the  American character to do much business at the box office. So he managed to make enemies among the powerbrokers of Tinsletown: Jack Warner, Sam Goldwyn, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda. The director of M. and Metropolis had faded into a kind of obscurity when in 1963 Jean-Luc Godard cast him as the “director” trying to make a film of The Odyssey in Le Mépris (Contempt). Yet, the veneration of his oeuvre by the film-makers and critics of the New Wave didn’t resurrect his career. The last film he made in Hollywood was Beyond a Reasonable Doubt in 1956. He lived out his last years austerely in a small modernist house in Beverly Hills, his main expense nightly visits from prostitutes, procured for him by his personal assistant.

+ The reputation of Lang’s Metropolis was, for better or worse, rehabilitated by Jacques Rivette, who used an extended clip of the film his own ground-breaking work, Paris Belongs to Us. The movie was a critical flop in its own time. The script, written by Lang’s pro-Nazi lover Thea von Harbou, was basically a Teutonic rip-off of the socialist (not of the nationalist variety) HG Wells, who considered the film an infantile melodrama.

+ Financially, Metropolis was the Heaven’s Gate of its time, costing three times as much to make as it earned in receipts. If it had bankrupted UFA would the Nazis’ rise to power have been stalled in the starting block, unable to exploit film imagery from the Weimar era to catapult from Caligari to Hitler?

+ As a measure of just how absurd the Academy Awards are (even at its primary function of being a slick marketing gimmick for the reissue of films that most people have already seen) consider the fact that the two greatest directors ever to work in Hollywood, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock–both of whom were workhorses who made popular films that were also cinematic masterpieces, all of which made money for the studios (Bringing Up, Baby and Vertigo, excepted)–never won an Oscar for directing.

+ By the way, in his book on the history of film directors Thomson argues, somewhat persuasively, that it is a doomed profession, an outdate relic of the last century, and that soon all of the crucial decisions that once resided in the hands of the auteur will be replaced by crowd-pleasing algorithms.

+ Thelonious Monk on the development of his playing style and the music that came to be known as “bebop”: “I was about nineteen to twenty, I guess, when I started to hear my music in my mind, so I had to compose music in order to express the type of ideas that I had. Because the music wasn’t on the scene. It had to be composed…I wasn’t trying to create something that would be hard to play. I just composed music that fit with how I was thinking…I didn’t want to play the way I’d heard music played all my life. I got tired of hearing that. I wanted to hear something else, something better.”

I’m Gonna Say It Again…

Booked Up
What I’m reading this week…

The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America
Joshua Rothman
(Basic Books)

A Light in the Dark: a History of Movie Directors
David Thomson

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art
Rebecca Wragg Sykes

Sound Grammar
What I’m listening to this week…

Ritual Divination
Here Lies Man
(Riding Easy Records)

Fire It Up
Steve Cropper

The American Negro
Adrian Younge
(Jazz Is Dead)

They Were Looking For me

“You can hardly have a home address under these circumstances, it’s inevitable. It was therefore with a certain delay that I learnt they were looking for me, for an affair concerning me. I forget through what channel. I did not read the newspapers, nor do I remember having spoken to anyone in those years, except perhaps three or four times, on the subject of food. At any rate, I must have had wind of the affair one way or another, otherwise I would never have gone to see the lawyer, he would never have received me. He verified my identity. That took some time.” (Samuel Beckett, “The Expelled.”)

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3